January 22, 2021 (New Liturgical Movement) — Editor’s note: This article was originally published at the New Liturgical Movement. We have republished it here with His Excellency’s permission.
1. The principle of Divine law in the liturgy
Regarding the nature of the sacred liturgy, that is, of Divine worship, God himself has spoken to us in His Holy Word, and the Church has explained it in her solemn Magisterium. The first basic aspect of the liturgy is this: God himself tells men how they must honor Him; in other words, it is God who gives concrete norms and laws for the development, even exterior, of the worship of His Divine Majesty.
In fact, man is wounded by original sin and for this reason he is profoundly characterized by pride and ignorance, and even more profoundly by the temptation and tendency to put himself in the place of God at the center of worship, that is, to practice self-worship in its various implicit and explicit forms. Liturgical law and norms are therefore necessary for authentic Divine worship. These laws and norms must be found in Divine Revelation, in the written word of God and in the word of God transmitted by tradition.
Divine Revelation transmits to us a rich and detailed liturgical legislation. An entire book of the Old Testament is dedicated to liturgical law, the Book of Leviticus; partially also the Book of Exodus. The individual liturgical norms of Divine worship of the Old Testament had only a transitory value, since their purpose was to be a figure, looking to the Divine worship that would reach its fullness in the New Testament. However, there are some elements of perennial validity: firstly, the very fact of the need for liturgical legislation; secondly, that there is a detailed and rich legislation of Divine worship; and finally, that Divine worship takes place according to a hierarchical order. This hierarchical order presents itself as concretely tripartite: high priest–priest–levite; in the New Testament, respectively: bishop–presbyter–deacon/minister.
Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to bring it to its fullness (cf. Mt 5:17). He said: “Until heaven and earth have passed away, not one iota or a sign of the law will pass, without all being completed” (Mt 5:18). This is particularly valid for Divine worship, since the adoration of God constitutes the first commandment of the Decalogue (cf. Ex 20, 3-5). The purpose of all creation is this: angels and men and even irrational creatures must praise and worship the Divine Majesty, as the revealed prayer of the Sanctus says: “The heavens and the earth are full of Thy glory” (cf. Is 6:3).
2. Jesus Christ, the supreme worshiper of the Father and the supreme liturgical minister
The first and most perfect worshiper of the Father is Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. His work of salvation had as its main purpose to give honor and glory to the Father in place of sinful humanity, unable to give a worthy and acceptable worship to God. The re-establishment of true Divine worship and the atonement of Divine Majesty, outraged due to the innumerable forms of perversion of worship, constituted the primary purpose of the Incarnation and the work of Redemption.
By constituting His apostles true priests of the New Covenant, Jesus left His priesthood to His Church and with it the public worship of the New Testament, which has for its ritual culmination the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice. He taught his apostles through the Holy Spirit that the worship of the New Covenant was to be the fulfillment of the worship of the Old Covenant. Thus the apostles transmitted their power and their liturgical service in three degrees, that is, in three hierarchical orders, in analogy with the three degrees of the ministers of the cult of the Old Covenant.
The supreme performer of the liturgy is Christ (in Greek: hó liturgós). He contains in himself and exercises all the Divine worship, even in the smallest functions. The following words of Christ can also be referred to this fact: “I am among you as one who serves” (Lk 22:27). Christ is the minister; he is also the “deacon” par excellence. So too is the bishop, as the supreme possessor of the liturgical service of Christ. The episcopate contains all the ministries and services of public worship: the ministry of the presbyterate, the ministry of the diaconate, the ministry of the minor orders, that is, also, the service of ministers (“altar boys”). In the pontifical Mass according to the most ancient form of the Roman rite, the bishop dresses in all the robes, even of the lower orders. In the absence of all the lower ministers, the bishop himself performs all the liturgical functions of the presbyter, of the deacon, and even of the minor orders, that is, of the altar servers. In the absence of the deacon, the presbyter himself performs all the liturgical functions of the deacon and of the minor orders, that is, of the altar servers. In the absence of the deacon, the sub-deacon, the holders of the minor orders, or the altar servers can perform some of the functions of the deacon.
3. The tradition of the apostles
The apostolic tradition has seen in the triple hierarchical order of the Church the fulfillment of the typology of the triple hierarchical order of Divine worship in the Old Covenant. This is what Pope Saint Clement I, the disciple of the Apostles and third successor of the Apostle Peter, testifies to us.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Saint Clement presents the liturgical order divinely established in the Old Covenant as an exemplar for the right order of the hierarchy and worship of every Christian community. Speaking of Divine worship, he states:
We must do everything in order with regard to what the Lord has ordered to do according to the appointed times. He ordered the oblations and worship services to be performed not by chance or without order. By his sovereign decision, He Himself has determined where and by whom these services are to be performed, so that all things will be done in a holy manner according to His good pleasure and pleasing to His will. For the high priest has been assigned liturgical services (liturghíai) reserved for him, priests have been given their own proper place, on the levites devolve special ministrations (diakoníai), and the layman (ho laikòs ànthropos) is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen (laikóis prostágmasin). (1 Clem 40:1-3.5)
Pope Clement understands that the principles of this order divinely established in the Old Covenant must continue to operate in the life of the Church. The most evident reflection of this order should be found in the liturgical life, in the public worship of the Church. Thus the Holy Pontiff draws this conclusion, applied to the life and worship of Christians: “May each of you, brothers, in the position that is proper to him, be pleasing to God in good conscience and with reverence, without transgressing the established rule of liturgical services (kanón tes leiturghías)” (1 Clem 41:1).
Later (cf. 1 Clem 42:1ss.) Pope Clement describes the hierarchy of the New Covenant, contained in the Lord Jesus Christ himself and concretized in the mission of the apostles. This reality corresponds to the order (táxis) willed by God. Here Saint Clement uses the same terms with which he had previously described the liturgical and hierarchical order of the Old Covenant.
From the first centuries, the Church was aware that Divine worship had to take place according to an order established by God in keeping with the example of the Divine order established in the Ancient Covenant. Therefore, in order to carry out a task in public worship, it was necessary to belong to a hierarchical order. Consequently, Christian worship, that is, the Eucharistic liturgy, was carried out in a hierarchically ordered manner by persons officially appointed for this purpose. For this reason, these agents of worship constituted an order, a sacred order, divided into three degrees: episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate, paralleling the three degrees of ministers of Old Covenant worship: high priest, priests, and levites. Pope Saint Clement in the first century designated the service of the Old Testament levites with the word “diakonia” (1 Clem 40:5). We can therefore identify here the foundation of the ancient ecclesiastical tradition, since at least the fifth century, of designating the Christian deacon with the word “levite,” for example in the Constitutiones Apostolicae (2, 26:3) and in the writings of Pope Leo the Great (cf. Ep. 6:6; Ep. 14:4; Serm. 59:7; 85:2).
4. The diaconate
A very clear and important testimony of this parallelism between the hierarchical degrees of the Old and New Covenants is found in the ordination rites. The texts of the ordination rites date back to very ancient times, as seen in the case of the Traditio Apostolica and then of the Sacramentaries of the Roman Church. These texts and rites have remained almost unchanged in their essential formulas, for many centuries, up to our days. The prefaces or consecratory prayers of all three sacramental orders refer to the hierarchical and liturgical order of the Old Covenant.
In the rite of episcopal consecration, the ancient Roman Pontifical pronounced this essential affirmation: “The glory of God must be served with sacred orders” (gloriae Tuae sacris famulantur ordinibus). The ancient Pontifical expressly establishes the parallelism between Aaron, the high priest, and the episcopal order; in the new Pontifical there is only a generic reference to this. In the presbyteral ordination of both Pontificals, explicit reference is made to the seventy elders, helpers of Moses in the desert. With regard to the deacon, the ancient Pontifical expressly says that deacons have the name and office of the Old Testament levites: “quorum [levitarum] et nomen et officium tenetis.” The ancient Pontifical states even more clearly: “Be elected for the levitical office” (eligimini in levitico officio). The new Pontifical in the oration of ordination also compares the diaconate with the levites.
In the Old Testament cult, the levites performed a whole variety of secondary liturgical services of help and assistance to the priests. The deacons had the same task, as the praying faith and liturgical practice of the Church testify from the first centuries. Anyone who had not received a solemn designation for Divine worship could not perform any liturgical function, even if this function was secondary or merely of assistance. These secondary and assistant functions were performed by deacons, the New Testament levites, who were not considered priests. This is how the Church has always believed and prayed: the deacon is ordained “non ad sacerdotium, sed ad ministerium” (Traditio Apostolica, 9). The same Traditio Apostolica (2nd to early 3rd century) says again: “The deacon does not receive the spirit in which the priest participates, but the spirit to be under the authority of the bishop” (n. 8).
Pope Benedict XVI brought a doctrinal and canonical clarification regarding the diaconate. With the Motu proprio Omnium in Mentem of October 26, 2009, the Supreme Pontiff corrected the text of canons 1008 and 1009 of the Code of Canon Law. The previous text of canon 1008 said that all sacred ministers who receive the sacrament of orders fulfill the function of teaching, sanctifying and governing “in persona Christi Capitis.” In the new formulation of the same canon, the expression in persona Christi Capitis and the mention of the triple function (tria munera) have been removed. A third paragraph has been added to canon 1009:
Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or of the presbyterate receive the mission and the faculty to act in the person of Christ the Head, while deacons are enabled to serve the people of God in the diakonia of the liturgy, of the word and of charity (vim populo Dei serviendi).
The Magisterium of the Church has brought this necessary clarification so that the diaconate is understood both doctrinally and liturgically in a way that is more in conformity with the apostolic tradition and the great tradition of the Church. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas said that the deacon does not have the power to teach, that is, he does not have the “munus docendi” in the strict sense. There is a difference between the nature of the bishop’s or priest’s sermon on the one hand and that of the deacon on the other. The deacon can only preach “per modum catechizantis”; instead, the “modus docendi,” the doctrinal exposition of the Gospel and of the Faith, belongs to the bishop and to the presbyter, said St. Thomas (cf. S. Th. III, 67, 1, ad 1).
With regard to the hierarchical order of the Church, the Council of Trent made a clear distinction between priests and those who are called ministers. The Council thus affirms: “In addition to the priesthood, there are other major and minor orders in the Catholic Church” (sess. XXIII, can. 2). “In the Catholic Church there is a hierarchy established by Divine disposition, and made up of bishops, priests, and ministers” (ibid., Can. 6). The word “ministers” certainly includes deacons in the first place, and it can be deduced from the cited can. 2 that minor orders are also included in the hierarchy, although they do not belong to the ministerial priesthood as do the episcopate and the presbyterate. Deacons are not “sacrificatores,” they are not priests, and for this reason the great tradition of the Church has not considered deacons ordinary ministers of the sacraments of baptism and of the distribution of Holy Communion.
The whole tradition of the Church, both Eastern and Western, has always reiterated the following principle: the deacon prepares, assists, lends his aid to the liturgical action of the bishop or the presbyter (see, for example, Didascalia Apostolorum, 11). Already the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea unequivocally affirmed this truth and this practice received from tradition, saying:
This great and holy Council has learned that in some places and cities deacons administer the grace of Holy Communion to priests (gratiam sacrae communionis). Neither canonical norms (regula, kanòn) nor custom allow those who do not have the power to offer the sacrifice (potestatem offerendi) to give the body of Christ to those who have the power to offer the sacrifice. (Can. 18)
The deacon serves, in the bishop and in the presbyters, the one and indivisible priesthood in the same way as the levites served the high priest and the Mosaic priests.
5. The diaconate and minor orders
Without actually being a priest, the deacon nevertheless belongs to the sacramental and hierarchical order. This fact expresses the truth that the subordinate or inferior liturgical functions also belong to the only true priest Jesus Christ, since he, in the exercise of his priesthood, through the sacrifice of the Cross, became a servant, minister, a “deacon.” In fact, during the Last Supper, Christ said to his apostles, to the priests of the New Covenant: “I am among you as one who serves (ho diakonòn)” (Lk 22:27), that is, as a “deacon.” To perform services of assistance during the liturgy, that is, functions that do not require proper priestly power, by Divine ordinance a sacramental ordination which is the diaconate was established in the Church. The liturgical services of the diaconate, with the exception of proclaiming the Gospel, were over time distributed to other altar servers for which the Church created non-sacramental ordinations, especially the subdiaconate, the lectorate, and the acolytate. Therefore, the principle according to which it is said that all liturgical functions which do not require proper priestly power belong, by law and nature, to the common priesthood of the faithful is not valid.
Moreover, this statement contradicts the principle established by Divine Revelation in the Old Covenant, in which God instituted (through Moses) the order of the levites for the lower and non-priestly functions, and in the New Covenant, in which he instituted (through the apostles) the order of deacons for this purpose, i.e., for the non-priestly functions in the liturgy. The liturgical service of the deacon also contains in itself the lower or the humblest liturgical functions, since they express the true nature of his order and his name: servant, diákonos. These lower or more humble liturgical functions can be, for example, bringing candles, water, and wine to the altar (subdeacon, acolyte), reading lessons (subdeacon, lector), attending exorcisms and uttering exorcistic prayers (exorcist), keep watch at the church doors and ring the bells (porter). In the times of the apostles it was the deacons who performed all these inferior services during Divine worship, but already in the second century the Church, by a wise disposition, using a power that God has conferred on her, began to reserve to the deacons the higher non-priestly liturgical functions, and opened, so to speak, the treasure of the diaconate, distributing its richness, breaking up the diaconate itself and thus creating the minor orders (cf. Dom Adrien Gréa, L’Église et sa divine constitution, préface de Louis Bouyer de l’Oratoire, ed. Casterman, Montréal 1965, p. 326).
For a long time, a small number of deacons could thus be preserved by multiplying the other lower ministers. In the first centuries, the Church of Rome, out of reverence for the tradition of the Apostles, did not want to exceed the number seven for deacons. Thus, in Rome in the third century Pope Cornelius wrote that the Roman Church had seven deacons (cf. Eusebius, Storia ecclesiastica, I, 6:43). Still in the fourth century, a provincial synod, that of Neocesarea (between 314 and 325 BC), established the same norm (cf. Mansi II, 544). Dom Adrien Gréa gave this spiritually and theologically profound explanation for the organic link between the diaconate and the other lower or minor orders: “As the tree of the Church grew, this main branch of the diaconate, obeying the laws of a divine expansion, opened up and divided into several branches, which were the sub-diaconate order and the other minor orders” (op. cit., p. 326).
What can be the reason for the admirable fruitfulness of the diaconate, for which the lower orders were born? The answer according to Dom Gréa lies in the fact that there is an essential difference between the priesthood and the ministry. We can see this essential difference in the fact that only the priesthood acts in persona Christi Capitis; the ministry of the diaconate, on the other hand, cannot do this, as Pope Benedict XVI reiterated in the Motu proprio Omnium in Mentem. The priesthood is simple and by its nature indivisible. The priesthood cannot be partially communicated, although it can be possessed at various degrees. The priesthood is possessed by the bishop as head, and by the presbyter as participant. In its essence, the priesthood cannot be dismembered (cf. Dom Gréa, op. cit., p. 327). The ministry, on the other hand, is fully possessed by the diaconate, and is indefinitely open to sharing, since the multiple functions of ministers are all directed to the priesthood, which they must serve. Divine wisdom has imprinted the character of divisibility in the liturgical service which is not strictly priestly and founded it in the sacramental diaconate, leaving however the Church the freedom to distribute, according to needs and circumstances, in a non-sacramental way, the different parts of the diaconate which are found in the lower or minor orders, especially the ministries of the lectorate and acolytate.
Dogmatically defining the divinely-established structure of the hierarchy, the Council of Trent chose the term “ministers” alongside the terms “bishop” and “priests,” avoiding the term “deacons.” Probably the Council wanted to include in the term “ministers” both the diaconate and the minor orders, in order to say implicitly that the minor orders are part of the diaconate. This is the formulation of canon 6 of session XXIII: “If anyone says that in the Catholic Church there is no hierarchy established by a divine arrangement, which is made up of bishops, priests, and ministers, let him be anathema.” It can be said, therefore, that lower or minor orders such as the lectorate and acolytate have their root in the diaconate by the divine institution, but have been formed and distributed in several degrees by the ecclesiastical institution (cf. Dom Gréa, loc. cit.).
6. The historical development of the minor orders
Already in the second century, the distinct office of the reader is found in liturgical celebrations as a stable category of liturgical ministers, as Tertullian testifies (cf. Praescr. 41). Before Tertullian, Saint Justin mentions those who have the office of reading Sacred Scripture in the Eucharistic liturgy (cf. 1 Apol. 67:3). Already in the third century in the Roman Church, all the minor and major orders of the later tradition of the Church existed, as evidenced by a letter from Pope Cornelius of the year 251: “In the Roman Church there are forty-six presbyters, seven deacons, seven sub-deacons, forty-two acolytes, fifty-two exorcists, lectors, and porters” (Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, VI, 43, 11).
It must be taken into account that this hierarchical structure with its various degrees could not be an innovation, but reflected a tradition, since three years later Pope Stephen I wrote to Saint Cyprian of Carthage that in the Roman Church there are no innovations, formulating the famous expression: “nihil innovetur nisi quod traditum est” (in Cyprian, Ep. 74). Eusebius of Caesarea described the attitude of Pope Stephen I, which certainly also characterized his predecessors, the Roman Pontiffs, with these words: “Stephanus nihil adversus traditionem, quae iam inde ab ultimis temporibus obtinuerat, innovandum ratus est” (Stephen decided not to approve any innovations against the tradition, which he received from the previous times) (Ecclesiastical History, VII, 3:1).
In an aspect of great weight such as the hierarchical structure, the existence of the five degrees of ministers lower than the diaconate could not have been an innovation against tradition in the middle of the third century. The peaceful existence of these degrees below the diaconate therefore presupposed a more or less long tradition and had to go back in the Roman Church at least to the second century, that is, to the immediate post-apostolic time. According to the testimony of all the liturgical documents and of the Fathers of the Church from the second century onwards, the reader and then also the other lower liturgical ministries (porter, exorcist, acolyte, subdeacon) belonged to the clergy and the office was conferred on them through an ordination, although without the laying on of hands. The Eastern Church used and still uses two different expressions. For the sacramental ordinations of the episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate, the word cheirotenia is used, while for the ordinations of minor clerics (subdeacons, acolytes, readers) the word cheirotesia is used. In order to designate that the functions of ministers inferior to the deacon are, in a certain way, contained in the ministry of the deacon itself and originate from this, the Church has also attributed to the lower liturgical ministers the term ordo, the same term with which the hierarchical ministers of the sacramental order are designated, albeit with the specification “minor orders” to distinguish them from the three “major orders” (diaconate, presbyterate, episcopate) which have a sacramental character.
7. The current situation of minor orders
Since the first centuries, for almost one thousand and seven hundred years, the Church has uninterruptedly designated the liturgical ministers lower than the diaconate in both the liturgical and canonical books with the term ordines. This tradition lasted until the motu proprio of Pope Paul VI, Ministeria Quaedam, of the year 1972, with which the minor orders and the subdiaconate were abolished and, in their place, the “ministries” of reader and acolyte were created to promote the active participation of the lay faithful in the liturgy, notwithstanding that such an opinion does not find any concrete support in the texts of the Second Vatican Council. These services of reader and acolyte then received the qualification of “lay ministries.” Furthermore, a claim has spread that the liturgical service of lector and acolyte would be an expression proper to the common priesthood of the laity. On the basis of this argument, no convincing reason can be given for excluding women from the official service of lectors and acolytes.
This argument, however, does not correspond to the sensus perennis Ecclesiae, since until Pope Paul VI the Church never taught that the liturgical service of the lector and the acolyte would be an expression proper to the common priesthood of the laity. The unbroken tradition of the universal Church not only prohibited women from carrying out the liturgical service of the lector and acolyte, but the Canon Law of the Church in fact prohibited women from receiving minor orders or the ministry of lector and acolyte.
By a gesture of great and clear rupture with the uninterrupted and universal tradition of both the Eastern and the Western Church, Pope Francis with the motu proprio Spiritus Domini of January 10, 2021 modified can. 230 § 1 of the Code of the Canon Law, allowing access for women to the instituted ministry of the lectorate and acolytate. However, this break with the uninterrupted and universal tradition of the Church enacted by Pope Francis at the level of law was carried out or tolerated by his predecessors Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI even earlier at the level of practice.
A further logical consequence would be the proposal to ask for the sacramental diaconate for women. The fact that Pope Benedict XVI has reiterated the traditional doctrine according to which the deacon does not have the power to act in persona Christi capitis, not being ordained to the priesthood but to the ministry, has provided some theologians with the opportunity to ask that women, on the basis of this argument, be granted access to the sacramental diaconate. They argue that since the deacon does not have the ministerial priesthood in him, the prohibition of priestly ordination—definitively confirmed by Pope John Paul II in the document Ordinatio Sacerdotalis from the year 1994—would, according to them, not apply to the diaconate.
It must be said that a sacramental diaconal ordination of women would contradict the whole tradition of the universal Church, both Eastern and Western, and would be against the divinely established order of the Church, since the Council of Trent dogmatically defined the following truth: the divinely established hierarchy is made up of bishops, priests, and ministers, that is, at least also of deacons (cf. sess. XXIII, can. 6). Furthermore, the famous liturgist Aimé Georges Martimort refuted with convincing historical and theological evidence the theory and claim of the existence of a female sacramental diaconate (see Deaconesses: An Historical Study, San Francisco, Ignatius Press 1986; cf. also Gerhard Ludwig Müller, “Können Frauen die sakramentale Diakonenweihe gültig empfangen?,” in Leo Cardinal Scheffczyk, ed., Diakonat und Diakonissen, St. Ottilien 2002, pp. 67–106).
The theological argument according to which the service of reader and acolyte is proper to the common priesthood of the laity contradicts the principle divinely established already in the Old Testament, which says: to carry out any, even a more humble, service in public worship, it is necessary that the minister receive a stable or sacred designation. The Apostles preserved this principle by establishing the order of deacons by Divine revelation in analogy with the Old Testament levites. This fact is also evident from the allusions of Pope Clement I, disciple of the apostles (cf. op. cit.). The Church of the first centuries and then the uninterrupted tradition have preserved this theological principle of Divine worship, which states that to perform any service at the altar or in public worship it is necessary to belong to the order of ministers, designated for such functions with a special rite called “ordination.”
For this reason, the Church, as early as the second century, began to distribute the various liturgical duties of the deacon, that is, of the New Testament levite, to various ministers or lower orders. Admission to liturgical service without having received a minor order was always considered as an exception. As substitutes for the minor orders, adult men or boys could serve at the altar. In these cases, the male sex replaced in a certain way minor non-sacramental ordination, since the diaconal service and all other lower services, which were included in the diaconate, were not priestly services. The male sex, however, was necessary because, in the absence of the minor ordination, it is the last link that linked the inferior liturgical or deputy ministers with the diaconate at the level of symbol. In other words, the male sex of the inferior liturgical ministers was linked with the principle of the levitical liturgical service, which in turn was strictly ordered to the priesthood and at the same time subordinate to it and reserved for the male sex by Divine disposition in the Old Covenant.
In fact, Jesus Christ, properly the “deacon” and “minister” of all public worship services of the New Covenant, was male. For this reason, the universal and uninterrupted two-thousand-year tradition of the Church both in the East and in the West has reserved the ministry of public liturgical service to the male sex in the sacramental order of the episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate and also in the minor orders of the lower ministries such as the lectorate and the acolytate. The female sex finds its model of ministry and service in the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, who designated herself with the word “handmaid,” ancilla (Latin), doúle (Greek), the equivalent of the masculine diákonos. It is significant that Mary did not say “I am the diákona of the Lord”, but “I am the handmaid of the Lord.”
The liturgical service of women in the Eucharistic liturgy, as reader and as acolyte and servant at the altar, was altogether excluded in the theological reasoning of the whole Old Testament and New Testament traditions, as well as of the two-thousand-year-old Eastern and Western tradition of the Church (see the cited study by Martimort). There were some exceptions in the cases of cloistered female monasteries, where the nuns could read the reading; yet they did not do the reading in the presbytery or sanctuary, but behind the enclosed grate, for example in some convents of Carthusian nuns (see Martimort, op. cit., pp. 231ff.).
The proclamation of Sacred Scripture during the Eucharistic celebration was never entrusted by the Church to persons who were not constituted at least in the minor orders. The Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea prohibited a contrary custom, saying: “The order (taxis) must be preserved in holy things and it is pleasing to God that the various tasks of the priesthood are observed with diligence. Since some, having received the clerical tonsure since childhood, without any other imposition of hands by the bishop (me cheirotesian labòntas), read from the ambo during the Eucharistic liturgy (super ambonem irregulariter in collecta legentes; in Greek: en te synaxei) contrary to the sacred canons (in Greek: a-kanonìstos), we order that from this moment this is no longer permitted” (can. XIV).
This norm has always been preserved by the universal Church and especially by the Roman Church until the moment following the liturgical reform after the Second Vatican Council, when the laity—that is, those who were not constituted in major or minor orders—were allowed to publicly read the reading also in solemn Masses, and this was gradually allowed even to women. Wishing to preserve the principle of the great tradition, which required that liturgical services be performed by the ministers of minor orders, the Council of Trent strongly recommended that the bishops ensure “that the functions of the holy orders, from the diaconate to the ostiariate, in the Church since apostolic times, are to be exercised only by those who are constituted in such orders “(sess. XXIII, decree of reform, can. 17). The Council allowed even married men to be ordained as minor clerics: “If there are no celibate clerics to exercise the ministry of the four minor orders, they can also be replaced with married clerics” (loc. cit.). In the Roman liturgy according to the most ancient or extraordinary form, the proclamation of the reading in the Eucharistic liturgy can be made only by those who are constituted either in the minor orders or in the major orders; indeed, to this day, the minor orders are still pontifically conferred in communities that adhere to the usus antiquior. This form of the Roman liturgy retains this principle transmitted from apostolic times and reaffirmed by the Second Council of Nicaea in the eighth century and by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.
8. The service of minor orders and the priesthood of Christ
Jesus Christ, the only true high priest of God, is at the same time the supreme deacon. It could be said, in a certain way, that Christ is also the supreme subdeacon, Christ is the supreme acolyte and exorcist, Christ is the supreme reader and porter, Christ is the supreme altar boy in the liturgy, since Christ’s whole existence and saving operation was a very humble service. His priesthood in the ministerial priesthood of the Church must therefore also include the lower liturgical functions or the humblest liturgical services, such as that of the reader or acolyte. For this reason, the diaconate with its functions is part of the sacrament of order and implicitly also the lower liturgical degrees with their functions, which have always been rightly called ordines, although formally not sacramental.
Here is a further theological reason for the fact that the universal Church never admitted women to the liturgical public service, not even in the lower grades of lector or acolyte. In the life of Christ one can see how he fulfilled the function of reader (when he read Sacred Scripture in synagogue worship, cf. Lk 4:16). It can be said that Christ exercised the function of the ostariate when he chased the merchants from the temple of God (cf. Jn 2:15). Christ often performed the functions of an exorcist, driving out unclean spirits. The function of subdeacon or deacon was exercised by Christ, for example, during the Last Supper, girding himself with a servant’s apron and washing the feet of the apostles, who during the same Supper were constituted by him true priests of the New Testament (cf. Council of Trent, sess. XXII, chap. 1).
Humble and inferior liturgical services also belong to the greatness and nature of the ministerial priesthood and the sacrament of orders. It would be an error, and a human and worldly thought, to affirm that only the higher liturgical functions (proclaiming the Gospel, uttering the words of consecration) are proper to the ministerial priesthood, while the lower and humbler liturgical functions (uttering the reading and serving at the altar) are proper to the common priesthood of the lay faithful. In the kingdom of Christ there is no discrimination, there is no competition to have more powers in the exercise of Divine worship; rather, everything is concentrated in the reality and in the need for humility, conforming to the model of Christ the Eternal High Priest.
Dom Gréa left us the following admirable reflections:
When the bishop or the priest fulfills some function of simple ministry, he exercises it with all the grandeur that his priesthood gives to his action. The divine head of bishops, Jesus Christ Himself, did not despise exercising the actions of the lower ministers by elevating all to the sublimity of His high-priesthood. He, a priest in the fullness of the priesthood which he had received from the Father (Ps 109:4; Heb 5:1-10), wanted to sanctify in His person the functions of the lower ministers. By exercising these lower functions, Jesus elevated them to the dignity of His high-priesthood. Lowering himself to these lower ministerial functions, he has neither diminished nor degraded them. (Op. cit., p. 109)
All liturgical services within the sanctuary of the church represent Christ, the supreme “deacon,” and therefore, according to the perennis sensus of the Church and its uninterrupted tradition, both the higher and lower liturgical services are performed by male persons, who are constituted in the sacramental order of the episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate, or in the lower ministries of the altar, especially of the lectorate and acolytate.
The common priesthood, on the other hand, is represented by those persons who, during the liturgy, are gathered in the nave of the church, representing Mary, the “handmaid of the Lord,” who receives the Word and makes it fruitful in the world. The Blessed Virgin Mary never would have liked to perform, and she never actually performed, the function of reader or acolyte in the liturgy of the primitive Church. And She would have been most worthy for such a service, being all-holy and immaculate. Participation in the liturgy according to the model of Mary is the most active and fruitful liturgical participation possible on the part of the common priesthood and especially on the part of women, since “the Church sees in Mary the highest expression of feminine genius” (Pope John Paul II, Letter to Women, 10).
✠ Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Mary in Astana