By: Protodeacon David Kennedy
Following Vatican II, the Latin rite of the Catholic Church suppressed the minor orders and reconstituted two of them under the designation of ministries, viz. those of reader and acolyte (Ministeria quaedam, 15 August 1972: AAS 64 (1972). However, this these minor orders were not suppressed in the Eastern Catholic Churches. It is the intention of the Catholic Church, that each of the Eastern Catholic Church sui iuris maintains its own traditions. (Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches can.327). Those who receive a cheirothesia to a minor order are governed by the particular law of their own Church sui iuris. Cheirothesia is the term used in the Byzantine rite to designate an ordination to the ranks of taper-bearer, reader/cantor, or subdeacon. It is from the Greek for ‘imposition of hands’. Cheirotonia, meaning voting by raising the hand is used to refer to ordinations to the diaconate, presbyterate, and episcopate. Whoever has received a minor order is enrolled in the ecclesiastical hierarchy and through such an ordination becomes a cleric either in an eparchy or a monastery. It is a life-long commitment directed to the good of the Church in order to fulfill a function necessary for the Church’s life. The functions fulfilled by these orders are necessary for the full life of the particular Church.
The Eastern Catholic Church are exhorted to maintain the minor orders and “to restore them to greater significance and vitality” (Instruction for Applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, §74, 6 January, 1996: Congregation for the Eastern Churches). The Eastern Catholic Churches are not to introduce a different usage in these matters than what is found among the Orthodox. (Instruction…,§74.) These orders along with the diaconate “are not mere formalities in preparation for presbyteral ordination. They provide a specific service in the Church… Thus, the ministers necessary for a dignified and fitting celebration of the liturgy are obtained, avoiding the practice, different also in this case from the Latin Church in which it is no longer in use, of having ministers of a higher range perform the liturgical functions that should be reserved to those of lower range (the most frequent case is that of presbyters functioning as deacons), or of permanently appointing to the laity liturgical tasks expected of a minister: practices to be eliminated.”(Instruction…,§75.) It should be noted that many of those clergy who speak of themselves as “traditional” Roman Catholics when celebrating according to the extraordinary form of the Roman rite (Missale Romanum, 1962) have presbyters function as deacons and subdeacons. The practice seems to contradict both Roman and Eastern Catholic legislation along with presenting a confusion in regards to the various orders in the Church. Apparently, some people in the Catholic Church lack the will to put an end to a practiced that is to be eliminated. We find that the reason for the minor orders is rooted in liturgical practice. Quite clearly these minor orders fulfill very necessary functions. These functions are so important to “a dignified and fitting celebration of the liturgy” that they cannot be left to chance. Those who are to fulfill the offices of reader/cantor or subdeacon are to be permanently committed to the fulfillment of their liturgical duties. They are to be properly formed, trained and educated so that what they do in the liturgy and outside of it will lead to the building up of the Body of Christ to whom they have committed their service.
It is difficult to imagine a liturgical service in the Byzantine rite without a well-trained cantor. I am not speaking of someone who can chant the ordinary and propers of the Divine Liturgy alone. Rather the well-trained cantor can function at all of the Church’s services and can lead the assembly into ‘a full, active and conscience participation in the liturgy’. This type of training even for those who are musically adept will often take years. It seems only fitting that such cantors be ordained, for by ordination the Church clearly says that this person is set apart to fulfill a particular and necessary liturgical function. These remarks are also applicable to the function of the subdeacon whose office is usually fulfilled by children who act as altar servers. While, we should be grateful for the service of these children at the altar, the duties of the subdeacon really does require the attention, dedication and commitment of an adult. A subdeacon that is properly formed, trained and educated can offer a valuable service to the deacon in his liturgical and extra-liturgical functions, as well as to the priest and bishop. Subdeacons ought to be trained in the order or paradigm of the services. Like deacons, they must be able to anticipate what will come next in the service so that all things can be done in a dignified and fitting manner. When the minor orders of reader/cantor and subdeacon are executed as they should be, the bishop or priest can lead the assembly in prayer without distraction, and in a fuller manner can the whole assembly enter in the Mysteries of Christ.
While it is necessary that those who function in the order of deacon can sing the synaptes or etkenias on pitch, and the Gospel according to the tradition of their own Church, it is not necessary that they be trained cantors. However, a candidate for the diaconate or the presbyterate needs to know and be able to demonstrate his knowledge of the liturgical books and the order of services before ordination. Candidates also need to know and be able to demonstrate their knowledge of the rubrics not only for the order that they aspire to but also for all the orders, including the role of the assembly. This knowledge should be firmly grounded in liturgical theology in order that the rubrics do not acquire a ‘life of their own’. It seems the purpose of requiring all candidates for the diaconate to receive minor orders is to have an appreciation of how the different orders interrelate to one another, (the minor orders especially the subdiaconate are very closely connected to the diaconate), to acquire an understanding of the importance of the different orders for the well being of the Church, and to acquire and to practice the minor orders in order to train for the diaconal function. Minor orders will mean very little except to fulfill a legal requirement if the candidate is not given ample formation, training and education before the cheirothesia to the orders of reader/cantor and subdeacon. Following ordination, one should actually fulfill the duties in a full and active manner.