ASK FATHER: Is having a “straw subdeacon” for a Solemn TLM okay?

13_09_29_Latin_subdeaconFrom a reader…


I’ve been to Solemn High Masses where a seminarian (perhaps having been instituted as an acolyte) was acting as Subdeacon (a “straw” subdeacon, I think, since he’s not ordained). Other than ordained men, who can act as the subdeacon in this way?

Yes, there can be a “straw subdeacon”.  As a matter of fact we had one this morning: an officially installed acolyte took the role.  There were slight adjustments to the rite as a result.

There is support for this.  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 reference for this PCED letter is 7 June 1993, Prot. 24/92 to the Australian Ecclesia Dei Society. 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.

Also, as recently as 2013 the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” responded to a question about this.   They responded, though not in an official public way, that

“[T]his Pontifical Commission would limit itself to saying that the function of Subdeacon can be legitimately assumed by an acolyte suitably instituted by a Bishop, but with the particular appropriate ritual differences.”

What would those “appropriate ritual differences” be?  First, they wouldn’t be to the institution of the acolyte, which is how you could read the letter.  They concern differences for what the subdeacon does.  For example, he doesn’t wear the maniple and the offertory is a little different for his role.

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  1. I honestly have never understood the logic of the EDC ruling on mondern installed acolytes acting as “straw” subdeacons. The old minor orders were conferred by the “transmission of the instruments.” The old rite for acolyte involved handing over a candlestick. The subdeacon received a empty chalice and paten, cruets, and the epistolary. In the modern rite the acolyte receives not an empty chalice and paten, but those same vessels with host and wine. He has already received the whole lectionary when installed as a lector. Cf. in the old rite, the lector received (in theory) a book of readings for Mass and Office (without Epistles and Gospels). And, in spite of that, he could sing the epistle at a Missa Canata, lacking a deacon and subdeacon. In addition, the reform of the rite provides that the “acolyte” can be called a “subdeacon,’ if the bishops’ conference chooses. Honestly, I cannot see any reason to forbid a modern installed acolyte from functioning in every way as a traditional subdeacon at EF Mass. He has received all the instruments received by the old order of subdeacon (and more).

    On the question of the maniple. I don’t understand the objection. Modern deacons and priests don’t receive this vestment, but still use it at EF Mass. If the objection is that modern acolytes are not “ordained,” then so what? Subdeacons were not considered sacramentally ordained either, use of the word “ordain” not withstanding. After all, in the old language porters etc. were “ordained,” and everyone knows that was not “sacramental. EDC needs to rethink this.

  2. Hank Igitur says:

    What about wearing the biretta? I thought a straw could not wear it.

    [Yes. He can.]

  3. Acolyte79 says:

    Fr. Thompson, you said exactly what I was going to say. The modern acolyte, despite the nomenclature, is the effective equivalent of the old subdeacon. The instituted acolyte cannot rightly be called a “straw” but is, in fact, and juridically even, an actual subdeacon by way of Ministeria Quaedam. [Juridically, Ministeria quaedam was superseded by the 1983 Code.]

    I myself am an instituted acolyte…exclusively for a TLM parish. My bishop, in a very rare allowance, installed me at the request of my pastor last year. Being that we only have the TLM, this was done specifically so I could function as subdeacon. This has had two effects: 1. a general increase of Solemn Masses (laus Deo!) and 2. a lesser need to rely on outside clergy. [That’s the situation we have here, too.] If we had a deacon (Deo volente), we could now have the normative Solemn Mass every Sunday. Hence, not to go off on a tangent, but how about a traditional formation for deacons to staff the TLM parishes???

    Back to the other points, if I were ever to exercise my ministry in the Novus Ordo, not only could I handle the sacred vessels without qualification, I could also distribute Holy Communion as an official EMHC (not that I would do so unless I wear a deacon). The so-called rules from PCED forbidding modern acolytes from pouring water into the chalice, covering/uncovering the pall, and purifying the vessels is completely arbitrary based on drawing an incorrect equivalence to the old rules governing the pre-subdiaconate seminarians (who are/were in fact “straws”) in the Ecclesia Dei communities.

  4. Geoffrey says:

    I am an instituted acolyte as well, and hoping to soon begin learning to serve Mass in the extraordinary form. [Good! Get to work!] If God wills, I might even seek institution as a lector and attempt to learn to chant the epistle/lesson for sung and perhaps solemn EF Masses. We shall see. [You don’t have to wait to start learning.]

    My understanding is that the old “major order” of subdeacon was a member of the clergy, and therefore allowed use of the maniple and biretta. Present-day instituted ministers are not clergy, hence referring to them as “straw” subdeacons in the extraordinary form… even though Bl. Paul VI considered instituted acolytes equivalent to subdeacons. [Sort of.]

    In my opinion, it would make sense that laymen who are instituted both lector and acolyte officially be referred to as subdeacons, but that appears to be left up to individual national episcopal conferences…

  5. Dear Geoffrey,

    Actually, subdeacons did not wear the manple because they were “members of the clergy.” Being a member of the clergy was identical with the clerical state. And the clerical state was received with tonsure. Today it is received with deaconate ordination. Subdeacons wore the maniple because they were “committed to the altar.” Modern acolytes seem committed to the altar in the same way. And in the old days, subdeacons, as clergy, were more like those tonsured, including minor orders, in that in all those cases, if they married the marriage was valid but illicit without “return to the lay state.” Deacons and priests who married without dispensation did so invalidly as well as illicitly. If someone wants to argue that maniples can only be worn by celibate clergy, by the way, that means married deacons cannot wear them. Something Fr. Z. has many times explained is untrue. By the way, in the old days, one merely needed to be a cleric (not even in minor orders) to sing the Epistle at a Missa Cantata (as opposed to Solemn Mass.

    Shameless advertising: This Thursday at 7 pm at Holy Rosary Church, 375 N.E. Clackamas St, Portland OR, there will be a Solemn High Dominican Rite Mass of Our Lord’s Ascension. All are welcome and there is plenty of parking.

  6. wolfeken says:

    Well summarized. One additional note: there has never been permission for a straw subdeacon who is not either a seminarian or an instituted acolyte.

    This means a layman who is not a seminarian or instituted acolyte, yet acts as as straw subdeacon at a Solemn High Mass, does so illicitly. PCED has addressed this numerous times, albeit in more polite language.

    Better, then, to have a beautiful Missa Cantata with incense than to have such a layman dress up as subdeacon just to have a Missa Solemnis. The role of subdeacon at Mass is not on the same level as that of acolyte, where any male can substitute for the clerical role.

  7. Matt R says:

    I agree with Fr. Thompson. But, I wonder, why are men now instituted to lector after the institution to acolyte? This makes no sense. Also, how could a subdeacon marry validly if he had promsied celibacy?

    I disagree with Mr. Wolfe, at least in part. In the decades before the reforms, laymen served at the Solemn Mass as a subdeacon. One wonders just how far back this practice originated, and while it is illicit, it is not the fault of the parish that the minor orders had been confined to seminaries. I also draw attention to the even stricter rule that to sing the Passion, one must be a subdeacon, not simply tonsured. This was routinely ignored for the parts of the Chronista and the Synagoga.

    The Sung Mass with incense is not particularly traditional, so that is not necessarily the best practice when one has a deacon but not a person capable (in practice, not clearly according to the law, obviously) of serving as the subdeacon.

  8. wolfeken says:

    Matt R — I think your argument falls apart after admitting laymen dressing up as subdeacons, or singing the Passion, is illicit.

    [Hey! This is the age of mercy! I declare that we can make, pastorally, “internal forum subdeacons!”]

  9. Dear Matt R,

    I have never before this heard of men instituted as acolytes before being instituted as lectors in the new rite. That is why I commented on the oddity of this.

    As to marriage and celibacy of clerics. No members of the secular clergy have ever made vows of celibacy. And they do not do so today–they are not religious. They accept celibacy as part of the clerical state. There is nothing odd that subdeacons could contract valid marriage like those in tonsure or minor orders, in contrast to deacons and priests. The “dirament” (invalidating) impediment to marriage is canonical, not sacramental or natural. The Church imposed it on deacons and priests, but not subdeacons and orders below.

    One can discuss why this was the case, but it seems clear to me that the reason was that the subdeaconate and minor orders were the same in that they were not given as sacramental orders. The Church could have made marriage of all clerics, tonsure to bishop, a dirament impediment to marriage but she did not. That is worth thinking about.

    And this is my last comment on this. Good night!

  10. Matt R says:

    Rome never tolerated the practice, but it is done regardless.

    [Rome has indeed tolerated the practice of having acolytes take the role of Subdeacon in Solemn Masses.]

  11. Matt R says:

    Sorry for the confusion, Father. The practice to which I was referring as never being tolerated is that of laymen singing the Passion. The most that Rome tolerated was the polyphonic Turba, but in reality, laymen for some time now have sung the Passion vested in the sanctuary, despite Rome’s insistence that this not be done.

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