Major and Minor Orders


The Priesthood of the New Law has two basic grades:

bishop (high priest), the fullness of the priesthood; head of the local Church, that is, of a see, diocese, or eparchy. The further designations of pope, patriarch, cardinal, archbishop, etc. pertain to jurisdiction and to certain charisms and privileges, but not to sacrificial or sacramental power.

priest (simple priest), subject to the bishop, and having most, but not all of the powers of the priesthood (e.g. a priest cannot ordain new clergy). The title of monsignor given to some priests is honorary, and its bestowal by the Pope does not in itself constitute an elevation of authority or power.

To assist priests in carrying out the Divine Sacrifice and with other forms of ministry is the office of

deacon (minister).

To be a bishop, one must first be ordained a priest; and to be a priest, one must first be ordained a deacon. A deacon on his way to the priesthood is called transitional; otherwise, permanent. This three-fold hierarchy of bishop, priest, and deacon was prefigured by the high priest, priest, and Levite of the Old Law, and is likewise of divine origin.[1]

Each of these three major orders of the New Law is conferred in the sacrament of Holy Orders, and is permanent and unrepeatable. The ordained can have their faculties suspended or revoked, but their souls remain forever configured to Jesus Christ, and they retain certain powers such as the power to offer Mass (though the exercise of these powers without proper authorization is illicit and sacrilegious).

There is a fourth major order, that of


This order of ministers was instituted by the Church.[2] The subdeacon, too, assists the priests at the altar, but with fewer responsibilities than a deacon.


The minor orders are of Apostolic origin.[4] They order the soul of the recipient to the reception of the priesthood through the gradual conferral of priestly powers and responsibilities increasingly associated with the Holy Eucharist. As with the four major orders, the reception of a minor order is permanent; and the reception of a higher grade of order does not remove lower grades but includes them.

The minor orders, in decending order, are:

Acolyte - in charge of providing light for the Church. Ceremonially this means candles, but in the modern age, the electric lights are included. At Mass he presents at the altar the water and wine which are used for the Sacrifice.

Exorcist - receives the power to expel demons in the name of the Church. The exercise of this power is limited, however, to bishops and those priests to whom they delegate the authority.

Lector - a reader of the Sacred Scriptures at Holy Mass; a catechist for children and the unlearned. Has the power to bless bread and new fruits, preparing him for the priestly power of consecration used at Holy Mass, in which he will change bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Porter - the church's doorkeeper and custodian.


Tonsure (from Latin tondére, to shear) is a ceremonial hair-cutting instituted by the Church and traditionally used by monasteries and seminaries for entrance into, or preparation for, the clerical state. Its symbolic significance derives from the shearing of slaves to mark them. Christian monks adopted this mark as slaves of Jesus Christ living voluntary poverty and obedience to a superior.[3] Tonsure also signifies renunciation of the world. It is a sacramental, which means it disposes the recipient for grace.

Over the centuries, tonsure has taken different forms in different places, including complete shearing of hair and cutting all but a circle around the sides of the head (as in typical paintings of St. Francis of Assisi). In traditional seminaries today, five locks of hair are cut in the shape of a cross.

Men to be tonsured are called tonsurandi (singular tonsurandus); those who have received tonsure are tonsurati (singular tonsuratus).

The traditional steps to the holy priesthood, then, are (in ascending order): Tonsuratus, Porter, Lector, Exorcist, Acolyte, Subdeacon, Deacon, and Priest (the fullness of the priesthood being the office of Bishop).

Although no longer used by the greater part of the Latin Church, tonsure, the minor orders, and the subdiaconate are still conferred, with Papal approval, by traditional institutes and societies such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.

1. Council of Trent, Sess. xxiii, De Sac. Ord., can. 6

2. Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Subdeacon"

3. Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Tonsure"

4. Denz. 958

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