Minor orders

Minor orders are ranks of church ministry lower than major orders.[1]

In the Catholic Church, the predominating Latin Church traditionally distinguished between the major holy orders of priest (including both bishop and simple priest), deacon and subdeacon, and the four minor orders, that of acolyte, exorcist, lector and porter in descending sequence.[2][3]

In 1972, the minor orders were renamed "ministries", with those of lector and acolyte being kept throughout the Latin Church.[4] The rites by which all four minor orders were conferred, but not the actual conferral of the order, are still employed for members of some Roman Catholic religious institutes and societies of apostolic life authorized to observe the 1962 form of the Roman Rite.

Some traditional Catholics continue to use minor orders, as do Old Roman Catholics and the Liberal Catholic Church.

In the Orthodox Church, the three minor orders in use are those of subdeacon, reader and chanter.[2]

Roman Catholicism

From the beginning of the 3rd century, there is evidence in Western Christianity of the existence of what became the four minor orders (acolytes, exorcists, doorkeepers, and readers), as well as of cantors and fossores (tomb diggers). The evidence for readers is probably the earliest. In the West, unlike the East, where imposition of hands was used, the rite of ordination was by the handing over to them of objects seen as instruments of the office.[5]

The Council of Sardica (343) mentions the lectorate alone as obligatory before ordination to the diaconate. The obligation to receive all four minor orders appears to date only from a time when they ceased to indicate exercise of an actual function. Even in the early years of the 20th century, no minimum age, other than that of the "age of reason", was laid down for receiving minor orders.[1] However, the 1917 Code of Canon Law laid down that nobody was to be given clerical tonsure, which had to be received before minor orders, before beginning the regular course of theological studies.[6] Before the entry into force of that Code, it was an almost universal custom to confer all four minor orders at one time, since the bishop was authorized to dispense from the rule that each order had to be exercised for some time before reception of the next highest order.[1] Today, as indicated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, anyone who is to be ordained to the diaconate must already have received the ministries of lector and acolyte and exercised them for a suitable period, with an interval of at least six months between becoming an acolyte and becoming a deacon.[7]

The 1917 Code of Canon Law also restricted conferral of tonsure and any order below that of the presbyterate to those who intended to become priests and who were judged likely to be worthy priests.[8] Previously, there were lay cardinals and others, including the famous Franz Liszt, who received minor orders alone. They could even marry and remain, clerics, the status of belonging to the clergy being at that time conferred through clerical tonsure, provided that they married only once and that to a virgin; but by the early 20th century a cleric who married was considered to have forfeited his clerical status.[1] Today, a man who receives what were previously called minor orders is not yet a cleric, since today one becomes a cleric only upon ordination to the diaconate,[9] a rule that applies even to members of institutes authorized to observe the 1962 form of the Roman Rite,[10] such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and others under the care of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, regarding, however, only the incardination of members within the institute or society.

In the early 20th century, Auguste Boudinhon said that, on the grounds that minor orders did not originate with Jesus or the apostles, the view that minor orders and the subdiaconate were sacramental, a view held by several medieval theologians, was no longer held.[1] The slightly earlier G. van Noort said that the view of their sacramentality, which was held by most scholastic theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, was then held only by a few, among whom he mentioned Louis Billot (1846–1931) and Adolphe Tanquerey (1854–1932).[11] In the 1950s, Antonio Piolanti recognized as orders only episcopacy, priesthood (presbyterate) and diaconate,[12] the three whose transmission is reserved to bishops.[13] In speaking of the hierarchical structure of the Church, the Second Vatican Council mentioned only these three orders, not minor orders or subdiaconate.[14]

By Pope Paul VI's motu proprio Ministeria quaedam of 15 August 1972, the term "minor orders" has been replaced by that of "ministries".[15] Two of what were called minor orders, those of reader and acolyte, are kept throughout the Latin Church, and national episcopal conferences are free to use the term "subdeacon" in place of that of "acolyte".[16] The motu proprio specified the functions of each of these two ministries,[17] A prescribed interval, as decided by the Holy See and the national episcopal conference, is to be observed between receiving them.[18] Candidates for diaconate and for the priesthood must receive both ministries and exercise them for some time before receiving holy orders.[19]

Conferral of the minor orders or ministries is by the ordinary: either a diocesan bishop or someone who is equivalent in law to a diocesan bishop or, in the case of clerical religious institutes and societies of apostolic life, a major superior.[20] The two ministries that are in use throughout the Latin Church could be conferred even on men[21] who are not candidates for holy orders.[22]

Eastern Christianity

Eastern Christianity traditionally views the subdeacon as a minor order,[23] unlike the practice of the West which considered it a major order. The other common minor order is reader (lector). The minor order of porter is mentioned historically in some service-books, but no longer is given; all of the rights and responsibilities of each minor order are viewed as contained in the subdiaconate.[1]

The 22 sui iuris Eastern Churches that are in union with Rome have their traditional minor orders, governed by their own particular law.[24] In all Eastern Catholic Churches, subdeacons are minor clerics, since admission to major orders is by ordination as deacon.[25] The Byzantine tradition allows for several orders of minor clerics. The sui iuris Byzantine Catholic Metropolitan Church of Pittsburgh, also called the Byzantine-Ruthenian Church, has the minor orders of candle bearer, cantor, lector and subdeacon, and in English uses the term "ordination" for their cheirothesis.[26] The minor orders of candle bearer and cantor are given before tonsure during ordination to the lectorate.[27]

Eastern Orthodox Churches routinely confer the minor orders of reader and subdeacon, and some jurisdictions also ordain cantors. Ordination to minor orders is done by a bishop at the Hours before the Divine liturgy, but always outside the context of actual Divine Liturgy.[28] The order of taper-bearer is now used as part of ordination as a lector. The orders of doorkeepers, exorcists, and acolytes are no longer in common use.[29]


  1. Auguste Boudinhon, "Minor Orders" in Catholic Encyclopedia 1911
  2. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
  3. Catechism of the Council of Trent (Dublin 1829), p. 310
  4. Ministeria quaedam, II: "The orders hitherto called minor are henceforth to be spoken of as 'ministries'."
  5. A. Villien, H. W. Edwards, History and Liturgy of the Sacraments, pp. 237ff.
  6. Canon 976 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law
  7. Code of Canon Law, canon 1035
  8. Canon 973 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law
  9. Code of Canon Law, canon 266
  10. Instruction on the Application of the Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum, 30
  11. G. van Noort (revised by J. P. Verhaar), Tractatus de sacramentis (Paul Brand, Bussum, Netherlands 1930), vol. II, pp. 145–146
  12. Antonius Piolanti, De Sacramentis (fifth edition, Marietti 1955), pp. 461–463
  13. Piolanti 1955, pp. 463–468
  14. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium
  15. Ministeria quaedam, II
  16. Ministeria quaedam, IV
  17. Ministeria quaedam, IV–VI
  18. Ministeria quaedam, X
  19. Ministeria quaedam, XI
  20. Ministeria quaedam, IX
  21. Ministeria quaedam, VII
  22. Ministeria quaedam, III
  23. Faulk, Edward. 101 Questions & Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches. New York: Paulist Press, 2007, p. 51
  24. CCEO, Title X, Canon 327, 1992. Retrieved 2008-11-11.
  25. CCEO, Title 12, Canon 560 and Canon 565, 1992. Retrieved 2008-11-11.
  26. Particular Law for the Byzantine-Ruthenian Church in the USA (29 June 1999). Retrieved 2008-11-11.
  27. Eparchial Newsletter (October–November 1998) eparchy-of-van-nuys.org Accessed 2007-11-28
  28. The Sacramental Life of the Orthodox Church, Calivas (2005) Minor orders Archived 2005-02-05 at the Wayback Machine
  29. Orthodox Wiki, Minor Orders, N.D. Retrieved 2008-11-11.

Further reading

Orthodox Church

  • Ramsey, John (Patrick) (2016), The Minor Clergy of the Orthodox Church. Their role and life according to the canons., CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, ISBN 978-1523214013
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