By Msgr. Charles Pope
From the Archdiocese of Washington
We are entering the season for ordinations. And perhaps a worthy reflection is to recall that one of the great glories of the Catholic Church is her historical link to Christ and the Apostles. The Catholic link to Christ himself and the apostles is not merely some moral unity, or a kind of invisible union, it is not merely a knowledge through books and historical data, precious those these things are. No indeed, there is more at work here. There is also an actual physical union through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. In this sacrament, there is a laying on of hands that stretches right back to the Apostles and Jesus.
Unique to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches – Only the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches can make the claim that they historically go back right to Christ and the Apostles. Every other Christian (Protestant) denomination lacks this antiquity. They were all founded less than 500 years ago, some even less than 100 years ago. Further, they literally severed the physical, hands on connection to Christ by casting aside the ministerial priesthood and hence the laying on of hands that signifies this sacrament. They have ministers, but not priests. The Anglicans are an exception, in that they consider their ministers to be priests. Yet they are not considered by the Catholic Church to have valid orders since they went through a long period wherein they did explicitly abandon the intent to hand on the priesthood, hence the link was severed.
Biblical and Patristic roots – It is clear in the Acts of the Apostles that when the apostles chose successors and co-workers to share in their apostolic ministry they “laid hands” on them. Paul and Barnabas had hands laid on them for their work as Apostles (Acts 13:3, 1 Tim 4:14 etc.). Paul later counsels Timothy to be careful on whom he “lays hands” when appointing bishops and deacons (1 Tim 5:22 etc). All the earliest documents of the Church such as the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch make it clear that this laying on of hands continued. This laying on of hands came to be known as “ordination.”
Every valid priest has “connections” – The Catholic Church through this laying on of hands actually preserves a physical link to Jesus himself and the Apostles he chose. History for us is a “hands-0n” kind of history, a “hands-on” link going back 2000 years. Every validly ordained Catholic bishop has this physical as well as spiritual link to the apostles. Every Bishop is a successor to the apostles. The priests share in this office and this link (though not in its fullness) for they too have hands laid on them by the bishop. I am often humbled to think of the “connections” I have with the early Church.
The Faith is literally handed on – So fellow Catholics, “stay connected” and rejoice in our “hands on” historical heritage. Now you know why it is said that the faith is “handed on.”
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