The Minor Orders: Not a Major Matter

by Jude Huntz

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI suppressed the minor orders and transformed their offices into ministries, though the office of Lector and Acolyte are still instituted offices within the seminary system as steps toward ordination. Outside that narrow experience of the Church, both the Code of Canon Law and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal recognize the laity as functionaries of these ministries, and most recently Pope Francis made official what has been common practice for the past forty years in stating that women can exercise these ministries officially within the liturgy of the Church.

Predictably, such decisions have met with resistance from groups within the Church attached to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Liturgy, as well as other integralist groups who insist that such ministries belong to men only, and most appropriately, in their view, to clergy. They often cite the long tradition of the minor orders within the Church as support for such a position today. A review of the history of the minor orders, however, suggest a position taken by Popes Paul VI and Francis.

The three major orders – deacon, priest, and bishop – have their origins in the New Testament, and after a certain evolution they came to be seen as sacramental by their very nature. Both the office of deacon and priest flow from that of the bishop and were created to provide assistance to the bishop both in his sacramental and administrative duties in the Church. These three offices all have rites of ordination specific to their office, each one signifying those who receive ordination into one of these offices that they are members of the clergy or clerical state. Removal from such a clerical state in each major order requires a lengthy canonical process.

The minor orders, by contrast, are not mentioned in the New Testament and arose in the Church to perform specific liturgical functions. These ministries assist the bishop in his liturgical function, but they possess no such assistance in the administrative functions of the Church. Simple rites of acceptance into these offices existed, but none were seen as sacramental ordination rites when such distinctions came to be made. Admission into one of these ministries did not constitute entrance into the clerical state, nor did they require a promise of celibacy as did ordination to the major orders.

EARLY CHURCH ORIGINS

It is perhaps helpful to briefly describe each minor order to understand its function and why such a role existed in the early church. A review of these ministries and their historical contexts will help to see how the Church in modern times adapted them to the needs of the Church in our times.

In the early Church the liturgy was an event strictly for members only. Christianity came into being during a time when religions across the Roman Empire employed secrecy to membership in the various cults and temples. What is more, given the fact that the Church continually faced persecution from the Empire, the membership requirement to attend the liturgy was a means of protecting the faithful from recriminations by the imperial powers.

PORTER

It is within this context that we come to understand the first of the minor orders – Porter. Porter denoted among the Romans the slave whose duty it was to guard the entrance of the house. In the Roman period all houses of the better class had an ostiarius, or ostiary, whose duties were considered very inferior.

When, from the end of the second century, the Christian communities began to own houses for holding church services and for purposes of administration, church ostiaries are soon mentioned, at least for the larger cities.

In Rome itself this office attained to no particular development, as a large part of these duties, namely the actual work necessary in the church building, what is now probably the duty of the sexton, was at Rome performed by the attendants. In Latin Western Europe, outside of Rome, in the late Roman era and the one following, the ostiaries were still actually employed as guardians of the church buildings and of their contents.

In the installation of porters their duties are thus enumerated in the Pontifical: “to ring the bell, to open the church and sacristy, to open the book for the preacher.”

In monastic communities the porter is the minister of hospitality for the entire monastery. They exist to oversee the door, to welcome pilgrims and wayfarers, and to keep out those who would harm the monastic community. Porters exist in both male and female monasteries to perform this function. Within parishes today, the role of ushers and ministers of hospitality provide many of the functions of this ministry from the past.

EXORCIST

The ministry of Exorcist was originally a function specific to the rite of baptism where minor exorcisms were performed on initiates, the idea being in the early church that those formerly of pagan affiliation were under the possession of their former gods and goddesses which were seen as demons by the early Christians. This role of exorcist is distinct from our current understanding of the office which is held by that of a priest for the removal of demonic possession.

Since the Council of Trent, “Exorcist” was one of the four minor orders in the ministry Roman Catholic Church, received after the tonsure. At the time this order was formally defined and confined exclusively to exorcism of the catechumen in the rite of Baptism, leaving exorcisms of demons to priests; but its role was later expanded. By the twentieth century, the order had become purely ceremonial. The office of Exorcist was not a part of the sacrament of Holy Orders but as a sacramental was instead first conferred on those who had the special charism to perform its duties and later to those studying for the priesthood. With the evolution of the Rite of Baptism the liturgical function no longer exists, and the role of exorcist has take on its present meaning and function in the Church as a role assigned by the bishop to a priest designated for this unique ministry.

LECTOR

The ministry of lector is one that is most familiar to people today. In the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, the term “lector” is used in preference to that of “reader“. The term can mean someone who in a particular liturgy is assigned to read a Biblical text other than the Gospel. (Reading the Gospel at Mass is reserved specifically to the deacon or, in his absence, to the priest.) But it also has the more precise meaning of a person who has been “instituted” (or, in some cases, “ordained”) as a lector, and so is a lector even when not assigned to read in a specific liturgy.

Again, the ministry of lector is a non-ordained ministry whose role and function is strictly liturgical. Within monastic communities of men and women this role has been performed by community members from the earliest times. Outside the monastery the role of lector had been reserved to men as it became a step on the path to major orders, though one could receive the office as a lay person and not proceed to ordination as well.

ACOLYTE

Finally, the office of acolyte is the last of the minor orders. The word “acolyte” is derived from the Greek word “akolouthos”, meaning companion, attendant, or helper. The Acolyte ministry has its roots in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible, where the prophet Samuel is seen assisting Eli, the Levite priest, and Elisha is seen assisting Elijah the Prophet.

The acolyte is the highest of the minor orders, having as duties the lighting of the altar-candles, carrying the candles in procession, assisting the subdeacon and deacon, and the ministering of water and wine to the priest at Mass. Despite these origins, the history of the office is again one that is a non-ordained ministry. Within monastic communities this role has been performed by both men and women, and even in communities of women who performed hospital and nursing ministries women performed the functions of acolyte in assisting the priest at extreme unction and in other liturgical functions.

MINISTRY TODAY

The minor orders served important functions within the life of the early Church. As time progressed, these roles took divergent paths within the life of the Church as their original functions no longer persisted. Within monastic communities and religious orders these ministries evolved and were performed by both lay and clerical members, while in the secular Church these roles became clericalized and exclusive to a small segment of the Church. However, the liturgy and the larger life of the Church demands a greater participation from the wider community membership of the Church. The reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent papal interventions rightly place the former minor orders into ministries accessible to all who are fully initiated members of the Church.

Jude Huntz holds an M.A. in Humanities from the University of Dallas and an M.A. in Pastoral Studies from Loyola University of Chicago. He has worked in parish ministry for six years and diocesan ministry for 8 years, serving in a variety of pastoral settings. Jude has worked in RCIA ministry for more than 14 years. This article came about through conversations, personal study, and reflections on liturgical ministry over the course of many years.

8 comments

  1. Now with this excellent scaffold in place, I ask: Is there a need and a place in secular communities of the Church today for the category of instituted ministries created by Ministeria quaedam or new even instituted ministries rooted in baptism? Are there circumstances in which the such roles might be taken by either lay or clerical members, depending on the nature of the community or individual charisms? Is there potential to reground the notion of Lay Ecclesial Ministry on this baptismal foundation (rather than episcopal “recognition”)? Or has the ship of lived experience sailed on this one?

  2. I would disagree that this historical survey, though helpful, is an adequate scaffold that we need to pursue the development of lay ministry in the Christian community. The postconciliar reform contained in Ministeria Quaedam has a much richer vision both for the meaning of such ministry and for how readers and acolytes should function within the community. That fact that the implementation of that vision was aborted by Paul VI’s restriction of “installation” to men does not weaken its validity or its challenge. I welcome the call here, though, to explore new ministries since that is an echo of MQ itself.

    1. OK. “Scaffold” might have been hyperbolic. How about a ladder to the first platform of a scaffold? Your well-stated comment expresses precisely what I was dancing around: the possibility of reassessing the vision of Ministeria Quaedam in the current ecclesial context. Thank you!

  3. “The ministry of Exorcist was originally a function specific to the rite of baptism where minor exorcisms were performed on initiates”

    This is misleading.

    The catechumen who tramples on goatskin and renounces Satan “mystically” before Bishop Augustine of Hippo in a Scrutiny is undergoing a kind of exorcism, but it’s hardly minor and it was certainly not administered by someone in “minor orders.” The history of exorcism in baptism is complex and, to tell the truth, I have no idea at what stage minor orders came into the picture historically. Am assuming this is a late medieval development but I would appreciate a clearer view.

    1. Isidore of Seville describes the minor order of exorcist as those who “invoke, upon the catechumens or upon those who have an unclean spirit, the name of the Lord Jesus” (Etymologies VII.xii.31). So they seem to have a role in Christian initiation at least by the late-6th or early-7th century.

  4. As I reread this thread, the thought occurred to me that its very title is a problem. To speak personally, as a laymen who has served for half a century as an acolyte in my parish, I would appreciate some communal recognition of the service that I and others have faithfully rendered. We don’t want to be clericalized; we want LAY ministry to be recognized as something real. Recognizing “minor” orders IS a major deal.

  5. View from the Pew
    Regarding: “…Pope Paul VI suppressed the minor orders and transformed their offices into ministries…”
    – By my reading of Ministeria quaedam; I understand that when Paul VI suppressed the ‘minor orders’ he in effect restored the ministries of lector, and acolyte to the laity – men, or women.
    – These ministries, as all ministries, flow from baptism; priest, prophet, royal. That is their direct origin is not the orders of deacon, presbyter, or bishop.
    – Indeed by baptism we find that all are equal as brothers and sisters and that one’s ministry or work is not more or less valuable than another’s.
    – I note apparent confusion among some seminarians (deaconal, presbyteral) who having been installed as lectors or acolytes consider the installation as somehow elevating them above laity who are commissioned to these ministries. It seems that perhaps they are not reminded often that they exercise these ministries as laymen, not as clerics.

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