The Order of Subdeacon

The Subdiaconate -- the 1st of the Major Orders

The subdiaconate is the order which is under, or next to, the diaconate. As with the growth of the Church the work of deacons increased, and also divine services were celebrated with greater solemnity, holy Church introduced this order and assigned to its members some of the functions that before had been taken care of by deacons. This must have been done before the middle of the third century. 

Although the subdiaconate is not a sacrament, it has been counted a major order since the beginning of the thirteenth century at the latest. The reason for giving it such a high rank lies in the functions and obligations attached to the order. 

The subdiaconate is the decisive step in the life of the cleric. Whereas the minorite may return to secular pursuits, if he chooses to do so, the subdeacon assumes the obligation of observing perfect chastity in the unmarried state and of reciting the Divine Office, both for life. 

It is not certain when celibacy became a law for the subdeacon, but it must have been rather early, since St. Gregory mentions it about the year 600. 

The recitation of the Divine Office grew out of the custom, found already in the Old Testament, of reciting prayers at stated hours, i.e., the third, sixth, and ninth hour. It was but natural that the monks from the very beginning of the monastic life should adopt this custom. In the course of time the prayers were given a more definite form, and the number of hours was increased to seven to bring them in conformity with the psalmist's words: "Seven times a day I have given praise to Thee." (Ps. 118, 164). Psalms made up the principal part of the Office. The obligation for secular clerics to recite the Divine Office publicly and in common is met first in the fifth century. For a long time the obligation was incumbent only on those clerics who held some benefice. It was only toward the end of the twelfth century that all members of the major orders were obliged to the private recitation of the Office. 

According to the present discipline of the Church the subdeacon assists at solemn liturgical functions and sings the Epistle during a solemn High Mass. He also washes the corporals, palls, and purificators, that have been used for the celebration of holy Mass. If no subdeacons are available, deacons or priests attend to these duties. 


The features which appear in the ordination of subdeacons are: 
  1. The statement of the title under which the candidate is ordained.
  2. The prostration and the Litany of the Saints.
  3. The investiture with the insignia of the office.
Of these features, only the title calls for a brief explanation. 

By title, we understand a certain guarantee or security insuring decent support to the cleric. Originally title designated the church to which a cleric was attached, the service of which entitled him to support. Holy Church wishes that clerics should be free from material cares, so as to be able to devote themselves wholly to priestly work. The customary titles in our days are, for secular priests: the title of benefice, of service of the diocese, of the missions; in the United States it is the title of the service of the Church. Religious priests are ordained to the title of poverty, or the title of the common table. 

The subdiaconate is conferred: 
Saturdays of Ember weeks: after the fifth lesson. 
On all other days: immediately before the epistle. 

The candidates present themselves for ordination dressed in alb, cincture, the amice loosely hanging about the neck. On their left arm they carry the tunic and maniple, and in their right hand a burning candle. 


The Rite 

The Call. The bishop, with his miter on, sits on the faldstool before the middle of the altar. The archdeacon bids the candidates come forward; the notary reads their names. There is added in this ordination to each name the title under which the candidate is to be ordained. 

Each one answers: adsum, goes before the altar and stands, holding the burning candle in his right hand. 

First Instruction. When all are assembles in the sanctuary, the bishop addresses them as follows. This instruction is left out if all the ordinands are religious, since religious have already taken the decisive step for life in their religious profession. In this case the candles are laid aside and the Litany of the Saints follows immediately. 

The ordinands advance one step. If there are also candidates for the diaconate and priesthood present, they are called now and come to the altar; if not, there follows the prostration and the Litany of the Saints

The litany finished, all rise. The bishop, with his miter on, takes his seat on the faldstool before the middle of the altar; if candidates for deaconship or the priesthood are present, the archdeacon announces in a loud voice: 

If there are no such ordinands, the bishop proceeds immediately to the ordination of the subdeacons. 

Second Instruction. As the ordinands kneel before him, the bishop addresses them as follows: 

The Bestowal of the Office. The bishop now presents to the ordinands and empty chalice with a paten. Each one touches both in such a way as to put the thumb against the cup of the chalice and the index finger upon the paten. At the same time the bishop says:  The archdeacon presents to each candidate cruets filled with wine and water, also a basin and a towel; all of which the candidates touch in like manner. 

Prayer for the Ordained. Then the bishop, with miter on, rises and, facing the people, prays: 

The bishop, with miter off, turns to the altar and says:  Again the bishop turns to the ordained kneeling before him and prays:  Investiture with the Insignia of the Office. The bishop sits, with his miter on, and invests the candidates with the amice which they wear around the neck, pulling it over their heads and saying:  Then the bishop puts the maniple on the left arm of each candidate, saying:  Then the bishop invests them with the tunic, the official garb of a subdeacon, saying:  Finally, the bishop presents to the candidates the book of epistles, which they touch with the right hand, the bishop saying at the same time:  The archdeacon now directs the ordained to return to their places. The bishop continues the Mass, and while he reads the Epistle, one of the newly ordained subdeacons reads it aloud with him.