Question: At any Solemn High Mass that I have ever seen there were three priests -- but you referred to them as "celebrant, deacon, and subdeacon."
Answer: Most of us grew up in parishes where the only ordained clergymen were priests. Only if we knew someone studying for the priesthood were we likely to be aware of the lower ranks of the clergy. In the parish Solemn High Mass, it was common for two priests to perform the functions of the lower orders of deacon and subdeacon. With a careful eye you would have been able to distinguish their roles by the slightly different vestments they wore: a chasuble for the priest, dalmatic for the deacon, and tunic for the subdeacon. In seminaries and monasteries it is more likely that actual members of the lower clergy will be available to perform the liturgical roles proper to their order.
Before describing the various orders, we must recognize that when our Lord ordained the Apostles, He gave them the fullness of His priesthood. At that moment in time there was only one order of clergy, the order of bishops. Each one of the Apostles was thus empowered to carry out any and all of the functions needed to continue the Church for succeeding generations, including the passing on of their priesthood to their successors. The Apostles' consecration of Matthias to replace the apostate Judas is described in the very first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, just after our Lord's ascension into heaven. Bishops possess this fullness of the priesthood, the highest degree of the Sacrament known as Holy Orders.
Shortly after Pentecost the Apostles recognized the need for assistant clergy. In order not to let their efforts at preaching the Gospel be interrupted, the Apostles ordained seven men to oversee the charitable works of the Church. The first ordination of deacons is described in Acts (vi) -- the Apostles laid hands on the seven men, conferring a portion of their priestly powers on the new deacons -- a title coined from the Greek word for "service." The deacons assisted not only the charitable work, but also did some preaching and evangelization. In the Acts of the Apostles, we see this particularly of the deacon Philip who baptized the Ethiopian, and who is referred to as an "evangelist" by Saint Luke.1
In the earliest times, when the number of Catholics was small, the clergy in a city would consist of only a bishop and his deacons. Saint Paul's epistles to Titus and Timothy describe the qualifications of these two orders.2 As the Faith spread, it became desirable for the bishop to have assistant priests -- men who could celebrate Mass and hear Confessions in his absence from the city, or in the outlying suburban communities (these may be the "presbyters" referred to in 1 Timothy v). At ordination these assistant priests (called simply "priests" today) were not given all of the powers of the bishop, who was always required to ordain and to confect the Holy Oils, and who usually baptized and confirmed new converts at the centrally located cathedral church.
As time went on the Church would designate a number of lesser ranking assistants as members of the organized clergy -- but only these three -- bishops, priests, and deacons -- would receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders. In the remainder of this article we will describe each of the orders of the clergy, and describe their function, beginning at the beginning:
The entrance to the clergy is accomplished through the reception of the First Clerical Tonsure. Symbolically reminiscent of the shaving of the head of a slave in ancient times, the tonsure represents the cleric's "enslavement" to Christ. A similar ceremony admits men to some of the monastic orders; its counterpart for nuns being a rather severe hair trimming. Customs vary: In the United States the tonsure is but a token clipping of a man's hair, but in Europe it may be a close shave in a circle around the top of the head, and it may be renewed whenever the hair grows in.
The Minor Orders
The Order of Porters: This first minor order has its roots in the need for someone to be concerned with the physical custody and security of church property. The ceremony of ordination has the candidate lock and unlock the church door, and ring the church bell. In early times the porter would carry the heavy books or scrolls to the pulpit, to be read by those in higher orders. In the middle ages the porters assumed the care of the sacred vessels and linens. In modern times the functions of the porter are performed by sacristans, building custodians, and ushers.
The Order of Lectors: The reading of the Scriptures was delegated to those with the appropriate degree of literacy and speaking ability. As the readings were generally assumed by the upper clergy, the lectors formed the schola cantorum, to lead the public singing at Mass and Divine Office. The Old Testament lessons of the Ember Days and Holy Saturday, as well as the Epistle at simple High Mass, are properly read by lectors. As the lector was otherwise unoccupied during the offertory of the Mass, he was expected to bless the bread and fruit presented by the people at that time. The right to do so is still recognized in canon 1147. The ordination involves presenting a book containing the lessons (a missal, Bible, breviary, etc.) to the candidate.
The Order of Exorcists: Those preparing for Baptism receive a number of exorcisms, which in earlier times were delegated to exorcists. At an early date, the exorcism of those thought actively to be possessed by the devil was given over to priests authorized by the bishop -- today this reservation is a grave canonical obligation. At Mass, the exorcist was to wash the hands of the priest as a symbol of cleansing from sin.
The Order of Acolytes: In the early days of the Church, acolytes carried the Blessed Sacrament to the sick. Saint Tarcisus, an acolyte, is known as the proto-martyr of the Eucharist -- dying, rather than handing over his Lord to the pagans. Today, the carrying of the Blessed Sacrament is reserved to the priest, or extraordinarily to the deacon. At ordination the acolyte receives an empty cruet and a candle, to symbolize the duty of assisting the priest and his ministers at Mass.
The vesture of all those who have been tonsured or received minor orders is the cassock and surplice. For a reasonable cause, a tonsured cleric may perform most of the liturgical functions of a subdeacon, wearing the vestments of that order except for the maniple.3 The parish priest may appoint unordained men with the necessary training to serve as acolytes or lectors. A man knowing how to serve Mass, arriving after a priest has begun Mass without a server, should presume permission to assist the priest, even if he has no cassock and surplice. Speak with your parish priest if you would like to learn to serve.
The Council of Trent exhorted the bishops to staff their cathedrals and parishes with salaried men in the appropriate minor orders. If unmarried men were not available in adequate numbers, family men of good character who had not been married more than once might be employed.4 Bishops were instructed to provide for the seminary instruction of young men as young as twelve years of age, eventually ordaining them to orders as needed in the diocese, alternating time in practical service with time in additional seminary training.5 In the years of the Counter-reformation, the program of seminary training became more well defined, and the lower orders became "stepping stones" to the priesthood, rarely in evidence outside of the seminary. Somewhat at variance with Trent, the function of acolyte came to be entrusted to laymen, often boys of the parish school, hopefully our future priests.
The Major Orders
The Order of Subdeacons: Though not a sacramental order, the subdeaconate is considered a major order, ranked just below the sacramentally ordained deacon. All those in major orders are no longer free to marry, and take up the obligation of the Divine Office. At ordination the subdeacon receives an empty chalice and paten, cruets with wine and water, a basin and a towel. Already wearing an alb, he is then invested with amice, maniple, and tunic. Finally, the new subdeacon is given a book containing the Epistles, which he is now empowered to sing at Solemn Mass. The subdeacon is also to bring to the altar and later remove the sacred vessels at Solemn Mass, and to directly assist the priest when the deacon is otherwise occupied.
The tunic of the subdeacon is usually slightly smaller and less ornamented than the dalmatic of the deacon. To the design above, a single horizontal bar might be added for the subdeacon, and two bars for the deacon.
The Order of Deacons: The deaconate is the sacramental major order mentioned above. In earlier times he was entrusted with the care of the poor and with the administration of church property. The archdeacons associated with a bishop often served as do modern vicars general and vicars forane.7 The deacon my solemnly baptize, witness marriages, and preach. He is the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, formerly being the minister of the chalice during the centuries in which Communion was distributed under both kinds. At Solemn Mass the deacon directly assists the priest, and sings the Gospel and the dismissal (Ite, Missa est, etc.)8
The ordination of deacons includes a sacramental matter and form; the laying on of one hand by the bishop, and the words: "Send forth upon him (them), we beseech Thee, O Lord, the Holy Ghost that he (they) may be strengthened by Him, through the gift of Thy sevenfold grace, unto the faithful discharge of Thy service."12 The new deacons are invested with the stole (worn over the left shoulder) and dalmatic, and presented with the book of the Gospels.
The Order of Priests: Simple priests are ordained to assist the bishop. They are incapable of raising others to sacramental Orders, and normally do not bless the Holy Oils or confirm. The vestments proper to the priesthood are the ones you are accustomed to seeing at Sunday Mass: Amice, alb, cincture, maniple, stole (with the ends crossed), and chasuble. The chasuble is worn only during Mass, at other times you may see the priest vested in a cope, the long, cape-like vestment in the various liturgical colors. We described the ceremonies of priestly ordination in the December AD 2002 issue of the Bulletin, so we won't repeat that here in great detail.9
The ordination of priests also includes a sacramental matter and form, the laying on of both hands by the bishop and the words: "Grant, we beseech Thee, Almighty Father, invest this Thy servant with the dignity of the Priesthood; do Thou renew in his heart the spirit of holiness, so that he may persevere in this office, which is next to ours in dignity, since he has received it from Thee, O God. May the example of his life lead others to moral uprightness." The newly ordained priests are invested with the vestments proper to their rank; their hands are anointed with the Holy Oil of Catechumens; they are presented with a chalice and paten containing wine and a large host: "Receive the power to offer sacrifice to God, and to celebrate Mass for the living as well as the dead. In the name of the Lord." After concelebrating Mass with the bishop there is a second imposition of hands: "Receive the Holy Ghost; whose sins thou shalt forgive, they are forgiven them; whose sins thou shalt retain, they are retained." 12
The Order of Bishops: Bishops, of course, receive the fullness of the priesthood, and are able to confer any and all of the Sacraments. On simple days, bishops vest for Mass much like simple priests, except that they wear the pectoral cross and do not cross the ends of the stole. Bishops are often seen to wear a ring and zuchetto (skull cap) for part of the Mass. On solemn days the bishop wears a dalmatic and tunic under the chasuble -- a symbol of the fullness of the priesthood. There are liturgical slippers and gloves to be worn, as well as the mitre, which is more or less lavish in accordance with the season of the year.11 Within his own place of jurisdiction the bishop carries the crosier or "shepherd's staff." The ceremony for the consecration of a bishop is extremely impressive, and, in order to do it justice, will have to be left for a future issue of the Bulletin.
Let it suffice to say that the sacramental matter and form consists of the imposition of both hands--usually by three bishops, but one suffices for validity, and the words: "Perfect in Thy priest the fullness of thy ministry and, clothing him in all the ornaments of spiritual glorification, sanctify him with the dew of Heavenly anointing."12