QUAERITUR: Can instituted acolytes wear the biretta?

From a reader:Twitter

I am trying to determine who may wear the biretta during Mass.

It is clear that clergy (deacons, priests & bishops) wear the biretta.

Seminarians also wear the biretta, though I have not found any specific provision for this use.

My question concerns whether an Instituted Acolyte may wear the biretta.  Ministeria quaedam provides that an Instituted Acolyte assumes the duties of the Subdeacon and even assumes this title in certain dioceses.

According to the rubrics, Subdeacons wear the biretta in the EF.   Various statements have affirmed that an Instituted Acolyte acting as Subdeacon may not wear the maniple, but are silent as to the biretta.

So who among these non-ordained could/should be wearing the biretta?  Seminarians, Instituted Acolytes or both?


This is a good question, since it leads us into some other questions (which I won’t raise answer here  o{];¬)   ).

In my opinion any man with a role or status, or the equivalent of that status, requiring them to wear a biretta back in the day, should be able to wear it now. 

If a seminarian wears a cassock for choir dress, he wears the biretta, because once in seminary he would have been a cleric and would have been given the cassock.

Thus, a seminarian in a non-trad seminary should wear the biretta as part of regular choir dress if they use the cassock.

So, yes, I suppose the instituted acolytes should use the biretta when in choir dress even when that acolyte is not a part of a priesthood (or permanent deacon) formation program.


I will add a couple notes.

First, seminarians should go by the house rules wherever they are.  Avoid trouble.  That said, if there are seminaries still so mired in the aging-hippie thing that they forbid the use of the cassock, then shame on them.

Second, seminarians should keep it simple.  Go light on lace, and don’t wear things you are not entitled to.

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  1. greasemonkey says:

    It seems that in view of Ministeria Queadam the ORDER of Subdeacon no longer exist in the Church, while the FUNCTION does exist.
    The Lector & Acolyte today are not orders, nor do they signify a clerical state. The Lector/Acolyte is a layman.
    In short, I think that if a layman FUNCTIONS as a subdeacon then he is to omit collars, birretas, and maniples. Carry out the function in alb and tunic…. and follow the rubrics for a lay subdeacon with respect to vestments and ablutions. REF: Fortescue
    This would be my take on “regular parish landscape”.

    The FSSP/SSPX/ICKSP…. When those men are “ordained” to the minor orders and subdiaconte, what is happening? Are they entering into specific ministries or are they being ordained? Nothing has come out to update Ministeria Quedam….

  2. Thank you, Fr. Z.
    That helps a lot!

  3. paladin says:

    Somewhat related, but: I’ve noticed that some religious goods catalogs distinguish between “priest surplices” (which seemed to have a layer of intricate lace in-between the cuffs and near the bottom) and regular (whatever that means) surplices. As an installed acolyte, I’ve been eyeing the fancier surplices to buy (I already have a cassock), but I don’t want to step on priestly prerogatives (if any are involved here). Does anyone know if it’d be apropos for me to wear a “fancier” surplice that happens to be advertised as a “priest” surplice?

  4. RichardT says:

    I didn’t realise that any dioceses still did properly institute Acolytes (other than as part of the deaconal or priestly formation process). I know they technically exist, and (like lectors) that they are supposed to be the norm, but I hadn’t heard of anywhere actually doing it.

  5. RichardT: Archbishop Raymond Burke, before he went to St. Louis, from La Crosse, instituted our monastic brother as an Acolyte, per our request. I believe this is done in the Lincoln Diocese with Bishop Bruskewitz, as well, both with Lector and Acolyte, for those who are not going to be ordained as deacon and priest. Someone correct me if I am wrong.

  6. greasemonkey says:

    I have few surplices I wear… plain white, lace, nylon with a white ribbon. A surplice is a surplice as far as I’m concerned!

  7. Geoffrey says:

    I think a greater presence of instituted lectors and acolytes would be a great boon to the “reform of the reform” / “say the black, do the red” movement. Properly vested and prepared laymen taking these ministries seriously would do a lot, I think.

  8. edwardo3 says:

    I’m struck, very happily, by the fact that such a question can be asked and discussed at all. It wasn’t all that long ago that even having a cassock at the seminary, let alone wearing it would get one tossed so fast his head would spin.

    I agree with Fr. Z, if a Cassock and Surplice are used, [If a man is a cleric or in formation. I don’t think altar boys should use birettas.] so too the Biretta as long as it is guaranteed not to get the man in any kind of trouble, prudence and patience are the best policy. I also think we really need to look at bringing back the Minor Orders in some form to formalize the steps a seminarian makes toward the priesthood, and so that he can actually exercise the orders themselves in the life of the Church.

    As for Surplices, the only real distiction I know of which would be a usurpation would be for a seminarian or priest to use a Rochet without the proper permission.

  9. totustuusmaria says:

    I am extremely glad that this came up — today above all days!

    This has long enthralled my mind. I intend to make several claims, and I welcome contradiction using official sources. My understanding, though, is that ALMOST NOTHING has been taught with any level of authority concerning this. I have thought about — and even drafted — the question what the proper liturgical garb of an instituted acolyte carrying out his office is.

    As to the claim above that Ministeria Quaedam changed these from orders to ministeries, I see no reason to support this claim. Ministeria Quaedam says that, in accordance with reality, it is no longer /to be called/ ordination, but rather to be called institution. This, however, would change what it really was. The signs are still the same (e.g. the touching of the sacred vessels), there are still prayers of institution. If it was previously sacramental (as Thomas Aquinas argues powerfully), it seems that it would still be sacramental; if it previously was not, it would still not be. In either case, there would be no reason to change the previous custom of using the biretta (or, indeed, the tunical).

    I have read the claim, even in St. Thomas, that the minor orders were of ecclesiastical original. The Church, according to her own needs, imparted a sharing in the priestly powers to those who did not actually share the priesthood. If this is true, it would make sense that the Church could alter what priestly ministries she conferred in the minor orders. This seems most likely what Paul VI did. He altered the minor orders to correspond more closely with what he viewed modern needs to be, and he renamed them to “ministries”. They still have the status the had before, and I know of no reason why that status ought not to be a sacramental status.

  10. Joshua08 says:

    I think the guideline that is in the current edition of Fortescue/O’Connell/Reid makes sense. He mentions the use of a straw subdeacon, and the omission of the maniple, but states that the biretta is reserved only to those who would normally be allowed its use. I.e., if seminarians can wear biretta when in choro, then they could here. But not all seminarians can. Dominicans do not wear a biretta (unless they are STM’s) but rather use the amice still as a hood. A Dominican or Franciscan seminarian/instituted acolyte therefore ought not to wear the biretta…but then again they wouldn’t even if they were priests.

    I do not know what the legislation is governing the use of secular clerical wear for seminarians. I would suppose prior to being in the clerical state it would depend on local legislation (in Rome for instance all seminarians wear the cassock…or I remember being told that by the rector of a seminary there). If you would otherwise be permitted, say in choro, then yes. If not, no,. Seems a reasonable take

  11. totustuusmaria says:

    Correction from second paragraph: “This however would NOT change what it really was.” And in the third paragraph: “were of Ecclesiastical origin”.

  12. Rob Cartusciello says:

    As regards lace & the surplice, Fortescue states that “Extensive lace decoration is more proper to those in major orders, or indeed to prelates.” (p. 52) It doesn’t carry force of law, but it is at least dicta.

    On that same page, he states that “within the church and not seated, no one – whatever his rank – may wear the biretta unless he is paratus [wearing vestments].”

    Interesting discussion, though I am not entirely sure what the answer is.

  13. “Second, seminarians should keep it simple. Go light on lace, and don’t wear things you are not entitled to.” Or as we used to say at the sem back in the day, “Fake it, you won’t make it.”

  14. Lace: The first edition of Fortescue (1917), as fas as I can tell, seems to be silent about “extensive lace decoration” being somewhat reserved to those in major orders. This seems to have been something added later…

    While it is true that lace was (and is) seen more commonly among the ordained (assuming they have more money than the Altar servers), it does not follow that Altar servers should/must be discouraged from using a certain amount of lace.

    Both Altar servers and Clerics (Prelates) should be *tactful* on the amount, but expecially the quality, of the lace used. There is a type of cheap lace that will make anyone (Altar server or not) look “ridiculous.”

    Birettas: A straw Subdeacon should wear the Biretta. Again, this was not part of Fortescue’s book until it was Mr. Reid’s turn to update it – not even O’Connell forbade the Biretta to the Cleric carrying out the functions of the Subdeacon.

    Besides, if this person is allowed Vestments (Amice, Alb, Cincture, Tunicle – some of which are -supposed to be- blessed), why not the Biretta, which is not blessed?

    Simple Altar servers who are only in choir should not wear the Biretta. Actually, they should not be sitting in choir unless they will actually do something!

    If a server will not do anything, why not participate from the pews? The idea of having Altar servers in choir just so people can see that there are billions of servers in the Sanctuary is not a good one.

    This is because usually these servers in choir will not know the rules (when to cover or uncover, when to stand, kneel or sit, etc.). If they are in choir to learn how to serve, then they will not need the Biretta at all, either, because they will not wear Birettas once they atually start serving.

  15. Rob Cartusciello says:

    Thanks for the Fortescue follow up. I only have access to the latest edition.

  16. Josephus Muris Saliensis says:

    Rob Cartusciello: “no one – whatever his rank – may wear the biretta unless he is paratus “. The point here, being “wear”. All others will carry the biretta, not omit it, and only cover when seated. I believe however, that this does not apply to Cardinals, but have no time to check. Certainly he wears it in cappa.

    This is right about the biretta for instituted ministers, quite correct to wear it with choir dress, as the plain woolen biretta is not a priestly attribute. Before the Council they were widely worn by altar boys in cold countries for processions and funerals, etc, and by extension on the sanctuary in some places. The boys biretta was usually much taller than the normal one. The is a lovely story of Mgr Bartlett as MC of Westminster Cathedral in the 1960’s going around during the Canon at Mass one day when a parish group of servers from a parish in Ealing was serving, removing al their birettas as they had fallen into bad habits and kept them on!

    @greasemonkey: the roman collar is not a clerical garb, it has smly been adopted by clergy. (eg it is worn by Officers et beneath military and other uniforms). All altar boys in Rome wear them every day for serving Mass. In my opinion a laudable habit, much tidier than seeing the necks of various coloured shirts.

    Fr Z’s injunction not to adopt thing to which one is not entitled is worth repeating: yards of lace, watered silk birettas and fascias, rochets, etc. We have all seen trad deacons and newly ordained priests wearing them, of course, they prove they are not really traditional at all, just fond of dressing-up! A real traditionalist obeys the rules.

  17. The Roman collar is not a clerical garb, as Josephus Saliensis said; the /Cassock and the Surplice* are.

    It is always “funny” (to say the least) to see people make a big fuss about Altar servers wearing the Roman collar, even after they are told that it is the Roman practice to wear the Collar with the Cassock.

    Once the Church allows a server to put on the Cassock, She is also allowing him the use of the Roman Collar. Whether the server wants to wear it or not, that is his personal choice. When people try to force a server not to wear it, that just foolish.

    The Council of Baltimore specified that the clerical garb is the Cassock – no mention whatsoever of the Roman collar. Also, the Cassock and the Surplice are given ceremonially at Tonsure. Again, nothing about the collar.

    It is my opinion that those who are “disturbed” by the use of the Roman collar by Altar boys are “victims” of the protestantization of the clerical attire.

    In this country, even before the Council, Priests wore the clerical vest and not the Cassock. Also, Protestants, for the most part, kept the collar and got rid of the Cassock.

    After Vatican II, most Priests did away with the Cassock. Those who wanted to be conservative, while they did not keep the Cassock, they kept the clerical vest with the collar. Then everyone began to associate that little white band with the “clerical state.”

    That is the biggest kind of simplicafication or reductionism that I have evern seen!

  18. pgoings says:

    The custom in Rome, and throughout the rest of Europe, was that men and boys who substituted for clerics were permitted to wear clerical dress–the cassock, surplice, *and* the biretta. There is copious photographic evidence that testifies to this. So, as prescribed by, say, Martinucci, the torchbearers at Solemn Mass would carry their birettas in and wear them while seated, just as if they were the clerics that the rubrics supposed were serving in that office.

    This was not customary in the U.S., owing to the relative scarcity of solemn liturgical functions and the tendency to use very young boys as servers.

    In light of Ministeria quaedam, the new Code, and the actual practice of the traditionalist institutes, it seems high time to revisit the applicable liturgical law. Perhaps we could begin with the program to restore the use of the minor orders set forth in the Canons of the Council of Trent? There is, after all, no tradition in liturgical law that separates the cassock and surplice from the biretta; the distinction is entirely modern, and is unknown before 1970.

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