26 February 2022

Ordained, Assistants, and Faithful: On Hierarchical Participation in Three Spheres

Dr K looks at the roles which the Priest and ordained Minor Orders, the Altar Servers, and the laity in the pew all fill at Holy Mass.

From One Peter Five

By Peter Kwasniewski, PhD

Owing to its density and complexity, the traditional Roman liturgy—and the same, of course, would be true of any traditional liturgy—gives rise to multiple “hierarchies” of participation, which I will call here “ecclesiastical, sanctuarial, and congregational.” What I have noticed is that a complex and subtle gradation is of the essence of the rite, although it is sometimes occluded either by a simplified performance of it or by demographic circumstances (for example, Mass in a private school or on a military base is likely to be dominated by a certain age group and perhaps be subject to strictures that will remove a lot of the layers I will discuss).

Ancient Orders

To begin with, there is the core of liturgical hierarchy, the ancient ecclesiastical orders, which are still followed in communities that use the traditional Roman Rite, and which are the subject of my new book Ministers of Christ: Recovering the Roles of Clergy and Laity in an Age of Confusion.[1] They are, in order of ascending dignity and responsibility:

  1. Porter
  2. Exorcist
  3. Acolyte
  4. Lector


  1. Subdeacon
  2. Deacon
  3. Priest

The first four are called “minor orders.” These, together with the subdeacon, are (as Bishop Athanasius Schneider explains so well) a sort of “fanning out” or “distribution” of the many roles of the deacon in the liturgy. The early Church expressed the fullness of the servanthood or diakonia of Christ by multiplying ministries of service, ranging from guarding, opening, and closing doors and ringing bells, to praying for the possessed and their liberators, to handling the cruets and other liturgical objects during Mass, to chanting the lessons from the prophets and apostles, to handling the sacred vessels, assisting immediately at the altar, and joining the priest in reciting the Ordinary of the Mass. These many diaconal offices were spread out in order to ease the burden on the deacon, enrich the splendor of the rites with an earthly vision of the heavenly hierarchies, and more fully express the riches of the eternal high priesthood of Christ.

While theoretically one could stop at any of these steps—each involves discrete responsibilities and could keep a man plenty busy in a liturgically demanding environment such as a cathedral, a monastery, an imperial chapel, or a major urban parish—there is also an important way in which the lower steps are like spiritual preparations and pedagogical apprenticeships for the higher levels. It is a clear sign of the Church’s maternal wisdom to have asked her sons aspiring to the priesthood to pass through each level and, at least in the best circumstances, to have exercised for some time the tasks proper to it. “He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in that which is greater” (Luke 16:10).

The porter feels he is contributing to divine worship in a new way by taking charge of opening and closing the church and by ringing the bells that summon the faithful or indicate the moment of consecration. The acolyte knows that he has been blessed and empowered by the Church to handle the water and wine for the chalice. The ordinations below the diaconate are not play-acting: they are real, objective, grace-conferring ceremonies that give the recipient a new relationship to the liturgy in the eyes of God and of the Church. He has certain rights and duties now. It is all part of the gradual initiation of the candidate into the higher offices and mysteries. As with pre-Lent or Septuagesimatide in the old calendar, the traditional approach ascends the mountain of the Lord by graceful switchbacks.

The Witness of the Greatest Council

Lest anyone be tempted to think this hierarchy is a lot of imaginative medieval frou-frou, we should sit up and pay attention to the authoritative teaching of the Council of Trent in its Twenty-Third Session:

Since the ministry of so holy a priesthood is something divine, that it might be exercised in a more worthy manner and with greater veneration, it was consistent that in the most well-ordered arrangement of the Church there should be several distinct orders of ministers, who by virtue of their office should minister to the priesthood, so distributed that those already having the clerical tonsure should ascend through the minor to the major orders. For the Sacred Scriptures mention unmistakably not only the priests but also the deacons, and teach in the most definite words what is especially to be observed in their ordination; and from the very beginning of the Church the names of the following orders and the duties proper to each one are known to have been in use, namely, those of the sub-deacon, acolyte, exorcist, rector and porter, though these were not of equal rank; for the sub-diaconate is classed among the major orders by the Fathers and holy councils, in which we also read very often of other inferior orders.[2]

The spiritual and ecclesiastical pedagogy outlined above is beautifully conveyed in a passage from the same Council:

The minor orders shall be conferred on those who understand at least the Latin language, observing the prescribed interstices [intervals of time]… so that they may be taught more accurately how great is the burden of this vocation and may in accordance with the direction of the bishop exercise themselves in each office, and this in the church to which they will be assigned (unless they happen to be absent causa studiorum [by reason of studies]); and thus they shall ascend step by step, that with increasing age they may grow in worthiness of life and in learning, which especially the example of their good conduct, their assiduous service in the Church, their greater reverence toward priests and the superior orders, and a more frequent Communion than heretofore of the body of Christ will prove. And since from here there is entrance to the higher orders and to the most sacred mysteries, no one shall be admitted to them whom the promise of knowledge does not show to be worthy of the major orders.[3]

Canon 2 of the same session is directed, as usual, against the Protestant reformers, who, like Paul VI later on, believed that “simpler is more authentic”:

If anyone says that besides the priesthood there are not in the Catholic Church other orders, both major and minor, by which, as by certain steps, advance is made to the priesthood, let him be anathema.

For its part, Canon 6 is a carefully worded sanctioning of the then-existing framework:

If anyone says that in the Catholic Church there is not instituted a hierarchy by divine ordinance, which consists of bishops, priests, and ministers, let him be anathema.

Note the Council says “ministers” rather than deacons, precisely to be sure to encompass all of the orders subsequent to the diaconate. Paul VI should have pondered these teachings and anathemas from Trent before recklessly issuing Ministeria Quaedam, wherein he trespassed against the divine ordinance as interpreted and practiced by the Church for at least seventeen centuries.

Young Men in the Sanctuary

Now I turn to a second sphere—less formal, more circumstantial, but still important in the life of the local church. In the sanctuary of a traditional parish or chapel, one will see a hierarchy analogous to the preceding one in the “guild” of the altar servers. It usually looks something like the following, based on the developing capacities of the boys involved and their level of training and competence:

  1. Vested boys who simply watch “in choir”
  2. Torchbearers
  3. Servers who assist more directly in the sanctuary during High or Solemn Mass
  4. Those who know how to serve Low Mass by themselves
  5. Thurifer
  6. M.C.

Here, too, as in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, we find an increasing proximity of the server to the altar of sacrifice, culminating in the M.C. who, in addition to having mastered the roles ancillary to his, must also know the content of the missal well enough to set ribbons and point out texts, and who even assists at the altar during the Roman Canon at a Solemn Mass.

In truth, a flourishing Catholic Church would follow the counsels of the Council of Trent by ordaining men to minor orders (and some to the subdiaconate) within each parish or chapel so that, normally or much of the time or at least on major occasions, the entire liturgy could be served by ordained ministers. Trent thought that this was so important, so much to be desired, that it said—rather daringly for its time—that, in the restoration of the full hierarchy, married men should be ordained to the lower ministries:

That the functions of holy orders from the deacon to the porter, which have been laudably received in the Church from the times of the Apostles, and which have been for some time discontinued in many localities, may again be restored to use in accordance with the canons, and may not be derided by the heretics as useless, the holy council, burning with the desire to restore the ancient usage, decrees that in the future such functions shall not be exercised except by those constituted in these orders, and it exhorts in the Lord each and all prelates of the churches and commands them that they make it their care to restore these functions, so far as it can be conveniently done, in cathedral, collegiate, and parochial churches of their diocese, if the number of people and the revenues of the church are able to bear it. To those exercising these functions they shall assign salaries from a part of the revenues of some simple benefices or of the church treasury if the revenues are adequate, or from the revenues of both, and of these salaries they may, if they prove negligent, be deprived in whole or in part by the judgment of the bishop. In case there should not be at hand unmarried clerics to exercise the functions of the four minor orders, their place may be supplied by married clerics of approved life, provided they have not married a second time, are competent to discharge the duties, and wear the tonsure and the clerical garb in church.[4]

It will indeed be a glorious day when ordained minor ministers and subdeacons are permanently on hand, performing their various tasks at the parish level. Meanwhile, however, we appreciate the many spiritual, vocational, and personal benefits that accrue to the boys who regularly serve in our sanctuaries. An organized altar boy program develops new levels of maturity and self-discipline and strongly enhances the boys’ appreciation of the sacred liturgy itself. In short: the typical TLM sanctuary presents its own ecclesiastical hierarchy in miniature.

The People in the Pews

Lastly, out in the nave of the Church, we see how children, who are never lacking in traditional communities, rise through the ranks of engagement with the liturgy. In his autobiography Milestones, Joseph Ratzinger memorably described his delight as a child at receiving, every few years, a new Schott missal that was ever closer to the grown-up’s missal his parents used. He found it to be a gradual and mounting initiation into the superabundant content of the ceremonies taking place before him, which are inexhaustible in their meaning and have a wondrous power to speak to us at any level at which we approach them.

The following list is obviously not exhaustive; it’s just the sort of thing one notices watching families:

  1. The child sitting on his parent’s lap who simply watches and listens, who notices the sound of a bell, ministers moving around, or music sung or played.
  2. The child with a first picture-book of the Mass, summing up its major parts and themes.
  3. The child who gets a simple missal with some of the main prayers or readings of the Mass, perhaps abbreviated or written in an easier style.
  4. The older child who can follow the Ordinary of the Mass and the Propers of the day, and/or who helps his younger siblings during Mass or accompanies them to side altars after Mass for devotions.
  5. The adolescent who has graduated to a full-scale missal—a Baronius, Angelus, Lasance, or St. Andrew’s.

Here, too, we find an ascent taking place: the ascent of the mountain of liturgical literacy, responding to the language of symbols and appreciating the multisensory presentation of the Faith. It’s a process that takes years, but it does happen rather naturally by long and regular exposure and thanks to the immense wide open spaces of the old liturgy that allow for so much “sacred daydreaming.” The old liturgy is rather like a labyrinth filled with artwork in which one can easily get lost, yet there’s nothing to be afraid of, since every turn brings one to something worth pondering. The blessed lack of didacticism and chop-chop utilitarianism allows the process of growth to be differently paced or shaped for different kinds of personalities.

Rejoicing in the Richness of Our Worship

The foregoing “hierarchies” are predicated on a few basic truths.

The liturgy is—certainly ought to be—such a great work, the supreme work of the Church, that it will require for its full execution a panoply of personnel, dedicated either permanently or temporarily to this purpose. The magnitude of the priestly action of Christ gives rise to many orders and offices that better express to us and make it possible for us to fulfill what in Him is simple and unified. Similarly, those who participate in this great work, whether from inside the sanctuary as substitutes for the ordained, or from outside the sanctuary as worshiping members of the Body, are able to do so at many levels that grow and continue to grow over time because of its inexhaustible richness of content.

In contrast, the modern rite of Paul VI tends to privilege a one-size-fits-all, what-you-see-is-what-you-get style of interaction, which quickly leads to the contrary problems of activism (laity busying themselves with clerical duties—memo to the Vatican) and boredom/disengagement, because there is so little to work for, discover, ponder, and (dare I say it?) be seduced or fascinated by.

By its very “difficultness” and density, the traditional liturgy ends up being a powerful incentive of lifelong apprenticeship and discipleship. Just as the words of Jesus in the Gospel are luminous but also mysterious, challenging, paradoxical, at times puzzling or nearly opaque, so too is the great liturgy that arises from His high priestly intercession. Any liturgy that tried to be simple and straightforward, totally accessible, easily engaged in (thanks to the vernacular, for example), would by this very fact cease to be an accurate vehicle for the teaching and mysteries of the Lord by ceasing to be an adequate representation of Him, and would, moreover, flatten and reduce the available modes of participation and the symbolic or practical need for any hierarchy, be it ecclesiastical, sanctuarial, or congregational.

Photo: Allison Girone. Used with permission. 

[1] Although certain Vatican officials believe that these orders have been abolished or will be abolished in time to come, traditionalists maintain on theological grounds that they cannot be abolished and that the only proper reaction to such misguided and malicious attempts against the constant venerable tradition of the Church is to continue to confer and receive the orders—indeed, to do so all the more.

[2] Decree on the Sacrament of Orders.

[3] Session 23, Decree Concerning Reform, chapter 11.

[4] Session 23, Decree Concerning Reform, chapter 17.

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