Question: What is the "tonsure"? (A "manufactured question," but one we thought appropriate in conjunction with the pastoral letter printed elsewhere in this Bulletin.)
Answer: Before receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders as a deacon or priest, those aspiring to Orders receive (in inverse sequence) the orders of subdeacon, acolyte, exorcist, lector, and porter. And even before receiving these orders, a man is admitted to the clergy through the ceremony of tonsure.
Traditionally, the tonsure consists of the complete shaving of the crown of the head, in a manner previously reserved for slaves, to make them distinguishable from free men. Some say that it was adopted by Catholic monks, and later the secular clergy, as a sign of their complete gift of self as slaves of Christ. Others hold that it was to represent Christ's crown of thorns, worn by those who seek to emulate Him. In any event, for many centuries the tonsure was the most obvious mark distinguishing the clergyman from the layman.
The form of tonsure varied over the centuries and from place to place. Where Catholics are a minority, as we are in the United States, the tonsure is worn rarely if at all. But in Catholic countries one may still see tonsures that vary in size from that of a half dollar to the entire crown of the head. Some religious orders leave only a narrow circle of hair around the skull, shaving both above and below. In Celtic monasteries, centuries ago, it was customary to shave the front of the head, leaving the hair on the back.
Candidates for Orders must receive the tonsure from their own bishop or from another prelate authorized by him. Abbots may tonsure their own monastic subjects. The tonsure received by those preparing for the priesthood is purely ceremonial in nature, the bishop taking small cuts of hair in five places centering on the crown of the head. The ceremony also includes the investiture of the candidate with a surplice, the white overgarment of the clergy. The tonsured cleric may resign without penalty or obligation if he or the Church authorities feel he has no vocation. In theory, the cleric falls under the jurisdiction of the Church rather than that of the civil authorities, although since Vatican II there are no longer any Catholic countries, and it is unlikely that this distinction is observed anywhere today. For good reason, a tonsured cleric may take the place of the subdeacon at Solemn Mass.1 In English speaking countries, clerics below the rank of deacon are addressed as "Mister."
The tonsure is visible on the head of the deacon here being ordained priest.