ASK FATHER: Can priests serve as and vest as deacons in the Novus Ordo?


I’ve received quite a bit of mail about my response.  The preponderance says that I was right in my argument, but also that the Caerimoniale‘s directions do NOT prohibit priests from vesting as deacons.  Here is an example:

When the GIRM speaks of priests acting as deacons, it only speaks of concelebrants. Yet, the document doesn’t prescribe, “A priest acting as a deacon must concelebrate”. Rather, the prescription is that if it is a case that a CONCELEBRANT fill this role, he should still wear chasuble. The understanding being that priests at the time of the council might have legitimately been confused on this point and wondered if they continued with an already accepted and common practice but desired to concelebrate would they need to wear a different vestment. [That makes sense.] The implication I take from this is that priests who fill this role, but do not concelebrate, need not worry. Such a practice was far too common to receive mention in the instruction. [True.] I am confident the document would be more clear if the reformers wanted to do away with the practice. [Maybe.]

What, then, can be made of the prescription in the Ceremonial? Well the ceremonial is aware of practices such as the vicar general serving as deacon for diocesan Masses. [!] It is suggesting that since deacons are present at these functions, they themselves should fill the role while the priests concelebrate with their bishop. [Right.]

Okay, I’m sold.  YES.  Priests who are not concelebrants can vest in the dalmatic and function as deacons in the Novus Ordo.

Of course, it goes without saying that if there are deacons present, they should take the diaconal roles.  Let deacons be deacons when deacons are there.

___ Originally Published on: Feb 9, 2017 ___

From a reader…


Can priests (or bishops) serve as deacons in the Ordinary Form, analogous to how (as I understand it) this is sometimes done in the Extraordinary Form?

Yes.  Priests and bishops can serve as deacons in the Ordinary Form.

First, here are a couple shots of bishops vested as deacons, serving as deacons at a pontifical, papal Mass with Pope Francis, one on Peter and Paul, and another on Palm Sunday.  These are Cardinals, by the way.

17_02_09_cardinal_deacons 17_02_09_cardinal_deacons_02

So, that’s the Ordinary Form.  Those are bishops vested and acting as deacons.  Hence, yes, bishops can act as deacons in the Ordinary Form.  Now… just try to make that happen outside a Mass with the Pope of Rome.

Next, priests.  Yes, priests can act as deacons in the Ordinary Form.   GIRM 208 states:

GIRM 208. If a Deacon is not present, the functions proper to him are to be carried out by some of the concelebrants.

So, priests can act as deacons in the sense that they take diaconal functions.  But those are priest concelebrants and that is not what you mean.  You are talking about priests dressing in the dalmatic and acting as deacons without being concelebrants.

In the Extraordinary Form, clearly, yes, they can and they do.  It is common.  It has been the Church’s tradition for a looooong time that they do this.  A priest is still, after all, a deacon.  That’s one of the reasons why bishops put on the dalmatic under the priestly chasuble when they vest properly. That’s also why in the Ordinary Form a bishop will divest himself of his chasuble and wear the dalmatic when consecrating altars and when washing feet for the Mandatum: he wears the vestment most symbolic of his ministry of service.

Pope Benedict XVI once spoke about the ministry of deacons during one of his meetings with the clergy of the Diocese of Rome. HERE  Benedict said:

“On this occasion a small experience noted by Paul VI springs to mind – although it may not be quite relevant to our subject. Every day of the Council the Gospel was enthroned. The Pontiff once told the masters of ceremonies that he himself would like to be the one who enthroned the Gospel. They said: No, this is a task for deacons and not for the Pope, the Supreme Pontiff, or the Bishops. He noted in his diary: But I am also a deacon, I am still a deacon, and I too would like to exercise my diaconal ministry by enthroning the Word of God. Thus, this concerns us all. Priests remain deacons and deacons clarify this diaconal dimension of our ministry in the Church and in the world.”

This is a good reason for priests to serve as deacons once in a while.  It is good for priests to serve Mass once in a while, too.  I once had a cardinal serve Mass for me, by the way.  It was a humbling experience which taught me a lot.  But I digress.

Moving on, I note that the 2003 CDW document Redemptionis Sacramentum says:

[125.] The proper vestment of the Deacon is the dalmatic, to be worn over an alb and stole. In order that the beautiful tradition of the Church may be preserved, it is praiseworthy to refrain from exercising the option of omitting the dalmatic.

Given that

  1. sacred ministers at Mass should wear the prescribed vestments for their ministry,
  2. the vestment proper to the deacon is the dalmatic
  3. the priest and bishop both remain, in a sense, deacons
  4. bishops wear dalmatics and act as deacons in the Ordinary Form,
  5. the use of the dalmatic is encouraged,
  6. the functions of the deacon can be fulfilled by priests who aren’t the main celebrant,
  7. there is a centuries long tradition of priests acting as deacon before the Ordinary Form,

…I would say YES, a priest could put on the dalmatic and take the diaconal role at Mass in the Ordinary Form.

Sed contra

In the 1995 Caerimoniale Episcoporum for the Novus Ordo we find:

22. Presbyteri, qui celebrationes episcopales participant, id solum quod ad presbyteros spectat agant; (SC n. 28) absentibus vero diaconis, aliqua diaconorum ministeria suppeant, numquam tamen vestibus diaconalibus induti.

Presbyters [I dislike that “presbyters” thing.  Let’s say “priests”.] taking part in a liturgy with the bishop should do only what belongs to the order of presbyter; in the absence of deacons they may perform some of the ministries proper to the deacon, but should never wear diaconal vestments.”

Some argue that the Caerimoniale is prescriptive for the Missale Romanum as used also by priests.

It seems to me that there are strongly competing values here.

First, there is the value of more solemn liturgical worship, with defined roles.  There is also our Roman liturgical tradition.  Moreover, there is the value of distinguishing the Holy Order of Deacon from the Holy Order of Priest.

This is one of those ways in which there should be a correction of the Novus Ordo by way of contact with and recovery of values from the traditional Roman Rite.  Call it “mutual enrichment”.    If it is going to “mutual”, then the Novus Ordo must be enriched by the traditional Rite, and not just the traditional by the newer Rite.  Right?  As a matter of fact it is far more urgent to enrich the Novus Ordo with tradition than it is to enrich the traditional form with innovation.  Sacrosanctum Concilium 23 forbade innovations in the liturgy, “unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing”.

It seems to me that the Ordinary Form should recover vesting priests as deacons.  That would mean that some would have to stop forcing incessant concelebration by priests.  But if a priest has already said Mass, or he is going to say Mass later in the day, why couldn’t he take the role of a deacon when there is no deacon present?

Why the stingy restriction?

In any event, even if common sense and tradition and a generous reading of most of the rubrics, etc., suggest that a priest can put on the dalmatic and serve as a deacon in the Novus Ordo, the Caerimoniale says no.  If the Caerimoniale applies to Mass when there is no bishop in sight, then, no, a priest can’t do that.

Would it be an abuse to do it?   Not much of one, I think.  And, hey!, isn’t this the age of mercy?  We don’t want to be restrictive doctors of the law, do we?  Dalmatics for priests!  Heck, make it blue dalmatics for priests!  ¡Hagan lío!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I believe the term ‘presbyter’ is used to draw the distinction between priests and bishops. Bishops are priests too, and the term ‘priest’ does apply to them in certain cases.

  2. Thomas S says:

    Father Z,

    With an eye to Holy Week, would it be appropriate for the main celebrant of the Holy Thursday Mass to wear the dalmatic for the Mandatum, either swapping his chasuble for the dalmatic or already having the dalmatic on under his chasuble and simply removing the chasuble? [If he does that, he should probably change rather than vest in both.]

    And if a priest concelebrant is chanting the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil, would it be acceptable for him to do so in dalmatic before donning chasuble for the rest of Mass? [Sure. Why not? This is the age of mercy.]

  3. frjim4321 says:

    One of our bishops would wear a very thin dalmatic under his chasuble as a sign of the “fullness” including deaconal ministry. He would always wear cassock, alb, dalmatic and chasuble. Was a bit up in years and a bit frail, so I would imagine the added warmth was welcome.

  4. Jack007 says:

    [Sure. Why not? This is the age of mercy.]

    I’m wondering if Father Z really has given us a new mantra? After all, Save the Liturgy etc. is appearing all over the Catholic blogosphere, as well as Say the Black etc.
    I like it! It has such a gentle and pastoral ring to it.
    ¡Hagan lío!
    ¡Hagan Zeta!
    Jack in KC

  5. Federico says:

    @FrZ: “[I dislike that “presbyters” thing. Let’s say “priests”.]

    It is a convention when translating canonical material from Latin to English to use the word priest to mean sacerdos and presbyter to mean, well, presbyter.

    This is a good convention. It avoids confusion (which is present even in the Latin) between a word that includes those with episcopal and presbyteral orders (sacerdotes) and those with only presbyteral orders (presbyteri).

    Of course, the legislator has messed this up many times, even in Latin. For instance, the original (now corrected) New Rite of Exorcism specified that only presbyteri could be exorcists while what they meant was sacerdotes (the revised edition of the Rite corrected it).

    When Alice debated Humpty Dumpty, she complained that she did not know what he meant by the word “glory”. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you,”(1) replied Humpty Dumpty contemptuously. It is useful to use words in a conventional manner so everybody knows what they mean at any given time.

    (1) Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1993) 124.

  6. Federico says:

    I was not clear. Sacerdotes refers to those with presbyteral orders, as well as those men with episcopal orders. So it is the superset of both.

    [Of course it is, and I have made the point on this blog many times that “sacerdos” includes bishops. We, nevertheless, should talk about “priests” and avoid the pretentious buzzword “presbyters” in conversation.]

  7. Fr. Andrew says:

    Would a clarification such as this be worth submitting to the Congregation of Divine Worship under Cardinal Sarah?

    [Perhaps not.]

  8. joekstl says:

    Considering that the original name of this blog site was “what does the prayer really say” one should accurately translate the Greek terms from the New Testament. I always point out to those in my Bible Study sessions two things: after the Gospel accounts the history of the early church in Acts and the Pauline letters have no reference to a weekly Eucharist gathering except for a reference by Paul and mention of house churches. Second, there is no mention of “priest” except regarding Jesus Christ as the one high priest, as in Hebrews.

    By the close of the New Testament period around the end of the first century, the books accepted as our Canon of Sacred Scripture describe three leadership roles: elder, overseer, and server – in Greek presbyteros, episkopos, and diakonos. Presbyter is an elder; if an author meant “priest” he would have used “hieros.” Unfortunately later Latin translations used “sacerdos” for “presbyteros.” This is not faithful to the real meaning of offices in the first century church.

    So, in one sense I agree with Fr. Z (OMG). Don’t use presbyter to mean priest. Its meaning is NOT priest.

  9. Kukla65th says:

    A very close friend is starting the study for permanent diaconate. I realize this is t entirely the same subject, but this post reminded me that I wanted to ask can permanent deacons serve as deacon at TLM? I had always wanted to help acquaint him with the TLM and wondered if he might be able to serve in this role in a TLM later?

  10. Fr. W says:

    If it is not permitted, why is it being done with the Pope?


  11. “If it is not permitted, why is it being done with the Pope?
    My guess is the cardinals dressed as deacons in the above pictures are cardinal deacons (I admit I don’t know the full rules on the cardinal ranks yet).

  12. Lucas Whittaker says:

    What crosses my mind as I read this post is that confusion abounds in the wake of the break with tradition. Change must be organic unless the hermeneutics are to lose any connection with logic and the essence of Catholic identity. The loss of the essential meaning of Holy Orders is what likely led to the once-frequent occurrence of concelebration at Mass.

    If we wanted to look further into this we could consider that each of the Israelite priests in the “Bet Yehovah”, though having the same office of priest, held divergent roles in the life of the Temple. . . . . not a juridical answer, but of potential interest . . .

  13. JabbaPapa says:

    I’ve seen this several times, though our priests seem to refrain from acting as deacons if an actual deacon is available.

  14. Geoffrey says:

    I think if a priest were to vest as a deacon at Mass, it would cause “confusion”. (A deacon wearing a Roman collar already causes confusion!) However, when a cardinal/bishop vests as a deacon at a Papal Mass, he retains the simple mitre, thereby not causing any real confusion.

  15. Lucas Whittaker says:

    @ Geoffrey: Your statement could mean more than one thing, and I cannot guess your specific meaning. In general, in cases where more than one priest is present for a special Mass, having more than one priest vested as a celebrant would confuse the sacramental signification of the priesthood. One priest celebrant better represents Christ, the one Mediator, alone on the Cross. Deacons serve a wonderful purpose in the Mass when they are available! I cannot recognize how it would confound us whether we knew that another priest was vested in the role of deacon, or a man who was ordained as a deacon–not a consecrated priest. Nor should it confound us if a man we know to be a priest fills the role of an altar server, because that is also a key role in the liturgy of the Mass.

  16. jaykay says:

    Geoffrey: “I think if a priest were to vest as a deacon at Mass, it would cause “confusion”

    In many places, even seeing a properly vested deacon at Mass causes confusion! As in my own parish, where we currently have one young such, who wears the dalmatic and… does the proper deacon-things! Something not seen since the 60s, when of course there would also have been a subdeacon, but let’s not go there. And both of them priests back then, of course.

    Anyway, I’ve heard people remark vis-à-vis our deacon that they really like the “new young priest”.

  17. hwriggles4 says:

    My mother attends a Parish that has a retired priest who says Mass. This priest is in a wheelchair due to complications after a stroke. On Christmas morning, the pastor (who had not had much sleep after midnight Mass) willingly got up early to assist the retired priest on Christmas morning. The pastor helped him hold the chalice and the books, because there are some physical things this retired priest cannot do. It was a humbling experience for the pastor, as well as an act of charity.

    I could also tell as Mass progressed that this retired priest REALLY wanted to say Mass, and he believed in the Real Presence. He also gave a good homily, and since his speech is a little slow I made sure I paid attention, and the congregation behaved. That was a memorable Christmas morning Mass with my mom and my brother.

  18. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    You wrote “Let deacons be deacons when deacons are there” when you could have written “Let deacons be deacons when deacons they be”? I blush to call him ‘friend’.

  19. pjsandstrom says:

    To add to the conversation: for a Bishop or a priest to dress/act in the place of a deacon is about the same problem as asking a butterfly to ‘act like a caterpillar’. Here this is no denial of the previous place in the Sacrament of Orders, but rather an acknowledgement of a progression/evolution of role/standing from which there is no going back. The custom even in the Extraordinary Form of ‘priests dressing and acting as deacons’ is truly a longstanding abuse of the Sacrament. There are all sorts of ‘historical justifications’ for this custom, but that does not overcome the fact that it is a longstanding abuse. Bishops, priests and deacons each have their own place in the ‘general diakonia’ of the Church (and not only in the Liturgical celebrations) and they should not be ‘confused’.

  20. Poor Yorek says:

    Yet another reason why concelebration should be “safe, legal, and rare” (in the Latin Rite)?

  21. VexillaRegis says:

    Kukla65th, yes, a permanent deacon may serve as a deacon at a Traditional Latin Mass. A deacon is a deacon :-)!

  22. Lucas Whittaker says:

    @pjsandstrom: The essence of the dogma of the sacrifice of the Mass is at the heart of this question, which is why I said above that concelebration confuses the one sacrifice “in the person of Christ” which the main celebrant offers. If other priests are present they should–and as Father points out, can–fill the role of deacon, or even altar server where one is not available (although I mentioned the latter). The question does not bring to the fore any abuse of the priestly character, but when multiple priests concelebrate it brings confusion and a mistaken understanding of the Mass along with that action.

  23. Jim R says:

    @Lucas Whittaker: I really would not go down that line of analysis. If what you say had any validity, then Mass over time, at multiple locations and by different celebrants would call into question the dogma of the sacrifice of the Mass as confusing “one sacrifice” – as all Protestants could easily affirm.

    While there are many arguments against (or for, for that matter) concelebration, that concern is misplaced and undermines the very dogma you fret is lost in the shuffle. It reminds me of people saying only red wine must be used because white wine will confuse the people about the Blood of Christ. Frankly, our senses are incapable of detecting the Blood of Christ and I prefer the use of white wine precisely because it’s another highlight that this miraculous manifestation of Christ in our midst is a gift and reality far beyond whatever we see. Use of red wine simply because it looks more like blood obscures the mystery to my way of thinking. Concelebration highlights that the “one sacrifice” is a gift far beyond human understanding of numbers of celebrants. It is beyond one person acting “in the person of Christ” since thousands did, do and will do so in the past, present and future as they each are “in the person of Christ” in the eternal.

    Much can be argued about the relative merits of making Mass simple, but I truly believe emphasizing the mystical aspects is by far a better tack to take if you want the people to approach understanding such a marvelous, ineffable miracle as is the Mass. Sensuum defectui. That’s just me.

    Mass is essentially a mystery. Don’t try to demystify it or you will risk losing the reality in the banality. Mass is the one eternal sacrifice which at its root is beyond human understanding. It is smack dab at the intersection of the Eternal with the temporal. It re-presents Calvary because Christ’s sacrifice was eternal because He was God. When we are at Mass we are at Calvary in the realm of the eternal. Each priest, now, in the past and in the future and at every location can be “another Christ”…and all at the very same time!

  24. Imrahil says:

    Would a clarification such as this be worth submitting to the Congregation of Divine Worship under Cardinal Sarah?

    I am told that lawyers (more of the common-law tradition) say never ask a question where you don’t know the answer beforehand.

    That said, it is obvious that the Caeremoniale Episcoporum used to be a guiding rulebook for Masses without bishops, except where obviously addressing specifical episcopal festivity. But… I don’t think it technically applies, except with bishops present. Orders are orders, except when against conscience; but suggestions, even from those who would have authority to order, are quite another matter.

    What is clear is that a priest need not concelebrate in a Mass he attends. It is also (I guess) clear that in that case he can, materially speaking, deaconize. What is he going to wear, supposing we do want to follow the Ceremonial (or have to, if e. g. bishops are present)?

    Not the chasuble, for one thing. The chasuble is now, even more than it was before, the specific vestment of the Celebrant.
    Alb and Stole (the stole worn in the manner of a priest).
    Maybe even a cope might do? He is no traditional presbyter assistens, but after all he is a priest, fulfils an important function at public liturgy without, however, being celebrant of a Mass. Sounds like “cope” to me.

    Dear pjsandstrom,

    well, I disagree, if only because the orders of deacons, priests and bishops, while there is a hierarchy between them, are not simply evolutionary stages on the road towards bishop or towards priest.

  25. John Nolan says:

    It is standard practice at the English Oratories for priests to take the roles of deacon and subdeacon at Solemn Masses in the Ordinary Form, and has been for as long as I can remember.

    It was certainly the case at the Oxford Oratory the last time I attended, which was two weeks ago.

    [And they know their stuff, especially with wonderful priests and scholars such as Fr. Lang around the place.]

  26. Precentrix says:


    A deacon is a deacon. And technically, there is no such thing as a ‘transitional deacon’ – once he’s a deacon, he’s a deacon. And if he’s married and a deacon, he’s still a deacon.

    OTOH, bishops have started this mad trend of ordaining men who can’t chant.

  27. Lucas Whittaker says:

    @Jim R: What I have said is that sacramental concelebration (to be distinguished from the more ancient and traditional ceremonial concelebration) detracts from the sacred mysteries. Concelebration in general does manifest the unity of the Church “and develops a sentiment for it [but] the multiplication of Masses contributes still more to building up that unity by multiplying the effusion of Christ’s grace.” And this was my major point: That each priest should be encouraged to say his own Mass each day to “multiply the fruits of grace.” Also, greater glory is given to the sacred mysteries when the priest is assisted by deacons and numerous altar servers (which makes my argument something less than “banal”, to be sure). The riches of the Eucharist are revealed primarily by correct liturgical practice.

    “The practice of systematic concelebration, being in no way prescribed by the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, and having no basis for itself except in some later minor documents, moreover, going in a direction opposed to that of the conciliar Constitution–this practice is opposed not only to the orientations of Vatican II, but also to the entire most ancient and most constant tradition of the Church.” It is an innovation! “Consuetudo sine veritate vetustas erroris est” (St. Cyprian, “without truth, custom is nothing but error grown old”). The Council Fathers expected that “the normal form of Eucharistic celebration would remain that where the priest alone is at the altar as Christ, the ‘one Mediator,’ Himself alone when He offered up the sacrifice that saves us.” Hoc est enim vere proprieque catholicum (This is what is truly and properly Catholic).

    All quotes, unless otherwise specified, are taken from Father Joseph de Sainte-Marie, OCD, “The Holy Eucharist – The World’s Salvation”. “During his life he worked hard to restore a sense of continuity in Catholic practice.”

  28. Imrahil says:

    So, with the update, it seems that priests only can’t vest as deacons when concelebrants. I thought that was too clear to be even discussed. A single celebrant doesn’t put on the dalmatic for the Gospel, either.

    That said, Let deacons be deacons if deacons are there: Of course I agree in general, but I’d make exceptions:

    1. for Papal Masses, where Cardinal-Deacons take the place of deacons.

    2. If enough priests to fill the function are there, and one of them can chant but the deacon only with difficulty.

    3. In the Mass of Confirmation, if the parish pastor and one deacon but no subdeacon is present, and the posts of presbyter assistens, assistant to the throne etc. fall away or are taken care for by others: in which case it seems more fitting that the presentation of the confirmands to their Confirmator is done by the deacon their pastor than by the subdeacon their pastor.

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