The Tonsure

the clerical haircut

Tonsure - the clerical haircutTonsure, from the Latin tonsura, denotes the cutting of the hair as well as the shaven crown worn by clerics as a distinctive mark of their state. 

The origin of the tonsure must probably be sought in the custom prevailing among the Romans of shaving the head of a slave. Confessors of the faith were in some cases treated in the same manner out of contempt and mockery. To proclaim themselves slaves of Christ monks at a very early date began to shave their heads. Toward the beginning of the sixth century clerics gradually adopted the custom of the monks, however in a modified form, not shaving the whole head, but leaving a narrow crown of hair. In this form the tonsure is still worn by members of some religious orders. Generally, however, it was greatly reduced in size until it now resembles a half-dollar coin. In some countries, where Catholics form a minority among a non-Catholic population, as in the United States, the tonsure is not worn. 

In the beginning no special rite was employed for the bestowal of the first tonsure. When a man decided to devote himself to the service of God and was assigned to the personnel of a certain church, he began to wear the tonsure. In the course of time suitable ceremonies were developed for the adoption into the clerical state. For a long time these ceremonies formed part of the rite, by which the first minor order was conferred, and it was probably only in the eighth century that the bestowal of the first tonsure became a separate rite. The wearing of the tonsure was made obligatory for all clerics during the Middle Ages. 

Tonsure is not an order, since no office and no spiritual power is conferred by it. It is a sacred rite, by which a layman is received into the clerical state, and the prerequisite for the reception of orders. 

The word cleric is derived from the Greek kleros, which means portion or inheritance. The choice of the term is suggested by the words of God addressed to the tribe of Levi, by which the clerics were typified: "You shall possess nothing in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and inheritance in the midst of the children of Israel" (Numb 18, 20). St. Jerome, commenting on the passage, thus interprets the word cleric: "They are called clerics, because they are the portion of the Lord and because the Lord is their portion." The Lord has chosen the clerics for His special service, and they have freely accepted the choice. In order to give themselves with wholehearted and undivided attention to the service of God, they renounce the pursuit of secular vocations. However, they are not left without the means of living in conformity with their state, for "they that serve the altar partake with the altar. So also the Lord ordained that they who preach the gospel should live by the gospel" (1 Cor. 9,13 f). As in the Old Testament the Levites were supported by the rest of the people by the payment of tithes, first fruits, and a definite share of the sacrifices, so priests are supported by the faithful, the chosen people of the New Testament. 

The word clergy, strictly speaking, designates all persons who have received the tonsure, even though they are not priests; however, popular usage commonly restricts its meaning to priests only. 

Tonsure may be conferred on any day and at any hour of the day. If tonsure is conferred during Mass, this is done: 
Saturdays of Ember weeks and Holy Saturday: after the Kyrie. 
Saturday before Passion Sunday: after the Introit. 
On other days, if the Mass has Gloria: after the Kyrie; if the Mass has no Gloria: after the Introit. 

The candidates present themselves for ordination dressed in a cassock. On their left arm they carry a surplice and in their right hand a burning candle. 

The Rite

The Call. The bishop, with his mitre on, sits on the faldstool before the middle of the altar. The archdeacon bids the candidates come forward; the notary reads their names:  Each one answers adsum, i.e., present, goes before the altar and kneels, holding the burning candle in his right hand. The bishop rises and prays: 


The Cutting of the Hair. Here the choir begins and continues the following antiphon and psalm (Ps. 15, 1-5): 


Psalm  The whole antiphon is repeated:  While the psalm is being sung, the candidates are tonsured. The bishop cuts some hair from the head of each, in five places, so as to form a cross: in front and in the back, above the right and the left ear, and from the crown of the head. At the same time the bishop pronounces the following words, which the candidate repeats after him:  Prayer. Having tonsured all, the bishop, miter off, rises and facing the candidates prays:  The choir now sings the following antiphon and Psalm 23. As soon as thy have begun, the bishop, miter on, seats himself. 


Psalm  Here the whole antiphon is repeated.  The bishop, miter off, rises, turns to the altar and says:  Turning toward the tonsured he prays:  The Investiture with the Surplice. The bishop now seats himself and, miter on, invests the candidates with the surplice, saying to each:  The bishop rises, with his miter off, and prays:  Admonition. The bishop seats himself and, miter on, addresses the candidates as follows: