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Axios! He Is Worthy

Ordination to the priesthood in the Eastern Catholic churches is an event marked by mystery and grace.

The Liturgy’s expected ebb and flow comes to a grace-filled halt. Eyes focus alternately on the majestically crowned bishop seated at the holy table, and the archdeacon, leading a young man through the hushed congregation. The deacon’s sonorous voice proclaims “The pious deacon Romanos, chosen by the Holy Spirit, is presented to the most blessed Patriarch Maximas for ordination to the holy priesthood. For him let us all say, Lord, have mercy.” Three times the congregation takes up his song.

Each time the candidate is brought through the worshipping community closer to the altar. At the royal doors of the icon screen two priests accept the ordinand into their fellowship and lead him around the holy table three times as a sign that it now becomes the pivotal point of his life. Meanwhile the choir sings three troparia or anthems that are identical to those chanted at the wedding ceremony. It suggests that every ordination is a kind of wedding and every wedding an ordination. Finally the priest-to-be kneels on both knees covering his face and leaning his head on the altar that is Christ. The bishop extends his omophorion over his head and prays simply.

Divine Grace which always heals what is infirm and supplies what is lacking raises the pious deacon Romanos to the priesthood through the laying on of hands. Let us pray for him, that the grace of the all-holy Spirit come upon him.

At that moment the man who had moments before served as deacon now becomes a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedek. Two brief prayers follow until the bishop lifts up his new priest and vests him in the robes of his office. Each time he bestows a new garment he calls out to the assembled priests and faithful: Axios! (He is worthy!) They roar back their thunderous approval: Axios! Axios! Axios!

The priest exchanges a brotherly kiss with his fellow priests and joins them in continuing the concelebration of the Divine Liturgy.

The same ceremony is repeated whether the man is to be ordained deacon, priest or bishop. The words change accordingly, as do the vestments and the point in the Liturgy at which the ordination takes place.

The deacon is ordained after the anaphora or consecratory prayer since his ministry does not involve the office of hallowing the Body and Blood of Christ.

The priest is ordained before the anaphora so he can call upon the Holy Spirit with the bishop and his brother priest to sanctify the bread and wine.

The bishop, whose consecration contains additional ceremonies, is ordained at the Entrance with the Gospel because he is called upon to be guardian of the orthodoxy of his eparchy or diocese.

In most Eastern Catholic and all Eastern Orthodox Churches married men are admitted to the order of deacon and priest. Since the fifth century, however, the bishops have been either life-long celibates or widowers. The Eastern Christian sees no opposition between the vocation as father and husband, on the one hand, and the call to service in Holy Orders, on the other. By the same token, the Eastern Christian has the highest esteem for monasticism, that is, virginity for the sake of the Kingdom. One witnesses to the personal intimacy of God’s love for mankind and the other to His utter transcendance. Either can serve as a well-spring of grace wherewith to embark on a life of service.

The accompanying photo essay shows in word and image the wonderful mystery by which the priesthood of Christ is perpetuated in His Church.

Father Romanos, a resident of Brooklyn, is a priest of the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton, Mass.

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