Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Holy Orders - Part II

by Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey


This article, the second in a three part series, is an explanation of the rites and ceremonies of the Sacrament of Holy Orders including the minor order of lectors, exorcists, acolytes, and the subdiaconate.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, June 1928

I. The Minor Order Of Lectors

Reading has always held a most important place in the worship of the Catholic Church, even as it entered into that of the Synagogue. Hence it is not to be wondered at that the order of Lectors or Readers should be almost as old as the Church. We find mention of Readers as early as the second century, in the writings of Justin Martyr (Apol., I, 67). A little later Tertullian reproaches the heretics with not abiding by the tradition of the Church, inasmuch as a man who one day was a deacon found himself to be a mere lector on another. There seems to have been from the first a close connection between the major order of deacons and the minor order of readers, a connection that is based on the nature of their duties, for, though the deacon alone is commissioned to preach, both lector and deacon read the Word of God in the assembly of the faithful. Inscriptions found in the Roman Catacombs mention the lectorate as a distinct order; thus, in an epitaph of the Cemetery of St. Agnes we meet with one Favor, Lector. Many texts make it quite clear that, in addition to reading in the assembly of the faithful, the reader also fulfilled the role of cantor. That it was so in the fourth century appears from many passages in the writings of St. Augustine. On April 5 the Roman Martyrology has the following item: "In Africa, the holy Martyrs who, during the persecution of the Arian king Genseric, were put to death whilst they were in church on Easter Day. At the very time when their lector was singing the Alleluia on a raised platform, his throat was pierced by an arrow."

From St. Cyprian we learn that, during the ages of persecution, those were ordained readers by preference who had confessed the Faith. We give two interesting passages from two letters of the Holy Doctor, which both refer to the ordination to the lectorate of men that had confessed the faith:

"Let the voice that has confessed the Lord daily be heard in those things which the Lord spoke…there is nothing in which a confessor can do more good to the brethren than that, while the reading of the Gospel is heard from his lips, everyone who hears should imitate the faith of the reader" (Ep. xxxiii, alias xxxix).

"In the meantime I judged it well that he (Aurelius, a confessor) should begin with the office of reading; because nothing is more suitable for the voice which has confessed the Lord in glorious utterance, than to sound Him forth in the solemn repetition of the divine lessons, than, after the sublime words which spoke out the witness to Christ, to read the gospel of Christ whence martyrs are made; to come to the desk (of the reader) after the scaffold — there to have been conspicuous to the multitude of the gentiles, here to be beheld by the brethren — there to have been heard with the wonder of the surrounding people, here to be heard with the joy of the brotherhood …"(Ep. xxxii, alias xxxviii).

That the lectors were men of learning is proved by a passage of St. Augustine who, whilst commenting on a Psalm, asked the lectors who were present to study a difficulty that had occurred to him in the course of his sermon.

The essential rite of the ordination of a reader is already found in the Canons of the Fourth Council of Carthage. Whilst the bishop hands the sacred volume to the candidate, he says: "Receive, and be thou a faithful reader of the Word of God; if thou fulfill thy task faithfully and usefully, thy lot shall be with those who have well administered the Word of God from the beginning."

The preliminary exhortation addressed to the candidate is full of practical utility for the daily conduct of a priest also: quod ore legitis, corde credatis, atque opere compleatis — that is, the conduct of the reader or preacher of the Word of God must never be at variance with that divine teaching. The lector is told to take his stand at some prominent spot in the church, so that he should be seen as well as heard. This also is symbolic of the lofty degree of perfection that he should attain, so that his conduct may be a pattern to the faithful: cunctis … coelestis vitae formam praebeas.

The two prayers with which the ceremony concludes, express a like thought: let the reader declare what is to be done and carry it out in his own life (agenda dicat, et dicta opere impleat), so that both his reading and teaching and his own life may provide the holy Church with a pattern of sanctity.

II. Exorcists

Our Lord gave power over unclean spirits to all those who believe in His name. This power was partly a charisma (or gratia gratis data), which, like the gift of tongues and other miraculous favors became gradually extinct. But, in addition to the charisma, our Lord also gave to the Apostles power to exorcize evil spirits as part of their special office, and this power they have handed down to their successors. At an early stage we find a special order of exorcists. Thus Pope St. Cornelius, in the middle of the third century, states that there were then 52 exorcists at Rome. The Synod of Laodicea (Canon 26) forbade exorcists to use their powers, unless they had been first authorized by the bishop. The form which is in use today at the ordination of exorcists is already found in the Canons of the Fourth Council of Carthage (398): "The bishop hands to the candidate the book in which the exorcisms are written [viz., the Ritual], saying at the same time: Take, and commit to memory, and have power to lay hands upon energumens, whether they be baptized or not."

The exorcist carried out his functions by laying his hands on the possessed or obsessed person, whilst reciting the formula of exorcism. In the exhortation addressed to the candidate the bishop points out how necessary it is that he should keep his soul and body pure from every stain of wickedness, lest he should himself fall a prey to him whom, through his ministry, he expels from the bodies of others. "Let thy office teach thee how to rule thy evil inclinations, lest the enemy should find in thy behavior something that he might claim for his own, for only then shalt thou rightly command the devils in others, if thou first overcome their manifold wickedness in thy own person."

In the concluding prayers the bishop prays that the newly ordained may prove a spiritualis imperator, and an approved physician (probabilis medicus Ecclesiae tuae), and as such able to restore to health of mind and body all those who have recourse to his ministry. The order and authority of exorcists is contained most perfectly (eminentiori modo — as philosophers would say) in the grace and virtue of the priesthood.

III. Acolytes

As his name indicates, the acolyte is the assistant of the priest and other sacred ministers. Although his functions bear some resemblance to those of the subdeacon, the two orders are quite distinct, at least in the Roman Church. In the list of the clergy of Rome given by Pope St. Cornelius (A. D. 251-252), forty-two acolytes are mentioned besides seven subdeacons. St. Tarsicius who was killed by the pagans whilst he carried the Blessed Sacrament on his person, held the rank of an acolyte. The rite of ordination as we now have it in the Roman Pontifical, is found in substance in the Sixth Canon of the Fourth Council of Carthage:1 "When an acolyte is ordained, let the bishop teach him how he should behave in his office." This the bishop does in a somewhat lengthy exhortation, in which he enumerates the various duties of the acolyte and points out the virtues, which are symbolized by the lights of the church, which are the acolyte's peculiar province. The words of the bishop carry even greater weight for the priest. The acolyte merely takes the wine and water of the sacrifice to the altar; as the priest offers the sacrifice, it behooves him even more than the acolyte "to offer himself as a sacrifice to God by a chaste life and by good works."

The Canon of Carthage only prescribes the ceremonial handing over of the candlestick with an unlighted candle and an empty cruet. The words, which now accompany the ceremony, are of more recent date. In the Roman Pontifical, the handing of instruments is followed by four prayers in all of which the lighting and carrying of candles is singled out as the chief function of the acolyte; only one of the four makes mention of his other duty of offering the wine and water at the altar.

The duties of acolytes are now usually fulfilled by the boys of our parochial schools. Those bright, but often very mischievous lads little realize the high privilege that is theirs; hence, it is the priest's duty to explain to them that the functions, which they so light-heartedly perform, were formerly entrusted to men who remained all their lives in that lower rank of the clergy. Due proportion being kept, the servers in the sanctuary are bound to show in their conduct something at least of the qualities required from the ordained acolyte and asked for by the bishop in the concluding prayer: "Almighty, eternal God, Fount of light and Source of all goodness, who through Jesus Christ Thy Son, the true Light, didst enlighten the world and redeem it by the mystery of His passion; deign to bless this Thy servant whom we consecrate for the office of acolyte, beseeching Thy mercy that Thou wouldst enlighten his mind with the light of knowledge, and refresh it with the dew of Thy kindness; to the end that he may, by Thy help, so perform the duties which he has assumed as to deserve to attain unto an everlasting reward."

IV. The Subdiaconate

The very name of this order indicates the nature of its office and duties. The subdeacon shares in some of the functions that appertain to the deacon; but, though the order is now ranked among the major ones, it is still a matter of debate whether it is really an integral part, as it were, of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. We already find historical traces of the existence of the subdiaconate as an order distinct from the diaconate about the middle of the third century. At Rome there were seven subdeacons, just as there were seven deacons. Apparently the deacons entrusted to them some of the less important duties of their order. According to the Synod of Laodicea and the Apostolic Constitutions, the subdeacons were in charge of the doors of the church, particularly of that of the women — though there was a special minor order of door-keepers. Hence it seems to follow that, even if such was one of their duties, it could not have been the chief one. They were also used as messengers by the bishops.

The Second Synod of Toledo (held about 527) required that subdeacons should have attained at least their twentieth year. The First Synod of Toledo (400) allowed them to marry once; if they married a second time, they were only reduced to the rank of ostiarius or that of reader. But as early as the sixth century the law of celibacy for subdeacons was repeatedly enforced.

As for the rite of ordination, according to the Constitutiones Apostolicae, VIII, 21, they received the imposition of hands; on the other hand, the Fourth Council of Carthage states that they are ordained by the handing of the sacred vessels, and that this is done precisely because there is no laying-on of hands in their ordination.

The rite of ordination of a subdeacon, as we find it in the Pontifical, supplies us with a perfect explanation of his duties and of his powers and privileges. Whatever opinions may have been held in times gone by, Canon Law states definitely that the subdiaconate is a major and sacred order, in contradistinction to those that precede it (which are minor and not sacred).

The subdiaconate is a momentous step in the life of the candidate for the priesthood, because its reception is equivalent to the taking of a perpetual and solemn vow of chastity. Hence the grave warning addressed to the ordinand as he stands before the bishop: "Consider again and again what a burden you spontaneously ask to take up this day," says the prelate; "until now you are free to return to the world; but once you shall have received this order, you will no longer be free to change your mind, but you will be bound to serve forever God whom to serve is to be truly free, and you will be bound to keep, with His help, perpetual chastity…"

The Litany of the Saints is sung whilst the candidate lies prostrate and bishop and clergy fall on their knees. Towards the end the bishop rises, and, turning towards the ordinand, blesses him three times. The gradation in his triple supplication stirs the heart of the priest, even when long years have passed since they were first sung over him: Ut hunc electum benedicere … sanctificare … consecrare digneris.

The Litany is followed by an allocution in which the bishop sums up the duties of the subdeacon and the qualities that he should possess. The subdeacon must be a man of faith (in vera et Catholica fide fundatus), for whatever is not according to the faith is sin, is schism, is outside the pale of the Church. If until now his life has not been blameless, from now onwards it must be a pattern of virtue: "If until now thou wast sluggish in coming to church, henceforth be thou assiduous; if until now thou wast drowsy, be thou now watchful; if until now thou hast been given to wine, henceforth be thou sober; if until now thy conduct has been wanting in modesty, henceforth be thou chaste."

After this the bishop, according to ancient custom, places in the hands of the candidate an empty chalice and an empty paten, with the words: "I see what ministry is entrusted to thee; wherefore I admonish thee that thou comport thyself in such wise as thou mayest be pleasing to God."

Two prayers follow: in the first the bishop asks that God would pour into the heart of this His servant His blessing and grace, to the end that, having faithfully ministered in His presence, he may receive the reward held in store for the Saints.

The second prayer shows the high importance and dignity of the subdiaconate. Every phrase of that prayer deserves frequent perusal and meditation: "Holy Lord, Almighty Father, eternal God, deign to bless this Thy servant whom Thou hast deigned to choose for the office of the subdiaconate; give him strength to minister in Thy sanctuary and make him a zealous watchman in the ranks of the heavenly army, and may he faithfully serve Thy holy altars. May there rest upon him the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and godliness, and do Thou fill him with the spirit of Thy fear. Strengthen him in the divine service so that, having become obedient in deed and carrying out Thy behests, he may obtain Thy grace."

Finally, the bishop ceremonially invests the ordinand with the sacred vestments belonging to his order. First he draws over the head of the candidate the amice, which until now he has worn around his neck. Whilst he does this, the bishop says: "Receive the amice, by which is signified the custody of the tongue, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

The amice was originally nothing more than a kerchief, which was placed round the neck to prevent the vestment from being soiled by perspiration, or to protect the throat in the cold, unheated churches of Northern Europe. In any case the mystical signification attached to the amice both here and in the prayer said by the priest whilst he puts it on, is only an afterthought.

The maniple and tunicle are the distinctive garb of the subdeacon. The former was at first a linen towel or handkerchief. It is identical with the consular mappa, which was a symbol of authority. But originally the mappa too served a purely utilitarian purpose. Here also the mystical signification is of much later date: the maniple is an emblem of good works.

The subdeacon's tunic is now identical in appearance with the deacon's dalmatic. Originally subdeacons wore no distinctive vestment. St. Gregory the Great forbade them to wear the linen tunic, which had been granted to them by one of his predecessors. However the tunica (described as dalmatica linea or minor) eventually became the distinctive dress of subdeacons. According to the words, which accompany its bestowal, it is symbolic of joy and gladness.

Finally, the bishop hands to the subdeacon the Book of Epistles, saying: "Take the Book of Epistles and receive power to read them in the Holy Church of God, for the living and for the dead."

The reading of the Epistle and of the Gospel was at first the duty of the deacon. Subdeacons were instituted for the purpose of sharing some of the deacon's burdens and honors. The reading or singing of the Epistle is one of those functions.

On March 14, 1906, the Sacred Congregation of Rites issued a Decree by which is sanctioned the custom which had been established in many places, in virtue of which a cleric in minor orders may officiate at High Mass in the place of the subdeacon. The conditions laid down are the following:

(1) A simple cleric must not be made to act as subdeacon unless there is a reasonable cause and he himself has received the minor orders, or at least the tonsure.

(2) A cleric officiating in such a capacity wears the alb over the amice, the cincture and tunicle, but not the maniple. He does all that appertains to the duties of a subdeacon, with the following exception: (a) he does not pour water into the chalice at the offertory; this is done by the deacon; (b) he never touches the chalice infra actionem, nor does he remove or put back the pall; (c) after the ablutions he does not wipe the chalice (this is done by the celebrant himself); he merely arranges it and covers it with the veil in the usual way and carries it to the credence table.

In most places, when a cleric acts as subdeacon it is the deacon who wipes the chalice. The Decree supposes that this is done by the celebrant himself (abstergente ipso celebrante).

A simple cleric may also act as chaplain to a bishop at Low Mass, but he may not do anything forbidden him at High Mass, nor may he wipe the chalice before the Offertory, pour in the wine, or hand to the celebrant either the paten with the host or the chalice.


1 Even if the authenticity of this assembly is not beyond cavil, the Canons published under its name are certainly of very ancient date.

Holy Orders- Part I
Holy Orders Part— III

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