Re-Reading Sacrosanctum Concilium: Article 28

Vatican website translation:

28. In liturgical celebrations each person, minister or layman, who has an office to perform, should do all of, but only, those parts which pertain to his office by the nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy.

Latin text:

28. In celebrationibus liturgicis quisque, sive minister sive fidelis, munere suo fungens, solum et totum id agat, quod ad ipsum ex rei natura et normis liturgicis pertinet.

Slavishly literal translation:

28. In liturgical celebrations whoever, whether minister or [one of the] faithful performing his own office/task, does only and totally that which pertains to that [office/task] from the nature of the thing and the liturgical norms.

Continuing the set of norms drawn from the hierarchical and communal nature of the liturgy, art. 28 argues for a kind of “truth” in the ministers enacting the liturgy (as it will argue later, e.g., for a kind of “truth” in the times at which the various hours of the Divine Office are celebrated). This concern seems to arise from the earlier articulated understanding of the liturgy consisting of signs; obscuring the signs of the liturgy diminishes its communicative potential.

For the Eucharistic liturgy to manifest its hierarchic and communal character, its optimal form would involve a bishop presiding (and preaching), surrounded by a college of presbyters (who might concelebrate the Eucharistic Prayer and assist in the distribution of communion) and a college of deacons (who might carry the evangeliary, lead litanies, assist in the preparation of the altar and oblations, address the assembly with monitiones, and oversee communion in consecrated wine), and an assembly of the faithful, including catechumens/elect and the baptized, and from the baptized some who read the appointed scriptures, others who carry a processional cross, incense and thurible, candles, or assist at the altar, some serve as music ministers of song and possible instrumental accompaniment, etc. When such an optimal form is not possible, documents such as the GIRM indicate who is to do what in order to preserve the principle of art. 28. For example, in the absence of a deacon, a presbyter might read the gospel and a reader might speak or the cantor sing the intercessions of the Universal Prayer.

What the article seems to forbid is the practice, common at the time of the Council, in which presbyters (priests) “dressed up” as deacons or subdeacons to minister in those roles at a missa solemnis.

I suspect that such an interpretation may be controversial among some readers of the Pray Tell. I look forward to our discussion.


  1. A few thoughts on priests vesting as deacons and subdeacons.

    1. The current Ceremonial of Bishops states: #22 “Presbyters taking part in a liturgy with the bishop should do only what belongs to the order of presbyter; [footnote refers to Sacrosanctum Concilium #28] in the absence of deacons they may perform some of the ministries proper to the deacon, but should never wear diaconal vestments.” #119 of the same text states: …priests should concelebrate with the bishop, deacons should assist in the celebration, and acolytes and readers should carry out their ministries.[footnote cites SC 26-28]. It is apparent that SC 28 has been officially interpreted by the CDW as applying to this practice.

    2. In Cum, dei 1 Ianuarii of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, [Notitiae 9 (1973) 34-38], it states: “It is altogether out of place for a priest vested as a deacon to exercise the deacon’s function.”

    3. In Instruction for Applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, 6 January, 1996 states: #75 “The, the ministers necessary for a dignified and fitting celebration of the liturgy are obtained, avoiding the practice, different also in this case from the Latin Church in which it is no longer in use, of having ministers of a higher range perform the liturgical functions that should be reserved to those of lower range (the most frequent case is that of presbyters functioning as deacons), or of permanently appointing to the laity liturgical tasks expected of a minister: practices to be eliminated.” While this Instruction applies only to the Eastern Catholic Churches its mention of the Latin Church is significant.

    4. Did Summorum Pontificium is someway abrogate section 28 of Sacrosanctum Concilium?

    5. Is there any place in the 1962 Missale Romanum of the Blessed Pope John XXIII that directs priests to vest as deacons and subdeacons? The answer is clearly no.

    6. The Ceremoniale Episcoporum of Pope Leo XIII has…

    1. @Protodeacon David Kennedy – comment #1:

      Reverend Protodeacon,

      4. Did Summorum Pontificium is someway abrogate section 28 of Sacrosanctum Concilium?

      Please see Universae Ecclesiae 28:

      28. Furthermore, by virtue of its character of special law, within its own area, the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum derogates from those provisions of law, connected with the sacred Rites, promulgated from 1962 onwards and incompatible with the rubrics of the liturgical books in effect in 1962.

      It is an odd mix of law that occurs with the EF under Summorum Pontificum as explained by Universae Ecclesiae. While most disciplinary matters follow the CIC 1983 (as explained in UE 27), UE derogate from all contrary liturgical provisions since 1962.

      Thus, for example, a woman attending an EF Mass need not cover her head nor fast for 3 hours before receiving Communion, but her daughter can’t be an altar boy because that is incompatible with liturgical provisions in 1962. Likewise, three priests can serve as Priest, Deacon, and Subdeacon at Solemn High Mass because SP derogates from this revised norm in SC 28.

      Re ## 5-6: Even if priests vesting as deacon/subdeacon may not be explicitly mentioned in the Rubrics of the EF Missal or Ceremoniale (offhand I’m not sure), the practice would have been immemorial custom by 1962. Even if we were to say that the CIC 1983 abolished that custom (doesn’t seem to be the case), it would now be a custom with force of law even under the current Code because the competent authorities have known that the practice has continued and have made no effort to stop it.

      Ironically, although SC 28 was directed at the MR1962, later legislation has ensured that its provisions don’t currently apply to it.

  2. 6. The Ceremoniale Episcoporum of Pope Leo XIII has the deacons and subdeacons for the Pontifical Solemn Mass chosen from among the canon-deacons and canon-subdeacons of the Cathedral Chapter. These canons originally were as named, deacons and subdeacons, not presbyters. By the middle ages these ranks in the Chapter were filled by those in the order of presbyter although the original titles remained. This seems to be the origin of the practice of presbyters serving as deacons and subdeacons and vested as such. But even this text does not explicitly instruct presbyters to serve as deacons and subdeacons but rather exhibits the liturgical practice and function remained constant while the ministry of the deacons and subdeacons had atrophied primarily due to the cursus honorum.

    7. This is not a question as to whether the presbyter has the power to do what the deacon does. This is not a question as to whether the presbyter has the character of the diaconate. Rather should the presbyter given the above Church teachings assume the liturgical functions of the deacon or subdeacon in the usus antiquior? Since Summorum Pontificium speaks of only one Roman rite and not two, do not the general norms and principles of Sacrosanctum Concilium apply to both extra ordinary and the ordinary forms? If they do not apply to both, why is that the case? The general norms and principals were decreed prior to the Missale Romanum of Paul VI, thus it seems that they were directed to the Roman rite of their time and not something in the future.

    8. A real and coherent practice of orders is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There are no part time bishops, priests or deacons. The symbolic significance of an order is jepordized when a person shifts back and forth. Consider the priest vested as a deacon putting on second stole as worn by a priest above the dalmatic so he can lay on hands at an ordination to the presbyterate.

  3. Did the postconciliar (re?)introduction of married deacons into the Roman rite attempt to not only end the practice of priests vesting as deacons, but also ensure that there would be more “actual” deacons to fulfill diaconal duties at Mass?

    Personally, I would have preferred that Paul VI maintained the subdiaconate (perhaps for married men as well) rather than discard the order altogether. That way, the solemn Mass would exist in the reformed rite. However, were subdeacons not suppressed, laypersons would not serve as lectors at certain Masses. Given that subdeacons appeared relatively early in the history of the western Church, I am not entirely sure if a member of the assembly always read at least one of the readings, even in patristic period Masses.

    Although paring back the “minor” orders might have been a mistake, not doing so might have resulted in much less lay participation in the reformed rites. I suspect that “permanent subdeacons” would have hampered the lay lector movement, which was already gathering steam during the Council.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #4:

      Did the postconciliar (re?)introduction of married deacons into the Roman rite attempt to not only end the practice of priests vesting as deacons, but also ensure that there would be more “actual” deacons to fulfill diaconal duties at Mass?

      It seems that this is part of the rationale here — let men who are not priests (whether they be married or not) be permanent deacons, and then let those deacons carry out their proper function.

      I would add along with this the Church’s desire for a longer transitional diaconate (at least six months, but often a year or longer) — this gives a man an opportunity to carry out diaconal ministry in a serious way. Prior to the Council, it was not uncommon for transitional deacons to only be so for a much shorter time — on the order of a few weeks to a few months (one older priest that I know who was ordained c. 1963 never acted as a deacon in the liturgy while he was a deacon).

    2. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #4:

      Jordan, Ministeria Quaedam allows instituted acolytes to be called subdeacons by decision of the episcopal conference, though no one seems to have taken that up. Really speaking, the GIRM after 1972 assigns almost all the functions of subdeacons aside from reading Scripture to the acolyte.

      If I recall correctly, Botte in his book mentions how he pushed for the retention of ‘subdeacon’ gven its history in East and West, but he ultimately concludes that MQ preserves the subdiaconate with merely a difference in terminology.

  4. Another intention of the article is seen from Inter Oecumenici, nn. 32-33, which eliminated the remaining portions of the Mass where the priest said quietly what was said/sung by others.

  5. I don’t like the practice of presbyters vesting as deacons for liturgical purposes. But I wonder, if the principle here were rigorously applied, would that means that I (a deacon) could never attend Mass dressed as a layperson? I know it sounds like a reductio ad absuram, but if one applied Protodeacon Kennedy’s 24/7 principle then it seems like if I am at Mass I should vest and act in the role of my order. And, of course, the same thing would apply to priests.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #8:
      Dear Deacon Fritz,

      Either in the liturgical assembly or outside of the liturgical assembly, each and every Christian according to her or his order (the baptized and chrismated are also an order) is in relationship to every other member according to her or his order. We cannot take order on and off for order always implies a relationship to Christ, the Father, and the Holy Spirit, as well as all the other members of the One Body. While each order has its proper function or role, order is also and essentially a relationship of communion. It is from the various relationships of communion in and with Christ that we have identity and being. Once you are a deacon and have been put into that order by the Holy Spirit and your bishop, you cannot by yourself put yourself into another order. Presbyters cannot put themselves into the order of the diaconate. As presbyters they have a different relationship with the other orders in the Church than they did when they were deacons or laity.

    2. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #8:
      It doesn’t say anything about deacons but Redemptionis Sacramentum 128 does apply this logic to priests:

      “Holy Mass and other liturgical celebrations, which are acts of Christ and of the people of God hierarchically constituted, are ordered in such a way that the sacred ministers and the lay faithful manifestly take part in them each according to his own condition. It is preferable therefore that ‘Priests who are present at a Eucharistic Celebration, unless excused for a good reason, should as a rule exercise the office proper to their Order and thus take part as concelebrants, wearing the sacred vestments. Otherwise, they wear their proper choir dress or a surplice over a cassock.’ It is not fitting, except in rare and exceptional cases and with reasonable cause, for them to participate at Mass, as regards to externals, in the manner of the lay faithful.”

  6. Interestingly, the term I have seen applied to those of us in holy orders who pray at a liturgical celebration without publicly joining our order or serving at the liturgy is “in modo laico.” This confirms Protodeacon Kennedy’s insight that “we cannot take order on and off,” but it also recognizes Deacon Bauerschmidt’s insight that, at times, one in orders who is not called to serve in that role at a particular liturgy may attend “in the style/form of a lay person.” To put the issue crudely, if article 28 seems to forbid a presbyter from “dressing up” as a deacon for ceremonial purposes for the sake of the authenticity of the ministerial sign expressed in the liturgy, does it also forbid a deacon to “dress up” as a lay person in attending a particular liturgy for the sake of the authenticity of the ministerial sign expressed in the liturgy. What if the deacon wore clerical clothing, thus identifying him as one in holy orders, but prayed in the body of the church with the lay assembly since he exercised no particular ministerial functions at that liturgy? These may seem like petty inquiries, but I’m sincerely trying to think through the force of article 28.

    Protodeacon Kennedy has presented a finely thought-through argument against anyone in orders assuming liturgical vesture and activity not appropriate to that order; Mr. Goodwright notes contrary custom in EF celebration which would suggest that, at least in this practice, EF celebration does not recognize the principle expressed in article 28.

    1. @Fr. Jan Michael Joncas – comment #11:
      What if the deacon wore clerical clothing, thus identifying him as one in holy orders, but prayed in the body of the church with the lay assembly since he exercised no particular ministerial functions at that liturgy?

      well, since my “clerics” are lay clothing (as per the instructions of my bishop), I guess that’s more or less what I do.

  7. The question of “truth” in the liturgy — I think Alcuin Reid means the same thing by “liturgical authenticity” — is an intriguing one. Musing idly on the subject leads me rapidly to confusion (for example: what, authentically, is a vigil?), so perhaps an attempt at a rigorous definition might be helpful.

    Regarding the practice of priests vesting as deacons and suchlike, I would be interested to know what theologians of various eras have made of the explanation that orders layer on top of one another, as it were. On that matter there is Paul VI’s famous “I am also a deacon”, and the practice of bishops wearing (tunicle and) dalmatic under their chasuble — but perhaps the latter is somewhat different?

    As far as the MR1962 goes, one explicit direction for a priest to vest as a deacon occurs when he celebrates the Easter vigil without an assisting deacon, for the procession with the candle and the Exsultet.

  8. I thank Mr. Gregor for his reference to “liturgical authenticity” as another way of thinking/talking about the “truth” of the sign systems employed by the liturgy. Thus, insofar as one theology of the episcopacy (think Pseudo-Dionysius) saw all hierarchical order residing in and flowing from the bishop, this insight could be signified by clothing a bishop in alb [baptism], tunicle [sub-diaconate], dalmatic [diaconate], and chasuble [priesthood] with the distinctive character of the episcopate carried by other signs such as a distinctive form of the stole, miter, ring, etc. Insofar as a theology of bishop as a member of the episcopal college comes to the fore such “layering” of the clothing of various orders on one person may become less sign-carrying and thus falls into disuse.

    I think it is interesting to remember “orders” of catechumens/elect, penitents, and energumenoi among the mass of the lay faithful with distinctive placement and action in the liturgy and at least in some eras with distinctive clothing. There has been some attempt to distinguish catechumens/elect from the mass of the faithful by the distinctive rituals associated with the RCIA to greater or lesser success; I have also read of some attempts to restore an order of penitents. Just for speculative fun, it might be interesting to think of an “order” of the married paralleling the colleges of deacons and presbyters with the engaged entering processes of preparation to take their honored place in that order. (I’m obviously not speaking canonically here, just trying to further the discussion of liturgical authenticity through the signs of “orders.”)
    I suspect that Mr. Rakovsky could be very helpful here in reminding us of how cultures structure “orders” (think of the Roman cursus honorum in relation to the pre-Vatican II Latin rite minor orders) and what impact that might have on liturgical worship and its authenticity today.

  9. Perhaps the most useful comment to facilitate the discussion is to make the Sociology 101 distinction between status (i.e. rank) and role (i.e. function).

    The cursus honorem did impose a ranking on roles in the liturgy that might have had more to do with the social structure of the Roman Empire than the New Testament. We do have a lot of warnings in the NT about seeking rank and social status, the first place at table, etc.

    When priests and deacons perceive that there are already other priests and other deacons to take these roles (functions) I think the motivation to adopt simple clerical dress or even lay dress is often meant as a statement that they are not seeking social status, i.e. I am not needed to do the role therefore I should not have the status.

    When I was a voluntary pastoral staff member in a parish in the 1980s the pastor had an unusual rule, one could not do more than one ministry in the parish. I was a member of the parish choir. When the pastor invited me to be a member of pastor staff, he gave me a choice of two jobs but told me I could not do both even though he though I was well qualified for both, and he told me I had to give up singing in the choir. He was a very liturgical person so I put this all down to a peculiar form of liturgical piety, i.e. extending this liturgy ideal to all of parish life.

    However since my interest now is in voluntarism, I have observed that there is a great tendency of volunteers to hog roles in the parish, to do more than one thing, and that new talent is often discouraged because the new people see all the old established people show up and know they are going to get all the best roles and run the show.

    So it seems to me that we need to take the NT criticism of seeking social status, money and power very seriously when doing liturgy.

    But the better place to begin might be to recognize in the liturgy all the various roles that are being fulfilled not just in the parish (Saint Vincent de Paul, Jail Ministry) but in Christian life (caretakers, health care, teaching, etc). I gather that in some places in the early church order, e.g. the widows, sat in a special place. Perhaps once a year people could come to Mass, pick up badge that recognized their role, sit in a special place, be the subject of one of the petitions and be the guests of honor at a coffee and donuts meet and greet afterwards. Over the course of a year this process might give us a picture of the various roles that are being fulfilled, help us to know one another and take our focus off the status of the few whom we see all the time during the liturgy.

    I don’t think one can avoid whatever roles one is given in life; if there is status that goes with a role, there are many ways to manage that status for the benefit of others.

  10. As Fr. Joncas indicates, the proper but relatively rarely-worn vestment of the baptize is the alb. Thus, in an assembly of laypersons vested in albs, it would seem improper for a deacon or priest with no liturgical duties to vest in only an alb.

    As Protodeacon Kennedy notes, those in holy orders are in them (or, perhaps more properly, *are* them) 24 x 7. A very important part of my diaconal identity is that of husband and father. And so, when I am in the assembly at mass with my children (having no assigned liturgical duties that day), I am not vested as a deacon, and that seems consonant with reality, as vesting would imply a diaconal liturgical duty that the pastor has not given me for that particular liturgy.

    Nevertheless, by being present in the communal assembly with my spouse and children, I am being what I’ve been ordained to be, and in my view I am symbolizing what I really am, which is a deacon who lives and ministers in the secular world and who also lives out (tries, anyway) the sacrament of matrimony. So even though I have no liturgical duty that is proper to my order, I am not “off the clock”.

  11. The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales Guidelines for Concelebration state, para 24:

    Only those deacons with particular functions to perform at a celebration should be vested. These deacons should ordinarily be seated separately from concelebrating priests.

    This is repeated in diocesan liturgical guidelines for deacons in several dioceses in England and Wales, including those issued by my own diocese where a footnote is also added:

    The one exception to this is at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday which takes place “with all the priests and clergy exercising their ministry” (Roman Missal [1975], p. 148).

    [In the 3rd edition English translation this now reads “with all the Priests and ministers exercising their office”.]

    However, in my experience this provision — that if a deacon does not have a genuine liturgical function to exercise then he remains unvested and sits elsewhere — is routinely ignored, and all “non-functional” deacons continue to vest and sit on the sanctuary along with the other clergy, “garnishing the landscape” as someone once put it.

    The guidelines for my diocese also include the following provisions with regard to Holy Week:

    10.4 The rites do not provide for anyone except a presbyter or bishop to preside at any part of the Easter Triduum. In particular, therefore, deacons may not preside at the solemn Good Friday liturgy in the absence of a priest, but only at a prayer service that afternoon.


    10.6 The dalmatic is worn at the Good Friday solemn Afternoon Liturgy, but not at a prayer service substituting for this liturgy.

    10.4 is necessary because the final sentence of para 4 of the Celebration of the Passion of the Lord — “This liturgy by its very nature may not, however, be celebrated in the absence of a Priest” — is an addition peculiar to the U.S. and does not appear in the Latin of MR3 nor in the English translation for England, Wales, Scotland and Australia.

  12. “However, in my experience this provision — that if a deacon does not have a genuine liturgical function to exercise then he remains unvested and sits elsewhere — is routinely ignored, and all “non-functional” deacons continue to vest and sit on the sanctuary along with the other clergy, “garnishing the landscape” as someone once put it.”

    Paul, this is very interesting – and seems strange to me. I’ve never seen it in the US.

  13. A good example is the Chrism Mass, where you only need a Deacon of the Word and a Deacon of the Table, and yet many other deacons will be robed and in the sanctuary, doing nothing much except being there.

    To be fair, one or two others may assist with distributing the consecrated bread to the priests at the fraction, and another may hold up each vessel of oil in front of the Bishop when he says the prayer over it; but most of them will be non-functional and (hopefully!) decorative.

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