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  • Reader Timothy Tadros
    (A Roman Catholic understanding of the sub-deaconate) Subdeacon The subdiaconate is the lowest of the sacred or major orders in the Latin Church. It is defined
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 15, 2007
      (A Roman Catholic understanding of the sub-deaconate)

      The subdiaconate is the lowest of the sacred or major orders in the
      Latin Church. It is defined as the power by which one ordained as a
      subdeacon may carry the chalice with wine to the altar, prepare the
      necessaries for the Eucharist, and read the Epistles before the
      people (Ferraris, op. cit., infra No. 40). According to the common
      opinion of theologians at present, the subdeaconship was not
      instituted by Christ. Nor are there sufficient grounds for
      maintaining that it had an Apostolic origin. There is no mention of
      the subdiaconate in Holy Scripture or in the authentic writings of
      the Apostolic Fathers. These authorities make reference only to
      bishops, priests, and deacons. At the Council of Benevento (A.D.
      1091), Urban II says: "We call sacred orders the deaconship and
      priesthood, for we read that the primitive Church had only those
      orders" (Can. I). Gratian (Dist. 21) says: "In the course of time,
      the Church herself instituted subdeacons and acolytes". It is true
      that the Council of Trent (Sess. XXIII, cap. 17, de ref.) says
      that "The functions of Holy orders from the deaconship to the
      ostiariate were laudably sanctioned in the Church from the times of
      the Apostles"; but these words simply indicate that the "functions"
      were so exercised (that is as part of the diaconate); it was only in
      the course of time that they were separated from the office of deacon
      and committed to inferior ministers. This explains why some
      theologians (e.g. Thomassinus, p. I, lib. II, cap. xl) speak of the
      subdeaconate as of Divine institution, that is they look on it as
      made up of functions proper to deacons. Gasparri (op. cit. infra, I,
      No. 35) says: "The Church, in the institution [of the subdeaconship]
      proceeded thus. She wished to commit to others the inferior functions
      of the order of diaconate, both because the deacons, with the
      increase of the faithful, could not suffice for their many and grave
      duties, and because she wished that others, received among the clergy
      and marked with the clerical tonsure, should ascend through minor
      orders, only after trial, to major orders. Imitating the Divine Law
      of the first three grades (bishop, priest and deacon), she decreed
      that the power of performing these functions should be conferred by
      external rites similar to those by which major orders were bestowed."

      The subdiaconate is most probably, some say certainly not a true
      sacrament, but a sacramental instituted by the Church. If it cannot
      be repeated, this is because the Church has so wished, for she could
      institute a sacramental similar to a sacrament externally without
      thereby obliging us to hold that it imprints an indelible character
      on the soul of the recipient. Wernz (op. cit. infra, No. 158)
      says: "Since ordinations below the deaconship are most probably not
      true sacraments, but rather sacramentals they do not imprint the true
      sacramental character, hence if they are conferred validly, they give
      a power of order instituted solely by human law and circumscribed by
      its limits."

      Historically, the earliest mention of the subdiaconate seems to be
      found in the letter of Pope Cornelius (A. D. 255) to Fabius of
      Antioch, in which he states that, there are among the Roman clergy
      forty-six priests, seven deacons, and seven subdeacons. There is
      nothing to indicate, however, that the subdiaconate is not older than
      the third century. That there were subdeacons in the African Church
      in the same century is evident from the letters of St. Cyprian (e.g.
      Epistle 8). The fourth Council of Carthage also mentions them in 398.
      The Synod of Elvira, (305) in Spain does the same (c. 30). Their
      existence in the Oriental Church is testified to by St. Athanasius in
      330 (ep. 2) and by the Council of Laodicea (can. 21) in 361. At
      present, among the Greeks and other orientals, as also formerly in
      the Western Church, subdeaconship is only a minor order. It has been
      counted among the major orders in the Latin Church, however, for
      nearly seven centuries. It seems to have been elevated to the rank of
      a sacred order in the thirteenth century, but it is impossible to fix
      the precise date. Urban II, at the close of the eleventh century,
      expressly limited the sacred orders to priesthood and diaconate, and
      in the middle of the twelfth century, Hugh of St. Victor still calls
      the subdeaconship a minor order. But at the end of the twelfth
      century, Peter Cantor (De verbo mirifico) says that the subdiaconate
      had lately been made a sacred order. Early in the thirteenth the
      Innocent III authoritatively declared that the subdeaconship was to
      be enumerated among the major orders and that subdeacons could be
      chosen to a bishopric without special dispensation (Cap. 9. x, de
      æt., 1, 14). The reason for this change of discipline was probably
      not because subdeacons were bound to celibacy for this obligation
      began to be imposed upon them in the Latin Church in the fifth and
      sixth centuries [thus Leo I in 446 (in c. 1, dist. 32) and the
      Council of Orléans in 538], but more likely because their functions
      brought them so closely into the service of the altar.

      Subdeaconship is conferred when the bishop gives the empty chalice
      and paten to the candidate to be touched, saying: "See what kind of
      ministry is given to you, etc." Two ceremonies following, the
      presentation of the cruets by the archdeacon and the imposition of
      the vestments, are not essential and need not be supplied if omitted
      (S. R. C., 11, March, 1820). Then the bishop gives the candidate the
      Book of Epistles to be touched, saying: "Take the Book of Epistles
      and receive power to read them in the holy Church of God for the
      living and the dead in the name of the Lord." In case of omission,
      this rite must be supplied and is probably an essential part of the
      ordination (S. C. C., 11 Jan., 1711). In the Greek Church, there is a
      laying on of hands and a suitable prayer, but there is no imposition
      of hands in the Latin Church. It is true that a letter of Innocent
      III to the Bishop of Ely in England (A. D. 1204) is cited as
      requiring that if the laying on of hands in the subdeaconship be
      omitted, it must be afterwards supplied (cap. 1, x, de sacr. non
      interand, 1. 6), but there seems no doubt that the word "deaconship"
      was in the original text (Correct. Rom. ad cit. cap. 1).

      The duties of a subdeacon are to serve the deacon at Mass; to prepare
      the bread and wine and sacred vessels for the Holy Sacrifice; to
      present the chalice and paten at the Offertory, and pour water into
      the wine for the Eucharist; to chant the Epistles solemnly; to wash
      the sacred linen. In the Greek Church, subdeacons prepare the chalice
      at the prothesis and guard the gates of the sanctuary during the Holy
      Sacrifice. In the ancient Roman Church, the subdeacons administered
      in great part the temporal goods of the Holy See and were often
      employed on important missions by the popes. A candidate for the
      subdiaconate must have been confirmed and have received minor orders.
      He must have the knowledge befitting his grade in the Church and have
      entered on his twenty-second year. He must also have acquired a title
      to orders. After ordination, he is bound to celibacy and to the
      recitation of the Divine Office.

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      Publication information
      Written by William H.W. Fanning. Transcribed by Wm Stuart French,
      Jr.. Dedicated to Brenda Eileen Metcalfe French
      The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV. Published 1912. New York:
      Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort,
      S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New

      GASPARRI, De sacra ordinatione (Paris, 1894); WERNZ, Jus decret., II
      (Rome, 1899); FERRARIS, Bibl. canon., V (Rome, 1891). s. v. Ordo;
      TAUNTON, The Law of the Church (London, 1906), s. v.
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