QUAERITUR: substituting for a subdeacon

From a seminarian reader, rewritten for anonymity:

I was told that having a layman (including a seminarian/acolyte) serve as a sub-deacon constitutes an abuse. Sed contra, the FSSP regularly has seminarian sub-deacons. Do you know of any official documents which address this question?

The points of the argument you need to know are these.  First, it was in the past always possible for a cleric in minor orders or a man who was at least tonsured to substitute for a subdeacon.  In that case the rubrics changed a bit, for there were things he couldn’t do.

Also, when Pope Paul VI abolished the minor orders with Ministeria quaedam, he said that the role of the subdeacon was assumed by the new version of lector and acolyte.  He also said that the newer acolyte could be called "subdeacon".  The idea being that the new version of the acolyte was to aid the deacon.  That sounds like a sub-deacon to me.

In the past, even though the rubrics assumed that those serving in all roles in the sanctuary were tonsured clerics, the non-tonsured, non-cleric substituted for altar servers in the natural course of things.  So it is today.  So it is that non-acolytes and non-lectors substitute for those installed ministries now. 

It seems to me that what could be done in the past is reasonable to do now. 

Moreover, the Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei" once responded to a question posed by the Australian Ecclesia Dei Society in the early nineties about this very issued.  The PCED said then that, yes, an officially installed acolyte could take the role of the subdeacon in a Solemn Mass if a cleric wasn’t there to take the role.  I am sure that the PCED would reiterate that now were a dubium offered at that office.  He would have to be an installed acolyte.  He would not wear a maniple.  He would not wipe the chalice after the ablusions, etc.  The reference for this PCED letter is 7 June 1993, Prot. 24/92 to the Australian Ecclesia Dei Society.

An officially installed acolyte can substitute for the subdeacon… especially because there really aren’t any true subdeacons around anymore.  The clerical state begins with diaconate now, no matter what is done in the traditional groups.

Based on the above, I think it is wrong to say that a non-cleric substituting for an absent subdeacon in a solemn TLM is an "abuse".  It is not the ideal, but it wasn’t an abuse in the past.  It is not an abuse now.  Someone who says it is an abuse should produce his own documentation saying that it is. 

In the meantime, the PCED had and has competence in this matter.

In a seminary setting, however, there ought to be quite a few available installed acolytes and, better yet, ordained deacons.  Priests and deacons can take those roles.  Why not have a deacon take that role if this is a problem for the faculty?  Get some work out the deacons for a change!  o{];¬)

For notes and documentation, you need to 1983 Code, Ministeria quaedam, and you can get help from the new (and older) edition of Fortescue-O’Connell edited by Reid.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. momoften says:

    What are the duties of installed Acolytes? What are the requirements to become one?

  2. j says:

    Does having a non-cleric Subdeacon constitute an abuse; absolutely not. BUT!!!!! grave abuses occur when non-clerics are Subdeacon and blindly follow old instructional books – it is VERY important to include that they may NOT do all a Priest/Subdeacon may do.

  3. dominic1962 says:

    To be an installed acolyte, you usually must be a seminarian. Only the Diocese of Lincoln (and Baker, OR possibly) allow laymen who are not on the track for ordination to be installed as lectors and acolytes. [That isn’t entirely the case these days.]

    Basic duties are helping the priests and deacons in the liturgy. One also becomes a sort of “ordinary extraordinary” minister of Holy Communion and they can purify the vessels.

  4. Eric says:

    How ’bout a blending of the old and new. Could a permanent deacon do it? [A deacon is a deacon is a deacon. Of course.]

  5. Romulus says:

    Eric: yes.

  6. Matthias says:

    “An officially installed acolyte can substitute for the subdeacon… especially because there really aren’t any true subdeacons around anymore. The clerical state begins with diaconate now, no matter what is done in the traditional groups.”

    Well there are no Latin Sub-deacons anymore. Eastern Churches still maintain a clerical subdiaconate and are referred to as minor clerics within our canon law.

  7. Clint Brand says:

    When the Holy See decreed that EMHC’s in the US were no longer to purify the sacred vessels after Communion, Cardinal DiNardo in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston started a new program for training installed acolytes precisely so that they could assist in the purification of vessels at large parishes. When I made inquiries at the Worship Office about the possibility of such installed acolytes serving in place of a subdeacon at Solemn Mass (for an Anglican Use parish), my messages were never answered. The implication though is pretty clear: if you are not a seminarian who will be instituted as an acolyte in the matter of course, the ONLY reason to have installed acolytes is so that they can help with the ablutions when you have a thousand lay ministers distributing Communion. It would be good to get a clear judgment from the Holy See that installed acolytes can be trained and instituted precisely to serve in place of a subdeacon for Solemn Mass (in the EF and perhaps even in the OF), with some provisos and in the absence of suitable clerics.

  8. peter82517 says:

    Dominic1962: In the entire world?

  9. Rob Cartusciello says:

    Having just read Fortescue & Reid on this, an officially installed acolyte can serve as subdeacon and wear the tunicle. He may not, however, wear the maniple or biretta.

  10. Caeremoniarius says:

    Here’s a new book that makes express mention of what a substitute-Subdeacon may (and must not) do (see p. 118):


  11. Papabile says:


    what about a “straw subdeacon”? And, by that, I mean using a well-trained layman as a “straw subdeacon”? [That is what we are talking about. I just avoided the term.]

    This used to be very common prior to the Council, and I know of several parishes that used the Extraordinary Form ever since Quattuor Abhinc Annos in 1984 that have had recourse to one.

    Additionally, I know more than one FSSP Parish that uses one. [He really should be an acolyte.]

  12. Rob Cartusciello says:

    Rather than make a bare assertion, let me quote:

    Fortescue, Chp. XI, Sec. 10

    For a reasonable cause the place of the subdeacon may be taken by a cleric in minor orders, or by one who is at least tonsured.* In this case he does not wear the maniple; he may not wipe the chalice note pour water into it at the offertory, but leaves this to the deacon; after he has brought the chalice to the altar at the offertory he does not touch it, nor does he cover or uncover it. He does not clean the chalice or any ciboria after the ablutions; this is done by the celebrant. The cleric does, however, arrange the chalice, veil it and carry it back to the credence. Otherwise he fulfills all the office of a subdeacon.

    * S.R.C. 4181, The Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei has confirmed that the practice of an instituted acolyte acting as subdeacon may be tolerated (7 June 1993, Prot. 24/92). It is essential that the substitute be adequately prepared. The biretta is not worn by one not otherwise entitled to it.

  13. Dan says:

    Is that picture of a young Joseph Ratzinger? It sure looks like him.

  14. Nick says:

    I realize that with legalistic tunnel vision directed at most liturgical questions there is a knee-jerk reaction. However, given that laymen and women routinely hold the consecrated chalice, drink from the consecrated chalice, receive Holy Communion in the hand and even distribute Holy Communion (presumably they purify their fingers?) I simply don’t see the logic in denying “straw subdeacons” the occasional faculties of holding the paten or even drying the already purified empty chalice.

  15. Paul Goings says:

    The biretta is not worn by one not otherwise entitled to it.

    This is Dr Reid’s commentary, correct?

  16. Joshua says:

    Even in the Los Angeles Archdiocese there are some instituted acolytes that are just that. I know because where I went we had some. So I think it unlikely that the unsubstantiated claim that most diocese refuse to obey the Church in reviving it as more than a stepping stone is false

    To Nick- all of those practices you describe would be absent from the older form of the liturgy. Even if strictly allowed, those practices are not at all traditional and one important aspect of restoring the old Mass is restoring a sense of the sacred. Not any one touches the sacred vessels.

  17. Ken says:

    “The clerical state begins with diaconate now, no matter what is done in the traditional groups.”

    Wow. That is a bold statement. What have the bishops been showing up for with respect to the F.S.S.P., I.C.R., et cetera, and their tonsures, minor orders and subdeacon ordinations? Has one of them sided with you that it’s all pretend?

    This subject is precisely the problem with people trying to squeeze a 2009 square peg into a 1962 round hole. It doesn’t work.

    Either the 1962 permissions means 1962 permissions, or this is all a joke. To say that it has to be 1962 rules here, but not here, is nothing less than discretionary.

    If a layman can be a subdeacon, then he can also distribute communion in the hand standing up using the vernacular at a traditional Latin Mass.

  18. Joshua says:

    Ken, it may be responded to you that one of two positions seem plausible

    1. Either the indult granted the FSSP, ICR and such groups pertains even to aspects of canon law that are implicitly contrary to the old rites (so that, by indult, the FSSP, ICR have clerics at tonsure, etc.) or more likely

    2. We can make a distinction. Only a deacon or above is a cleric in the canonical sense, but the rites by which we tonsure and ordain to the minor orders and subdiaconate are not meaningless. They still carry a blessing and charge from the Church to perform certain actions. Hence tonsure, etc. makes them clerics in the sense that ritually and as far as the liturgy is concerned they are, but without doing so in a canonical sense

    +Bruskewitz did hold, it is true, to the line that those he was ordaining to the subdiaconate were really clerics and obliged to celibacy (so that is one authority against Fr. Z’s position), but we know that Rome has declared that ordained subdeacons that do not go further need no dispensation from celibacy. Lastly, the FSSP, which ought to be inclined as far as possible to see things traditionally, held against + Bruskewitz that the new canon law did affect them on that point

  19. J. Basil Damukaitis says:

    You have understandably confused a few things here. One must understand there is a difference between a function or ministry, and a “state of life” One’s state of life is either clerical or lay. There is now an argument that canonically religious is a third state of life. But traditionally, if one is a religious, he is either clerical or lay.

    Then there is the issue of a ministry or function, such as lector, acolyte, catechist, etc…. There can be universal ministries of these offices as there always have been in the church. One could letigimately resurrect the universal office of subdeacon, but he remains a layman, as opposed to pre-1972 days where sudiaconate is enjoined to a major order, and the other are minor clerics orders.

    So what the Institute does is not pretend, it is indeed very very real, however they are being ordained or instituted to a state which is still a lay state until such time they are ordained deacon.

    It’s all very confusing and takes quite a bit of work in ecclesiology and canon law to get it straight. Take heart, a lot of bishops don’t even get it, and they’re the supreme legislators of their dioceses!!!

    Hope that helps….

  20. J. Basil Damukaitis says:

    I meant to also say that in the old days, monk-priests underwent 2 tonsures. One was monastic tonsure, the second, clerical tonsure. Similar ceremony, two different meanings.

    Similarly, a congregation or religious order may put in the Consitutions which are approved by the Holy See and ratified by them, that members, upon entrance into the community, enjoy the rights and privileges of clerics (the roman collar, obligation to the divine office, celibacy, etc) without being formally and permanently clerics. This is true of the Oratorians of St. Philip Neri, or the Congregation of the Oratory.

  21. Paul Goings says:

    So, if the “subdeacons” of the I.C.R., F.S.S.P., etc., are–canonically–laymen, does this mean that they should refrain from using the maniple and biretta? If not, then for what reason should any other laymen refrain from making use of them?

  22. J. Basil Damukaitis says:

    Mr. Goings:
    Excellent question. I have NO IDEA! I think this is the stuff the PCED needs to settle. My immediate response to the biretta question is, since it is part of their religious habit, they may wear it. As far as the maniple etc…, I assume they would need an indult, or a further clarification. Good point. If you find out, let me know!
    My email is basilorat@yahoo.com

  23. Ken says:

    And would he be listed as The Reverend Mister N.N. as he would in 1962?

    This is precisely the reason why the SSPX is wise, in my opinion, to hold out for a solid deal. It’s not just about access to the TLM. Incorporating the 1962 sacraments and disciplines into the mess of four and a half decades that followed can quickly turn into chaos.

  24. Trevor says:


    The subdeacon in the above photograph is Fr. Joseph Ratzinger. He’s serving at the First Mass of one of his friends, Fr. Rupert Berger (with whom he was ordained). His brother Georg served as deacon.


  25. J. Basil Damukaitis says:

    Mr. Goings:
    Good point. Since I am an “instituted acolyte” (what a silly phrase!) please address all correspondence to me as:
    “The Most Mister” J. Basil Damukaitis!!!

  26. Daniel Hill says:

    It is an abuse, however, when there are tons of priests in choir, but a layman acting as subdeacon.

    The other interesting issue is that of celibacy. In many diocese, acolytes are married laymen. Is it better to have a married acolyte or an unmarried straw subdeacon (an unmarried acolyte is the best I would assume)?

    I heard somewhere that if you were substituting for a cleric (which all non-clerical altar servers do) that you at least should have the ability to gain the clerical state, i.e. be celibate; hence the common use of young celibate boys as altar servers. I’m not really suree how this logic works exactly however.

    In addition, it is interesting to note that Paul VI did not totally abolish the other minor orders, they too became instituted ‘ministries’ if you read his motu proprio. No new ‘rites’ to install excorcists etc have ever been written up however, which brings me to another point.

    Can an acolyte be instituted using the old ritual? I know they do in the traditional institutions, but what about in general?

    Of course the other point is the use of the tunicle on instituted acolytes in the OF. This is not, as many argue, having acolytes ‘function as subdeacons’ in the OF but simply acolytes functioning as acolytes but in a tunicle. I think it is assumed in Paul VI MP but it is not in the GIRM of course, however it does say “…or other approved vesture.” It would be silly if there is no deacon however.

    Historically the tunicle was worn by more than just subdeacons in the past, and we are going back into the middle ages here. Then again, one could argue that tunicled taperers or thurifers in the Middle ages were all clerics….

  27. Fr A says:

    Dominic1962 writes:

    To be an installed acolyte, you usually must be a seminarian. Only the Diocese of Lincoln (and Baker, OR possibly) allow laymen who are not on the track for ordination to be installed as lectors and acolytes.

    Yes, both Lincoln and Baker have formally implemented the permissions in Paul VI’s 1972 motu proprio Ministeria Quaedam as a matter of policy, unlike the other 300+ dioceses in the USA. The Diocese of Baker itself now has nearly ninety adult men (non-seminarians) instituted in the “stable ministry” of acolyte, with more being added every year…and this, in a diocese with only 33 parishes and a handful of mission stations.

    I am starting to use them now for Solemn Masses in the forma extraordinaria, for the simple reason that there are more of them and they are more available and willing to be trained and serve Masses in the Gregorian rite, than are my brother priests. In time, I’ll expand this to include the permanent deacons as well.

  28. Fr W says:

    In the average parish, how could you do a solemn high mass these days? Finding Deacons is hard, and then one who wants to learn the Tridentine Mass; then finding an instituted acolyte! Not easy at present.

  29. Tony from Oz says:

    G\’day Daniel,

    Re your comment: \”I heard somewhere that if you were substituting for a cleric (which all non-clerical altar servers do) that you at least should have the ability to gain the clerical state, i.e. be celibate; hence the common use of young celibate boys as altar servers. I’m not really suree how this logic works exactly however.

    It is correct that altar boys were/are justified on the basis that they are \’in potentia clerici\’ (apologies for the pig latin), but I also heard somewhere that \’altar men\’ were not common (save at low Masses on a weekday when the altar boy did not show up) and were never part of the scene because, as adults, they were presumed to have already made their choice of vocation – ie single or married – and decided not to become a cleric and thus it was inappropriate for them to masquerade as altar servers under ordinary circumstances.

    I say this because – in the twenty five years since the 1984 indult, it has become exceedingly common for altar servers to be adult non-clerical (often married) males) as opposed to using altar boys. This no doubt was because the TLM movement was in its infancy, a small base of expertise available etc etc. As for sub-deacons – well, being an Aussie, we have that indult and I have seen many a married sub-deacon perform the role over the years – although I dunno if they have always been \’instituted acolytes\’ of no, or if they have refrained from purifying the sacred vessels etc etc.

    By the way, if you are Daniel Hill from Nowra – greeting! If so – will you be attending the ordinations of 4 deacons at St Mary\’s Cathedral, Sydney, by Cardinal Pell on Thursday night – and, in particular, the first Mass of one of them at old St Patrick\’s Seminary, Manly on Friday evening? I shall be there with Aaron and \’twould be good to catch up. Three out of the four prospective ordinands for the Sydney archdiocese have opted to celebrate the TLM as their first Mass – how far we have come – Deo Gratias!

    Tonus Diasporatus

  30. Daniel Hill says:

    Hi Tonus,

    yes ’tis me, from good old Nowra.

    Unfotunately it is impossible for me to come to either the ordinations or the Seminary Mass. Such a shame, I will have to be content with photographs.

    Yes, Lewisham regularly uses an acolyte as subdeacon with his wife and kids in the front row. Reminds me of the medieval Church before Gregory VII whipped things into shape.

  31. Nick says:

    “To Nick- all of those practices you describe would be absent from the older form of the liturgy. Even if strictly allowed, those practices are not at all traditional and one important aspect of restoring the old Mass is restoring a sense of the sacred. Not any one touches the sacred vessels.”

    The fact remains that “those practices” are omnipresent and assimilated even in Papal Rome. Unless the Novus Ordo and all its questionable embellishments is abolished (ala the subdiaconate)Catholics will still be attending both Novus Ordo and Antiquor masses. The cat is out of the bag and all the bricks in the world will not seal it back in. A “straw subdeacon” projects just as much sense of the sacred as a priest or deacon acting the part of subdeacon. The question that should be addressed is for what conceivable reason was the subdiaconate erased and why could it not be reinstituted?

  32. Tony from Oz says:


    Thanks for blowing your cover and fessing up, mate. A close ‘source’ tells me that you are jet lagged from a trip to Rome – but we’re talking Friday evening here, bro – so see how you’re feeling in 36 hours and reconsider, eh? BTW – cld you send on your phobile moan details to the Diaspora sometime – I’m told you’re lurking there!

    Tonus Diasporata

  33. Peter says:


    I hate to burst your bubble, but I think the indult to which you refer doesn’t say what you think it says.

    I think the extant documents discussed here, and taking account of current law, indicate that if the man to perform the functions of the subdeacon at Solemn Mass in the EF is not a priest or deacon, or a subdeacon as conferred through the 62 books (and therefore also an acolyte), then they really should be an acolyte (as per the new code of canon law) – they have therefore been given an office to assist at the altar by the Church. The use of the so-called ‘straw’ subdeacon who is none of these seems to me awry.

    As to the point of whether a married or celibate man is to be preferred, I have a view but would be interested in what wiser heads think. My view is by analogy – if a permanent deacon, who may be married, is a deacon, is a deacon, is a deacon, and married clergy from eastern rites (or ex Anglicans admitted to orders) can assist at/celebrate the Roman rite, then I think whether the subdeacon is single or not is a red herring in a legal sense. There may be pastoral considerations however.

    In Australia, the practice in a number of dioceses has been to institute acolytes in parishes. They are most frequently mature married men. It seems to me that if this option is available to EF ‘communities’ it ought to be conisdered.

    Tony also referred to the (recent) historical situation and that altar boys were more prevalent than adult servers. This may be so, but I wonder if it has to do with custom of a particular epoch rather than anything intrinsic? A bit of a leap, but I remember reading that St Thomas More frequently assisted at Vespers in surplice. But then perhaps he was admitted to the clerical state (tonsure) before he was married.

    Canberra, Australia

  34. Matt says:

    I would have to agree with the assertion that in Traditional orders that have received an indult (ICTK, etc.) the ordination to the diaconate is respected as an ordained Major Order with all of the rights and priviliges as they were in force in 1962.

    I have ALWAYS seen the subdeacon use a maniple at every indult society Mass I have went to. I have never understood WHY the minor orders were re-arranged and the subdiaconate eliminated. The only reason I see is to put more lay people into the sanctuary. Keep in mind all of these changes were made AFTER the NO was in use.

    Since the PCED stated we must adhere to the rubrics as in force in 1962, and the subdiaconate was a legal office, the subdiaconate today holds the same force it did in 1962.

    I would be happy to see all of the minor orders return to their former legal status and the subdiaconate as a major order for the ordinary form.

    This has a certain meaning to it, no:

  35. Sacerdos says:

    Paul Goings: “The biretta is not worn by one not otherwise entitled to it” is simply common sense!

  36. Paul Goings says:

    Well, quite.

    But… who is entitled to wear it, per Dr Reid? My reading is that he is referring to only bishops, priests and deacons. If so, how novel!

  37. Formerly Roman Correspondent says:

    As of this last summer, there was this very dubium sent to PCED. No response has been received, yet. However, I think it’s a little misleading to simply relegate the initial question to the issue of acolytes substituting. The question is really whether a lay-man who is not an instituted acolyte may substitute as a sub-deacon. The response of PCED on 7 June 1993 was not addressing this question, and seems to imply that (at the time in 1993, obviously a mentality very different from the one we enjoy now with the liberalization which came with “Summorum Pontificum”) it would not be tolerable: “an instituted acolyte acting as subdeacon may be tolerated”. At the very least, it does not answer the question.

  38. Precentrix says:


    I know plenty of seminarians still in minor orders who get the biretta… and plenty of priests who, being religious, aren’t biretta-ed. A priest in religious habit, for example, unless he is a Norbertine or something, would not be entitled to the biretta, while a seminarian in soutaine might be. At least, that seems reasonable to me.

    FWIW, I’ve never seen an FSSP seminarian who isn’t already a subdeacon or deacon subdeaconing (if that’s a word). I think it happens occasionally, but I am sure that if that is the case, the adjustments would be made. I know that the OPs have had simply-professed brothers and even the novices subdeacon High Mass in the EF from time to time; again, if I recall correctly, with the necessary adjustments. But in either case, if we accept that the clerical state only begins with the diaconate, that means a non-cleric subdeaconing, *even when the subdeacon is actually a subdeacon*, does it not?

  39. Precentrix says:

    The evil little bit of me wants to say:

    But if a layman can do it, a woman can do it too……..

  40. Paul Goings says:

    But in either case, if we accept that the clerical state only begins with the diaconate, that means a non-cleric subdeaconing, even when the subdeacon is actually a subdeacon, does it not?

    That’s exactly my point. If we are to insist on ceremonial modifications for these varying (laymen, instituted acolytes, and the “subdeacons” of the various clerical institutes) situations, then it is necessary to have some clarity as to what the modifications are, and when they’re necessary. Neither Prot. 24/92 nor Dr Reid’s latest edition of Fortescue are sufficient for this, in my opinion. Likewise as to the use of the collar and biretta (along with the cassock and surplice) by laymen substituting for clerics, as was traditional in many non-Anglo places.

    We could, I suppose, leave it all to local custom, and be done with the questions, from a legal point of view in any case. However, this would just tend to push the situation into being ever more like the old Anglo-Catholic saw of every parson his own pope, which I don’t think is desirable.

    As to your suggestion of a woman acting as subdeacon at an E.F. Mass, it would appear that if a layman is so permitted, then–canonically–a woman also would be. I regret to say that we’re probably not to far from seeing something like that happen, even if only as some sort of stunt.

  41. Maynardus says:

    OK – half kidding but also half serious – given that having instituted acolytes available to serve as subdeacons in churches where the E.F. is regularly celebrated would be a good thing, why not a “permanent subdiaconate”? Perhaps it would suffice to have a clarifying document (oh yeah, there was supposed to be one of those coming…) establishing that acolyte=subdeacon for liturgical purposes and encouraging bishops to install acolytes.

    I realize this is hardly the most serious problem facing the Church, or even the most pressing liturgical question…

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