Minor orders

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Minor orders are ranks of church ministry lower than major orders. [1]


In the Catholic Church, the predominating Latin Church traditionally distinguished between the major holy orders of priest (including both bishop and simple priest), deacon and subdeacon, and the four minor orders, that of acolyte, exorcist, lector and porter in descending sequence. [2] [3]

In 1972, the minor orders were renamed "ministries", with those of lector and acolyte being kept throughout the Latin Church. [4] The rites by which all four minor orders were conferred, but not the actual conferral of the order, are still employed for members of some Roman Catholic religious institutes and societies of apostolic life authorized to observe the 1962 form of the Roman Rite.

Some traditional Catholics continue to use minor orders, as do Old Roman Catholics and the Liberal Catholic Church.

In the Orthodox Church, the three minor orders in use are those of subdeacon, reader and chanter. [2]

Roman Catholicism

From the beginning of the 3rd century, there is evidence in Western Christianity of the existence of what became the four minor orders (acolytes, exorcists, doorkeepers, and readers), as well as of cantors and fossores (tomb diggers). The evidence for readers is probably the earliest. In the West, unlike the East, where imposition of hands was used, the rite of ordination was by the handing over to them of objects seen as instruments of the office. [5]

The Council of Sardica (343) mentions the lectorate alone as obligatory before ordination to the diaconate. The obligation to receive all four minor orders appears to date only from a time when they ceased to indicate exercise of an actual function. Even in the early years of the 20th century, no minimum age, other than that of the "age of reason", was laid down for receiving minor orders. [1] However, the 1917 Code of Canon Law laid down that nobody was to be given clerical tonsure, which had to be received before minor orders, before beginning the regular course of theological studies. [6] Before the entry into force of that Code, it was an almost universal custom to confer all four minor orders at one time, since the bishop was authorized to dispense from the rule that each order had to be exercised for some time before reception of the next highest order. [1] Today, as indicated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, anyone who is to be ordained to the diaconate must already have received the ministries of lector and acolyte and exercised them for a suitable period, with an interval of at least six months between becoming an acolyte and becoming a deacon. [7]

The 1917 Code of Canon Law also restricted conferral of tonsure and any order below that of the presbyterate to those who intended to become priests and who were judged likely to be worthy priests. [8] Previously, there were lay cardinals and others, including the famous Franz Liszt, who received minor orders alone. They could even marry and remain clerics, the status of belonging to the clergy being at that time conferred through clerical tonsure, provided that they married only once and that to a virgin; but by the early 20th century a cleric who married was considered to have forfeited his clerical status. [1] Today, a man who receives what were previously called minor orders is not yet a cleric, since today one becomes a cleric only upon ordination to the diaconate, [9] a rule that applies even to members of institutes authorized to observe the 1962 form of the Roman Rite, [10] such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and others under the care of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, regarding, however, only the incardination of members within the institute or society.

In the early 20th century, Auguste Boudinhon said that, on the grounds that minor orders did not originate with Jesus or the apostles, the view that minor orders and the subdiaconate were sacramental, a view held by several medieval theologians, was no longer held. [1] The slightly earlier G. van Noort said that the view of their sacramentality, which was held by most scholastic theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, was then held only by a few, among whom he mentioned Louis Billot (1846–1931) and Adolphe Tanquerey (1854–1932). [11] In the 1950s, Antonio Piolanti recognized as orders only episcopacy, priesthood (presbyterate) and diaconate, [12] the three whose transmission is reserved to bishops. [13] In speaking of the hierarchical structure of the Church, the Second Vatican Council mentioned only these three orders, not minor orders or subdiaconate. [14]

By Pope Paul VI's motu proprio Ministeria quaedam of 15 August 1972, the term "minor orders" has been replaced by that of "ministries". [15] Two of what were called minor orders, those of reader and acolyte, are kept throughout the Latin Church, and national episcopal conferences are free to use the term "subdeacon" in place of that of "acolyte". [16] The motu proprio specified the functions of each of these two ministries, [17] A prescribed interval, as decided by the Holy See and the national episcopal conference, is to be observed between receiving them. [18] Candidates for diaconate and for the priesthood must receive both ministries and exercise them for some time before receiving holy orders. [19]

Conferral of the minor orders or ministries is by the ordinary: either a diocesan bishop or someone who is equivalent in law to a diocesan bishop or, in the case of clerical religious institutes and societies of apostolic life, a major superior. [20] The two ministries that are in use throughout the Latin Church could be conferred even on men [21] who are not candidates for holy orders. [22]

Eastern Christianity

Eastern Christianity traditionally views the subdeacon as a minor order, [23] unlike the practice of the West which considered it a major order. The other common minor order is reader (lector). The minor order of porter is mentioned historically in some service-books, but no longer is given; all of the rights and responsibilities of each minor order are viewed as contained in the subdiaconate. [1]

The 22 sui iuris Eastern Churches that are in union with Rome have their traditional minor orders, governed by their own particular law. [24] In all Eastern Catholic Churches, subdeacons are minor clerics, since admission to major orders is by ordination as deacon. [25] The Byzantine tradition allows for several orders of minor clerics. The sui iuris Byzantine Catholic Metropolitan Church of Pittsburgh, also called the Byzantine-Ruthenian Church, has the minor orders of candle bearer, cantor, lector and subdeacon, and in English uses the term "ordination" for their cheirothesis. [26] The minor orders of candle bearer and cantor are given before tonsure during ordination to the lectorate. [27]

Eastern Orthodox Churches routinely confer the minor orders of reader and subdeacon, and some jurisdictions also ordain cantors. Ordination to minor orders is done by a bishop at the Hours before the Divine liturgy, but always outside the context of actual Divine Liturgy. [28] The order of taper-bearer is now used as part of ordination as a lector. The orders of doorkeepers, exorcists, and acolytes are no longer in common use. [29]

Related Research Articles

Holy orders sacraments in some Christian churches

In certain Christian churches, holy orders are ordained ministries such as bishop, priest, or deacon, and the sacrament or rite by which candidates are ordained to those orders. Churches recognizing these orders include the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, Assyrian, Old Catholic, Independent Catholic and some Lutheran churches. Except for Lutherans and some Anglicans, these churches regard ordination as a sacrament. The Anglo-Catholic tradition within Anglicanism identifies more with the Roman Catholic position about the sacramental nature of ordination.

Clergy formal leaders within established religions

Clergy are formal leaders within established religions. Their roles and functions vary in different religious traditions, but usually involve presiding over specific rituals and teaching their religion's doctrines and practices. Some of the terms used for individual clergy are clergyman, clergywoman, and churchman. Less common terms are churchwoman and clergyperson, while cleric and clerk in holy orders both have a long history but are rarely used.

Deacon ministry in the Christian Church

A deacon is a member of the diaconate, an office in Christian churches that is generally associated with service of some kind, but which varies among theological and denominational traditions. Major Christian churches, such as the Catholic Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Anglican church, view the diaconate as part of the clerical state.

Tonsure hairstyle related to religious devotion

Tonsure is the practice of cutting or shaving some or all of the hair on the scalp as a sign of religious devotion or humility. The term originates from the Latin word tōnsūra and referred to a specific practice in medieval Catholicism, abandoned by papal order in 1972. Tonsure can also refer to the secular practice of shaving all or part of the scalp to show support or sympathy, or to designate mourning. Current usage more generally refers to cutting or shaving for monks, devotees, or mystics of any religion as a symbol of their renunciation of worldly fashion and esteem.

Subdeacon is a title used in various branches of Christianity.

Acolyte profession

An acolyte is an assistant or follower assisting the celebrant in a religious service or procession. In many Christian denominations, an acolyte is anyone performing ceremonial duties such as lighting altar candles. In others, the term is used for one who has been inducted into a particular liturgical ministry, even when not performing those duties.

Altar server profession

An altar server is a lay assistant to a member of the clergy during a Christian liturgy. An altar server attends to supporting tasks at the altar such as fetching and carrying, ringing the altar bell, among other things. If young, the server is commonly called an altar boy or altar girl. In some Christian denominations, altar servers are known as acolytes.

In some religions, an exorcist is a person who is believed to be able to cast out the devil or performs the ridding of demons or other supernatural beings who are alleged to have possessed a person, or (sometimes) a building or even an object. An exorcist can be specially prepared or instructed person including: priest, a nun, a monk, a witch doctor (healer), a shaman, a psychic or a geomancer.

An ostiarius, a Latin word sometimes anglicized as ostiary but often literally translated as porter or doorman, originally was a servant or guard posted at the entrance of a building. See also gatekeeper.

Clerical marriage is a term used to described the practice of allowing Christian clergy to marry. This practice is distinct from allowing married persons to become clergy. Clerical marriage is admitted among Protestants, including both Anglicans and Lutherans.

Major orders

The term major orders or greater orders was for some centuries applied in the Roman Catholic Church to distinguish what the Council of Trent also called holy orders from what at that time were termed "minor orders" or "lesser orders". The Catechism of the Council of Trent spoke of the "several distinct orders of ministers, intended by their office to serve the priesthood, and so disposed, as that, beginning with the clerical tonsure, they may ascend gradually through the lesser to the greater orders", and stated:


A crucifer or cross-bearer is, in some Christian churches, a person appointed to carry the church's processional cross, a cross or crucifix with a long staff, during processions at the beginning and end of the service.

Reader (liturgy) a person who can read aloud the bible during catholic liturgy

In some Christian churches, a reader is responsible for reading aloud excerpts of scripture at a liturgy. In early Christian times the reader was of particular value due to the rarity of literacy.

Hierarchy of the Catholic Church Organization of the Catholic Church

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church consists of its bishops, priests, and deacons. In the ecclesiological sense of the term, "hierarchy" strictly means the "holy ordering" of the Church, the Body of Christ, so to respect the diversity of gifts and ministries necessary for genuine unity.

Extraordinary minister of Holy Communion

An extraordinary minister of Holy Communion in the Catholic Church is, under the 1983 Code of Canon Law, "an acolyte, or another of Christ's faithful deputed", in certain circumstances, to distribute Holy Communion. The term "extraordinary" distinguishes such a person from the ordinary minister of Holy Communion, namely a bishop, priest or deacon.

Holy orders in the Catholic Church Sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church

The sacrament of holy orders in the Catholic Church includes three orders: bishop, priest, and deacon. In the phrase "holy orders", the word "holy" simply means "set apart for some purpose." The word "order" designates an established civil body or corporation with a hierarchy, and ordination means legal incorporation into an order. In context, therefore, a group with a hierarchical structure that is set apart for ministry in the Church.

Dimissorial letters are testimonial letters given by a bishop or by a competent religious superior to his subjects in order that they may be ordained by another bishop. Such letters testify that the subject has all the qualities demanded by canon law for the reception of the order in question, and request the bishop to whom they are addressed to ordain him.

Lay cardinal

A lay cardinal was a cardinal in the College of Cardinals of the Catholic Church who was a lay person, that is, who had never have been given major orders through ordination as a deacon, priest, or bishop.

In the Catholic Church the term minister enjoys a variety of usages. It most commonly refers to the person, whether lay or ordained, who is commissioned to perform some act on behalf of the Church. It is not a particular office or rank of clergy, as is the case in some other churches, but minister may be used as a collective term for vocational or professional pastoral leaders including clergy and non-clergy. It is also used in reference to the canonical and liturgical administration of sacraments, as part of some offices, and with reference to the exercise of the lay apostolate.

Catholic laity

Catholic laity are the ordinary members of the Catholic Church who are neither clergy nor recipients of Holy Orders or vowed to life in a religious order or congregation. The laity forms the majority of the estimated over one billion Catholics in the world.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Auguste Boudinhon, "Minor Orders" in Catholic Encyclopedia 1911
  2. 1 2 The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
  3. Catechism of the Council of Trent (Dublin 1829), p. 310
  4. Ministeria quaedam, II: "The orders hitherto called minor are henceforth to be spoken of as 'ministries'."
  5. A. Villien, H. W. Edwards, History and Liturgy of the Sacraments, pp. 237ff.
  6. Canon 976 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law
  7. Code of Canon Law, canon 1035
  8. Canon 973 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law
  9. Code of Canon Law, canon 266
  10. Instruction on the Application of the Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum, 30
  11. G. van Noort (revised by J. P. Verhaar), Tractatus de sacramentis (Paul Brand, Bussum, Netherlands 1930), vol. II, pp. 145–146
  12. Antonius Piolanti, De Sacramentis (fifth edition, Marietti 1955), pp. 461–463
  13. Piolanti 1955, pp. 463–468
  14. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium
  15. Ministeria quaedam, II
  16. Ministeria quaedam, IV
  17. Ministeria quaedam, IV–VI
  18. Ministeria quaedam, X
  19. Ministeria quaedam, XI
  20. Ministeria quaedam, IX
  21. Ministeria quaedam, VII
  22. Ministeria quaedam, III
  23. Faulk, Edward. 101 Questions & Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches. New York: Paulist Press, 2007, p. 51
  24. CCEO, Title X, Canon 327, 1992. Retrieved 2008-11-11.
  25. CCEO, Title 12, Canon 560 and Canon 565, 1992. Retrieved 2008-11-11.
  26. Particular Law for the Byzantine-Ruthenian Church in the USA (29 June 1999). Retrieved 2008-11-11.
  27. Eparchial Newsletter (October–November 1998) eparchy-of-van-nuys.org Accessed 2007-11-28
  28. The Sacramental Life of the Orthodox Church, Calivas (2005) Minor orders Archived 2005-02-05 at the Wayback Machine
  29. Orthodox Wiki, Minor Orders, N.D. Retrieved 2008-11-11.

Further reading

Orthodox Church