What Were the “Minor Orders,” and Why Do They Matter?

Do you know the difference between a deacon and subdeacon?

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Although they had been around since at least the Council of Trent in the 16th century in their renewed and current form, the “Minor Orders” — that is, the steps to becoming a priest — were suppressed after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). So why, aside from a history lesson, should we be discussing them today?

There are a few reasons. First, since Pope Benedict’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum restored the Traditional Latin Mass, and it also brought back how priests are formed according to that ancient rite. Also, religious priests such as the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (F.S.S.P.), the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, the Canons of St. John Cantius (C.R.), and the Transalpine Redemptorists, all of which only celebrate the extraordinary form of the Mass and the sacraments, have reverted back to the minor orders — and all of them have seen growth in their ranks.

Finally, in order (no pun intended) to understand the functions of the laity in the ordinary form of the Mass, it is important to grasp where that long history sprung from.

Thus we have — one could call it version 2.0 — of the minor orders, namely:

Tonsure. Technically this is not one of the minor orders proper (as a symbol, it is a sort of precursor). It refers, rather, to the cutting of the hair of the seminarian who, by this outward show of the pate of his head, that he is in training to become a priest and renouncing the world. One of the oldest signs of clerical life — it had been around since at least the year 400 — Saint Pope Paul VI deemed it an “empty ritual,” and while not outlawing it, tonsure was made optional in 1972 and immediately fell into desuetude. Until 2007 the only tonsure you saw was in the movies (think of Friar Tuck or the monks in The Name of The Rose).

Porter. The lowly porter had two jobs: first, to open the door (the “port”) to the monastery or priory or abbey (hence the term “portal”), and, more back-breakingly, to ring the bell for the hours of the Divine Office (Vigils/Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, and Compline). One could do worse than think of him as a glorified gate-keeper and bell-ringer.

Lector. Pretty much exactly what it sounds like: one who reads, yes. However, today, a “Lector” is one who reads at Mass. According to the ancient minor order, the lector read only the “lessons” found in the seven “hours” of the Divine Office — and, oddly, did not read at Holy Mass at all. That was reserved for the Subdeacon, Deacon, Priest, and Bishop.

Exorcist. Even to this very day, every time we do a baptism we have an exorcism (in a much abbreviated and toned-down form)! And it is impossible to read the word “exorcist” without immediately thinking of the movie “The Exorcist”, where a demon is dramatically cast out of a little girl. We also see this in the scrutinies of the R.C.I.A. program. Today, however the role of the exorcist itself has been absorbed into that of the priest — and very few priests are actually ever deputed by their bishop to perform an outright bona fide exorcism. But per the ancient minor orders, the exorcist could — at least in theory — conduct an exorcism.

Acolyte. Technically speaking, an acolyte (in both versions of Holy Mass) was and is anyone who assists the priest at the altar — thus, a sort of junior cleric who helped not only the priest — but more specifically in the ancient rite, he assisted the subdeacon (see below) and deacon (below as well).

Subdeacon. The role of the subdeacon was split between the acolyte and the lector in the 1972 document from St. Paul VI. The subdeacon’s main liturgical charge was to chant the Epistle at Solemn High Mass. The subdeacon was also the deacon’s assistant, in and outside of Mass.

Deacon. The deacon is the beginning of the major orders. After the Second Vatican Council, the role of the deacon was restored to its original fullness. Like St. Lawrence of Rome, some deacons are entrusted with the treasures of the Church — today in charge of parish finances.

Considering the growth of the more traditional religious congregations, don’t be at all surprised in the future to see a tonsured subdeacon chanting the Epistle, or, for that matter a bishop snipping the hair of the head of a seminarian undergoing the Rite of Tonsure!