ASK FATHER: Roman clerical tonsure

From a reader…


What was the state of, requirement for tonsure, for secular clergy, in Rome, under Saint John XXIII, after his 1960 Synod. (That synod seems to represent the apex of the organic development of clerical discipline flowing out from the Council of Trent).

Funny this should come up today of all days.    On 14 September 1972 Paul VI released a document which he had signed on 15 August.  This was the – in my opinion – disastrous Ministeria quaedam.

In Ministeria quaedam abolished the minor orders.   Not to worry.  The minor orders had only been around since the earliest centuries of the Church.  Yeah… it was time to get rid of those old things.   Yes, things are so much better now.

In any event, the minor orders were conferred on males having attained the age of reason.  Before they received orders they had to first receive clerical tonsure.   Once, that inducted men into the clerical state.  Now, diaconate marks entrance to the clerical state.

So, tonsure has not been obligatory since 1 January 1973, which is when Ministeria quaedam went into effect.   It was subsequently superseded by the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Some institutes such as the FSSP and the ICK – with the permission of the Holy See – now regularly confer tonsure and then the minor orders.  However, their members still do not become clerics until diaconate.

At one time, the clerical tonsure was rather extensive, as in the illustration.  However, it came to be reduced to about a silver dollar – or priest’s host – sized shaved circle at the crown of the head.   The tonsure was obligatory for clerics according to the 1917 Code of Canon Law.  The bare spot had to be maintained.  Letting the tonsure grow over was tantamount to abandoning clerical state. If a man let it grow over and then refused to restore it after being warned, he could be dismissed from the clerical state.

Why so important?  Because by law clerics were forbidden to participate in some public entertainments.  With the tonsure, clerics could not pretend not to be clerics.   Of course in time of persecution, it also made them easier to identify.

I used to see the clerical tonsure occasionally when out and about in Rome and I once had a barber who, the first time, always offered to give me one… until God and time did the job.

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  1. tho says:

    It saddens me to read about how the 60s took a sledge hammer to our identity as Roman Catholics, what was nurtured for 1960 years could be swept aside so blithely.
    The clergy has produced some of the greatest thinkers in the history of the world, yet the modernists, who had power then, and still do, would not look back, and think, what would St. Thomas Aquinas, or St. Catherine of Sienna say, It is so depressing, and I fear it is not over.
    The church seems to be just like the current Democratic party, whose goal seems to be the destruction of our country.

  2. JabbaPapa says:

    Well, as things stand today, it is a useful means of distinction between those monks who are priests and those who are friars alone.

  3. KateD says:

    It’s interesting whom God chooses to tonsure, especially at an early age.

    It’s like He’s saying, “mine”.

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  5. robtbrown says:

    I object to describing Ministeria Quaedam as disastrous–it isn’t strong enough. Suffice it to say that MQ is part of the cloaca that is the Vat II “theology” of Holy Orders.

    Two points:
    1. Trent says there are seven grades to Holy Orders. Vat II theology–MQ–says there are three. Subdiaconate and Minor Orders are discarded. The replacement is lay ministries.

    2. A seminarian

  6. robtbrown says:

    2. A seminarian makes a request of his bishop (or superior) and in turn receives a dimissorial letter to receive . . . get ready . . . lay ministries.

    O tempora! O mores!

  7. NOCatholic says:

    As is true of how the new liturgy (the Novus Ordo) was implemented. the “institutied” ministries of Ministeria Quaedam (lector and acolyte) were for the most part, not properly implemented, certainly not in the US. Other than for seminarians, the only US diocese as fas as I know that actually implemented those properly, is the diocese of Lincoln Nebraska. There, you have to be a man (not a woman) and be officially installed. This article is one such installation, conducted by Bishop Conley:

    If something hasn’t been correctly implemented, it’s hard to properly evaluate it. Not impossible, but hard.

  8. Geoffrey says:

    I do not agree that “Ministeria quaedam” was disastrous, but rather like so many things, it was never properly implemented.

    Prior to “Ministeria quaedam”, the minor orders (as well as the major orders of subdeacon and deacon) were largely nothing more than stepping stones to the priesthood. When reading the traditional Roman Martyrology, I am amazed at the large number of martyrs and confessors identified as lectors, deacons, porters, subdeacons, etc. It seems evident that at one point, the minor orders were not only stepping stones to the priesthood, but also distinct and permanent “ministries” for lack of a better word.

    Prior to “Ministeria quaedam”, the words ordain, ordination, etc., were used rather liberally. Not only was one ordained to the priesthood, but one was also “ordained” a doorkeeper. My impression is that St Paul VI wanted to reserve the word ordination for the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and came up with the word “instituted” for the minor orders, now to be called “ministries”. Could other words have been chosen? Sure. Could we have kept the traditional terminology but clarified the differences with proper catechesis? Sure.

    We see the “messiness” of the historical overuse of the word ordination in the misguided arguments in favour of women deacons / deaconesses, etc. They cite ancient documents that use the word “ordain” when in actuality, the deaconesses were more akin to what we now call instituted ministries. (It almost seems prophetic that St Paul VI wanted to attempt to clean up the language.)

    Of course, just like the Sacred Liturgy, the minor orders and subdiaconate could have been reformed in a different way, but I think St Paul VI’s intentions were good, if not largely ignored by the Latin Church. Imagine how different things would be if every parish had properly formed instituted lectors and acolytes since 1973. Imagine how different things would be if every parish celebrated the Mass of St Paul VI they way it was originally intended (Latin, chant, etc.).

    To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, it’s not that the Mass of St Paul VI and the instituted ministries have been tried and found wanting, it’s that they have been left untried.

  9. WmHesch says:

    What a shame that Tradish seminarians and younger priests love reviving obscure dandy hats, but not the tonsure they were designed to cover.

    Here’s the kicker: since orders are integral to the man, the tonsure cannot be taken off in persecution (or Deus avertat) in sin. “As within, so without” we might say.

  10. JabbaPapa says:

    robtbrown :

    2. A seminarian makes a request of his bishop (or superior) and in turn receives a dimissorial letter to receive . . . get ready . . . lay ministries.

    O tempora! O mores!

    hmmmmm, well if one must have an Extraordinary Minister, of Reading or Communion, better if he is a Lector and Acolyte than otherwise.

    Speaking from experience at our parish …

    Our own Lector & Acolyte BTW simply holds the ciborium while the priest distributes Communion on the tongue. I think that’s a lot more like how the rôle of Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion was envisaged by the Council Fathers.

  11. robtbrown says:


    The point was that before MQ the dimissorial letter was for Minor Orders, which were part of the clerical state. That’s why the dimissorial letter made sense. IMHO, it makes no sense for a dimissorial letter to refer to refer to the lay state. In such a situation appointment by a pastor should be sufficient.*

    I know of no reference to Extraordinary Ministers in the documents of Vat II. During those years the liturgical deformation was just a glean in the eye of German bishops and Bugnini.

    * MQ disassociated Lector and Acolyte from the clerical state by making them lay ministries.

  12. I was made an acolyte in the Cincinnati archdiocese ca 1976 or so and certainly we all thought that I was being properly ‘officially installed’ in accordance with the law in force subsequent to Ministeria quaedam. I haven’t acted as one since, oh, 1982 (good heavens! more than four decades ago), and that in a different diocese, where no one asked about said ‘official installation’, so far as I can remember, and I don’t recall ever having had reason to bring it up– I served Mass in the Novus Ordo, not an office typically requiring overmuch liturgical acumen. According to Ministeria quaedam, am I still an acolyte? Perhaps the training, preparation back then, such as it was, answered questions like that but I’ve no recollection of it.

  13. robtbrown says:

    Marc in Eugene<

    I received the lay ministries of acolyte and lector c. 1990. Some months later I was seated at dinner next to a canon law prof of the Angelicum, once the Dean of the Faculty. I told him that after receiving the lay ministries I did some research. I found that whatever I could juridically do as either acolyte or lector was also juridically able to be done by any Joe Schmoe who happened to be walking by the Church at the time. He grimaced and said that there are a lot of holes in the new Code.

    The priest, btw, became a good friend, and a few years later started coming to our Latin sessions. He was very much in favor of the Dominican Rite and Latin liturgy.

  14. Geoffrey says:

    “According to Ministeria quaedam, am I still an acolyte? Perhaps the training, preparation back then, such as it was, answered questions like that but I’ve no recollection of it.”

    If you were instituted by a bishop, yes you are. My understanding is that the instituted ministries are a “permanent” sacramental.

    “I found that whatever I could juridically do as either acolyte or lector was also juridically able to be done by any Joe Schmoe who happened to be walking by the Church at the time.”

    That can be distressing. As an instituted acolyte myself, I take comfort in the fact that what I do has the full blessing and sanction of Holy Mother Church.

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