Minor Orders: Sanctifying the Ordinary

During the week before Passion Sunday, Bishop Tissier de Mallerais visited St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary to confer Minor Orders and the Subdiaconate.  On Friday, March 20, nine third-year seminarians received the orders of Porter and Lector, and eleven fourth-year seminarians received those of Exorcist and Acolyte.  On Saturday, March 21, four fifth-year seminarians received the Major Order of the Subdiaconate.

All of these orders have been suppressed by the post-conciliar Church, in which the only surviving step to the priesthood is the Diaconate.  In view of this circumstance, it seems appropriate to dwell on the role of these suppressed Orders and to understand the wisdom of their institution.

A Desirable Gradation

The providence of God so disposes things that progress is always distinguished by degrees; the perfect is attained through the intermediate, and the intermediate through the more rudimentary (Summa Theologica, Suppl., Q.34 A.1).  In human society, this is advantageous both for the beauty of the whole social organism, which is adorned by the harmonious cooperation of diverse parts, and for the security of the individual, who is trained in easier things before he is entrusted with heavy responsibilities.

The sacrament of Holy Orders is ordered primarily to the Holy Eucharist, which is the “Sacrament of sacraments.”  The other sacraments contain grace; the Holy Eucharist contains the Author of grace, Jesus Christ, “of whose fullness we have all received” (John 1:16).  The tremendous power of confecting the Sacrament of the altar is conferred in the ordination of priests; but this perfect degree of Holy Orders is fittingly anticipated by six lesser orders, which gradually elevate the ordinand by granting him certain powers, first over the recipients of the Sacrament, then over the preparation and dispensation of it.

The Deacon is ordained to minister to the priest and pour the wine that is to become the Precious Blood.  The Subdeacon’s role is to minister to the Deacon and pour the drop of water that is mingled with the wine in the chalice.  Deacons and Subdeacons are in Major Orders, bound to the service of the Church for life.  The Acolyte, who is in the highest of the Minor Orders, has the privilege of bringing to the altar the cruets containing the water and wine that is to be poured into the chalice. 

The remaining three Minor Orders dispose the faithful to receive the Blessed Sacrament.  Those without faith or even a desire to believe are to be entirely excluded from the divine worship; it is the office of the Porter, who has received the lowest of the Minor Orders, to prohibit such persons from entering the church.  Others are of good will, but not yet instructed; the Lector catechizes them and, by singing the lessons from the Old Testament which are in the liturgy, delivers the rudiments of faith.  Others are instructed, but unfit to receive the Blessed Sacrament because they are under the power of the devil; these are purified by the Exorcist.  Thus the lower Orders remove impediments to the reception of the Sacrament, while the higher Orders positively contribute to its confection, or consecration.

The Church’s Mindset—and ours

The number and gradation of these orders attest to the deep veneration in which the Church holds the Holy Eucharist and the worship of God.  By establishing these intermediate states, she distances the ministry of the altar from the layperson, thus teaching him the loftiness of what he is approaching and the need he has of purifying himself; and at the same time she elevates all the little offices associated with the liturgy and the Mass, conferring a spiritual power peculiar to each function, as if to admonish her children that even the pettiest tasks, if directed to the service of Christ, can be sanctified and ennobled with a supernatural dignity.

The liturgy is the continuation of the worship that Christ once offered to His Father on earth.  Although He is now in heaven, He does not cease to praise the Eternal Father through the mouth of His ministers. The Church on earth unites with her divine Head and triumphant members in singing the glory of God, from the moment that she beseeches Him to open her lips in praise at the start of the midnight Office, even to the final reverberations of the Marian hymn that crowns the conclusion of Compline.  At the pinnacle of this worship is the unbloody immolation of Christ accomplished by the double consecration of bread and wine into His Body and Blood.  But every action connected with this divine work, down to the most trivial, becomes holy by contact with Christ, even if it touches, so to speak, only the hem of His garment.

The Porter in ancient times swept the church, opened and locked the doors; he was the janitor of God.  Acolytes bought the altar bread and wine, and lit the candles for liturgical functions.  Today these functions are generally performed by unconsecrated persons; but they should never be unconsecrated actions.  All that touches Christ becomes sacred.