Discourses on Solemn Mass: Part I
The perfection of the rite of Solemn Mass stems from its variety of ministers, or more precisely, the proper division of liturgical offices. These divisions are not only of ancient origin, but are nearly identical in the liturgies of both the West and East. The ministers are divided into two hierarchical categories: sacred and inferior, which also correspond to the division of the Sacrament of Holy Orders: major orders and minor orders.
First of the sacred ministers is the celebrant (or sacerdote in Latin), alter Christus, the Eternal High Priest standing at the altar before Almighty God as the sacrificer and mediator during the unbloody re-enactment of Calvary – thus naturally, only a priest can exercise this office.
The deacon (from the Greek diakonos, meaning “servant”) is the immediate assistant to the celebrant and thus is sometimes symbolically identified with the Blessed Virgin Mary. His office consists of chanting the Gospel and assisting the celebrant at the altar rather like a “liturgical valet”. Because the deacon’s role puts him in contact with the sacred vessels and chalice linens, he must be a cleric ordained at least to the diaconate.
The subdeacon (simply from under the deacon) is the assistant to the deacon, and hence often typified as St. Joseph. He chants the Epistle and assists at the altar rather like a “glorified acolyte” – in fact, some of the subdeacon’s roles were exercised by acolytes in the ancient Church. We can still witness an allusion to the earlier practice with the use of a “substitute” (or “straw”) subdeacon – when a cleric in major orders is not available to act as a subdeacon at Solemn Mass, one that has at least been tonsured can fill in, but with some restrictions.
As for the inferior ministers, these are all part of the highest minor order of acolyte (Greek for “server”). Thus despite the different names commonly attributed to the various altar servers (master of ceremonies, thurifer and torchbearers), all are in fact acolytes.
At Solemn Mass, the acolytes are the immediate assistants to the deacon and subdeacon, and they perform a variety of ancillary roles to render practical assistance for the ceremonies (e.g., to carry the thurible for burning the incense) and provide greater solemnity (e.g., the bearing of extra lights called “torches”). The acolyte’s office is often called the “angelic ministry”, and since time immemorial the Church has granted the immense religious privilege to laymen (adults and adolescents) to exercise these offices.
There is also the liturgical schola of men and boys (vested in cassock and surplice) who chant the Mass propers and alternate the Kyriale with the faithful. While they are not considered inferior ministers per se (as they do not contribute by action), nonetheless the schola is on par with the acolytes.
Finally in concluding this segment, it is worthwhile to note that the office of another minor order, porter, is typically seen (or not) being exercised by laymen at Solemn Mass through the duties of the sacristan, bell-ringer and ushers.
In our next installment, we will discourse about the vesture worn by the various ministers at Solemn Mass.
1 That is in ascending order of dignity, subdeacon, deacon and priest – and finally the episcopate to which only a few clerics are called to the fullness of the priesthood.
2 Porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte.
3 To this we must add that the use of a crossbearer or boatbearer (while customary in some places) is actually optional.
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"The prudent man considers things afar off, in so far as they tend to be a help or a hindrance to that which has to be done at the present time." - St. Thomas Aquinas