Healing the Rupture: A Call for the Restoration of Minor Orders

For a universal re-establishment of the Minor Orders according to the perennis sensus of the lex orandi of the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI reiterated the following principle, perennially valid in the life of the Church since apostolic times: “In the history of the Liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture” (Letter to the bishops on the occasion of the publication of the Apostolic Letter “motu proprio data” Summorum Pontificum, 7 July 2007). 

The theory expressed by Pope Paul VI in the motu proprio Ministeria Quaedam (August 15, 1972) and then disseminated in the life and practice of the Church and juridically sanctioned by Pope Francis with the motu proprio Spiritus Domini (January 10, 2021), which says the minor liturgical services (which do not require sacramental ordination) are a particular form of the exercise of the common priesthood, is alien to the 2,000-year tradition of the universal Church, both in the East and in the West. This idea represents a novelty that comes close to the liturgical views of Protestant communities. Further, it also manifests a yielding to the demands of the feminism movement in the life of the Church, since it positions women within the presbytery by dressing them in clerical robes such as the alb, the common vestment of clerics of different degrees (bishop, presbyter, deacon).

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If minor liturgical services were a peculiar form of exercising the baptismal priesthood, the Apostles and the subsequent constant and universal tradition of the Church would also have admitted women to liturgical services in the presbytery or at the altar. The tradition, however, of not admitting women to the altar dates back to apostolic times (cf. 1 Co 14:34) and has always been maintained in the tradition of the Church both in the East and in the West (cf. Synod of Laodicea [fourth century], can. 44). 

At the end of the fifth century Pope Gelasius I reiterated the apostolic tradition of not admitting women to the liturgical service at the altar: “With impatience, we have heard that divine things have undergone such contempt that women are encouraged to serve at the sacred altars, and that all tasks entrusted to the service of men are performed by a sex for which these [tasks] are not appropriate” (Mansi VIII, 44). In the Capitula Martini, a sixth century Gallic collection of canons which originates from both Greek and Western sources, the same apostolic tradition is again recalled in these terms: “Women are not permitted to enter the sanctuary” (can. 42). 

The specific norms of the Corpus Iuris Canonici and that of the Code of the Canon Law of 1917 (can. 813) are a further testimony of the constant and universal tradition of the Church received from the apostolic times of not admitting women to the liturgical services at the altar. The decree of Pope Gregory IX in the Corpus Iuris Canonici says: “Care must be taken that no woman presumes to walk to the altar or to minister to the priest or to stand or to sit within the chancel” (c. 1, X). Pope Benedict XIV is another witness to this constant tradition of the Church, as we read in his encyclical Allatae Sunt (July 26, 1755):

Pope Gelasius in his ninth letter (chap. 26) to the bishops of Lucania condemned the evil practice which had been introduced of women serving the priest at the celebration of Mass. Since this abuse had spread to the Greeks, Innocent IV strictly forbade it in his letter to the bishop of Tusculum: “Women should not dare to serve at the altar; they should be altogether refused this ministry.” We too have forbidden this practice in the same words in our often repeated constitution Etsi Pastoralis, sect. 6, no. 21.

In a recent manifesto by a group of French women in reference to the motu proprio Spiritus Domini we can read the following wise words: “We believe that our specific vocation is not a mirror of that of man, and that it does not need to be ennobled by the service of the altar” (Appel à approfondir la vocation de la femme).

The opinion that argues that the dignity of the common priesthood must be ennobled by placing the laity and women in the presbytery and at the altar, giving them the task of performing minor services in the liturgy, ultimately means a form of clericalization of the laity and above all of women. Furthermore, this indicates not a promotion of the laity, but on the contrary a subtle discrimination of the laity and women, reserving to them only the minor services in the sanctuary, but to the clergy, instead, the most important or major services. Furthermore, the application of the word “ministry” to the common priesthood in the liturgy contains the Protestantizing danger of a confusion between ministerial and common priesthood.

The Church has always understood the liturgical expression of the common priesthood as that of the laity participating in the sacred liturgy by being gathered in the nave of the Church and not in the presbytery. The laity thus participates in the liturgy by being in their place outside the presbytery (as already indicated by Pope Clement I in the first century and then by the main liturgical documents of the tradition). Consequently, the lay faithful liturgically express their common priesthood with responses, songs, bodily gestures, genuflections, bows, even with silence (cf. Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 30). The greatest and most worthy liturgical realization of the common priesthood consists in the worthy and fruitful sacramental reception of Holy Communion.

The principal expression of the common priesthood outside the strictly liturgical sphere consists in the service of the laity in the family, in the domestic church, in the domestic “liturgy” at home. Mainly, however, the expression of the common priesthood consists in the sanctification of the secular field, as e.g. Pope Paul VI teaches in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi

[The laity’s] primary and immediate task is not to establish and develop the ecclesial community- this is the specific role of the pastors- but to put to use every Christian and evangelical possibility latent but already present and active in the affairs of the world. Their own field of evangelizing activity is the vast and complicated world of politics, society and economics, but also the world of culture, of the sciences and the arts, of international life, of the mass media. It also includes other realities which are open to evangelization, such as human love, the family, the education of children and adolescents, professional work, suffering. The more Gospel-inspired lay people there are engaged in these realities, clearly involved in them, competent to promote them and conscious that they must exercise to the full their Christian powers which are often buried and suffocated, the more these realities will be at the service of the kingdom of God and therefore of salvation in Jesus Christ, without in any way losing or sacrificing their human content but rather pointing to a transcendent dimension which is often disregarded. (n. 70)

However, through Pope Paul VI and now Pope Francis, a drastic break with an almost bimillennial relevant tradition of the universal Church (East and West) has been carried out through the abolition of the Minor Orders (Paul VI) and through the change of the significance of the minor liturgical services (Pope Paul VI and Pope Francis). The proper significance of Minor Orders and of all the minor services at the altar derives—according to the lex orandi of the Church—not from the common priesthood but from the diaconate. Minor Orders are therefore an expression—through non-sacramental ordinations—of the humble service of the ministerial priesthood (episcopate and presbyterate) and of the sacramental diaconate. In a broader sense, this also applies to altar servers (altar boys), who must be therefore of the male sex to maintain the link with the ministerial priesthood and the sacramental diaconate at the symbolic level.

Pope Stephen I reiterated in the middle of the third century the principle that in the Roman Church “nihil innovetur nisi quod traditum est.” This means no drastic innovation: the practice and doctrine of the church of Rome should correspond to what has been taught and done by the previous tradition which dates back to apostolic times. In fact, in the middle of the third century all the Minor Orders and the sub-diaconate existed, and the Council of Trent later taught that the Minor Orders have been “received into the Church since apostolic times” (sess. XXIII, Decree of Reform, can. 17).

We should ask with humility, respect, and parrhesia that the Roman Church return to the sensus perennis universalis ecclesiae by re-establishing the Minor Orders with its theological significance such as the Church has always expressed it in her lex orandi. At the same time, it should be shown to the laity and especially to women in what consists their dignity and the true meaning of their common priesthood in the liturgy: the common priesthood of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, who was precisely not a “deaconess” nor a “liturgical agent at the altar,” but simply the handmaid of the Lord, who listened to the word of God with a good and perfect heart, kept it and made it fruitful in the world (cf. Lk 2:51; 8:15). 

May the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of the Church, with Saint Joseph, Her chaste Spouse and Patron of the Universal Church, impetrate for us the grace that those responsible in the Church of our day may endeavor so that the rupture caused by the documents Ministeria Quaedam (Pope Paul VI) and Spiritus Domini (Pope Francis) may be healed and the organic growth of the constant and universal tradition since the apostolic times may be promoted.

[Photo Credit: Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter]


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