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The subdiaconate is the lowest of the sacred or major orders in the Latin Church. It is defined as the power by which one ordained as a subdeacon may carry the chalice with wine to the altar, prepare the necessaries for the Eucharist, and read the Epistles before the people (Ferraris, op. cit., infra No. 40). According to the common opinion of theologians at present, the subdeaconship was not instituted by Christ. Nor are there sufficient grounds for maintaining that it had an Apostolic origin. There is no mention of the subdiaconate in Holy Scripture or in the authentic writings of the Apostolic Fathers. These authorities make reference only to bishops, priests, and deacons. At the Council of Benevento (A.D. 1091), Urban II says: "We call sacred orders the deaconship and priesthood, for we read that the primitive Church had only those orders" (Can. I). Gratian (Dist. 21) says: "In the course of time, the Church herself instituted subdeacons and acolytes". It is true that the Council of Trent (Sess. XXIII, cap. 17, de ref.) says that "The functions of Holy orders from the deaconship to the ostiariate were laudably sanctioned in the Church from the times of the Apostles"; but these words simply indicate that the "functions" were so exercised (that is as part of the diaconate); it was only in the course of time that they were separated from the office of deacon and committed to inferior ministers. This explains why some theologians (e.g. Thomassinus, p. I, lib. II, cap. xl) speak of the subdeaconate as of Divine institution, that is they look on it as made up of functions proper to deacons. Gasparri (op. cit. infra, I, No. 35) says: "The Church, in the institution [of the subdeaconship] proceeded thus. She wished to commit to others the inferior functions of the order of diaconate, both because the deacons, with the increase of the faithful, could not suffice for their many and grave duties, and because she wished that others, received among the clergy and marked with the clerical tonsure, should ascend through minor orders, only after trial, to major orders. Imitating the Divine Law of the first three grades (bishop, priest and deacon), she decreed that the power of performing these functions should be conferred by external rites similar to those by which major orders were bestowed."
The subdiaconate is most probably, some say certainly not a true sacrament, but a sacramental instituted by the Church. If it cannot be repeated, this is because the Church has so wished, for she could institute a sacramental similar to a sacrament externally without thereby obliging us to hold that it imprints an indelible character on the soul of the recipient. Wernz (op. cit. infra, No. 158) says: "Since ordinations below the deaconship are most probably not true sacraments, but rather sacramentals they do not imprint the true sacramental character, hence if they are conferred validly, they give a power of order instituted solely by human law and circumscribed by its limits."
Historically, the earliest mention of the subdiaconate seems to be found in the letter of Pope Cornelius (A.D. 255) to Fabius of Antioch, in which he states that, there are among the Roman clergy forty-six priests, seven deacons, and seven subdeacons. There is nothing to indicate, however, that the subdiaconate is not older than the third century. That there were subdeacons in the African Church in the same century is evident from the letters of St. Cyprian (e.g. Epistle 8). The fourth Council of Carthage also mentions them in 398. The Synod of Elvira, (305) in Spain does the same (c. 30). Their existence in the Oriental Church is testified to by St. Athanasius in 330 (ep. 2) and by the Council of Laodicea (can. 21) in 361. At present, among the Greeks and other orientals, as also formerly in the Western Church, subdeaconship is only a minor order. It has been counted among the major orders in the Latin Church, however, for nearly seven centuries. It seems to have been elevated to the rank of a sacred order in the thirteenth century, but it is impossible to fix the precise date. Urban II, at the close of the eleventh century, expressly limited the sacred orders to priesthood and diaconate, and in the middle of the twelfth century, Hugh of St. Victor still calls the subdeaconship a minor order. But at the end of the twelfth century, Peter Cantor (De verbo mirifico) says that the subdiaconate had lately been made a sacred order. Early in the thirteenth the Innocent III authoritatively declared that the subdeaconship was to be enumerated among the major orders and that subdeacons could be chosen to a bishopric without special dispensation (Cap. 9. x, de æt., 1, 14). The reason for this change of discipline was probably not because subdeacons were bound to celibacy for this obligation began to be imposed upon them in the Latin Church in the fifth and sixth centuries [thus Leo I in 446 (in c. 1, dist. 32) and the Council of Orléans in 538], but more likely because their functions brought them so closely into the service of the altar.
Subdeaconship is conferred when the bishop gives the empty chalice and paten to the candidate to be touched, saying: "See what kind of ministry is given to you, etc." Two ceremonies following, the presentation of the cruets by the archdeacon and the imposition of the vestments, are not essential and need not be supplied if omitted (S. R. C., 11, March, 1820). Then the bishop gives the candidate the Book of Epistles to be touched, saying: "Take the Book of Epistles and receive power to read them in the holy Church of God for the living and the dead in the name of the Lord." In case of omission, this rite must be supplied and is probably an essential part of the ordination (S. C. C., 11 Jan., 1711). In the Greek Church, there is a laying on of hands and a suitable prayer, but there is no imposition of hands in the Latin Church. It is true that a letter of Innocent III to the Bishop of Ely in England (A.D. 1204) is cited as requiring that if the laying on of hands in the subdeaconship be omitted, it must be afterwards supplied (cap. 1, x, de sacr. non interand, 1. 6), but there seems no doubt that the word "deaconship" was in the original text (Correct. Rom. ad cit. cap. 1).
The duties of a subdeacon are to serve the deacon at Mass; to prepare the bread and wine and sacred vessels for the Holy Sacrifice; to present the chalice and paten at the Offertory, and pour water into the wine for the Eucharist; to chant the Epistles solemnly; to wash the sacred linen. In the Greek Church, subdeacons prepare the chalice at the prothesis and guard the gates of the sanctuary during the Holy Sacrifice. In the ancient Roman Church, the subdeacons administered in great part the temporal goods of the Holy See and were often employed on important missions by the popes. A candidate for the subdiaconate must have been confirmed and have received minor orders. He must have the knowledge befitting his grade in the Church and have entered on his twenty-second year. He must also have acquired a title to orders. After ordination, he is bound to celibacy and to the recitation of the Divine Office.
GASPARRI, De sacra ordinatione (Paris, 1894); WERNZ, Jus decret., II (Rome, 1899); FERRARIS, Bibl. canon., V (Rome, 1891). s.v. Ordo; TAUNTON, The Law of the Church (London, 1906), s.v.
APA citation. (1912). Subdeacon. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14320a.htm
MLA citation. "Subdeacon." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14320a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Wm Stuart French, Jr. Dedicated to Brenda Eileen Metcalfe French.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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