Thursday, September 29, 2016

Magna opera Domini: a reflection on the institution of acolytes

(Unless excepted, photos are courtesy of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter)
Magna opera Domini: "great are the works of the Lord". This is the motto on the coat of arms of Bishop Steven Lopes of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, who explained its meaning in his first remarks after being raised to the order of bishop here. This past Sunday, on the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham (transferred), I was very privileged to be a part of that motto brought to life when I was instituted as an acolyte by Bishop Lopes alongside a fellow parishioner and 50 other men nominated by their pastors across the Ordinariate in the US and Canada. Some were new additions to the ranks of our Cathedral's clerks, but most of those who traveled to our cathedral in Houston, Texas with me, even as far as Nova Scotia, are lay leaders of their respective parishes in and out of the liturgy.

As some of you may know, I've written here and elsewhere extensively about the minor orders and the role that they once played at the parish level in the medieval Church to carry out the work of divine worship; indeed, how these orders was once required for admittance to the choir or altar service. Even after the Church of England abolished the minor orders, the lay "parish clerk" continued to feature in Anglican life as an invaluable assistant to the priest, and has thankfully been re-introduced into the post-conciliar Catholic Church through the Ordinariate.

To be sure, some of the 52 men instituted last Sunday were chosen for their encyclopedic knowledge of ceremony. The cathedral rector said to us that the parish clerk is often the man to whom the priest can turn when he stares blankly into an unfamiliar page in the Missal and whispers, "explain to me what I'm supposed to do here!" Others were called not so much for that, but to expand upon their many years of dedicated service to their parishes in general, now in an established manner. When I learned that one of my fellow candidates to be installed was a papal Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, I felt in some sense that I was standing among giants.

Shortly before the principal Mass and rite of institution. After this, we all recited the Prayers of Preparation with Bishop Lopes before processing into the cathedral.
The training during the weekend of institution, which arose particularly in response to the desire among various parishes to offer solemn high Mass with the classical three-fold ministry of the altar (priest, deacon, and subdeacon), numbers among the most grace-filled experiences I've ever had. We prayed morning and evening hours of the Divine Office in common, shared stories of growth and struggle amongst our communities, and partook of the richness of beauty in worship offered by the Cathedral of Our Lady of Walsingham. I especially enjoyed how, during the principal Mass, there was a vested schola for plainchant in the north transept, in addition to the cathedral choir. The schola chanted the Introit, Offertory, and Communion antiphons out of the Plainchant Gradual (in sacral English but with the ancient Gregorian melodies). A schola chorister sang the first reading in the Prophecy tone, and the acolyte acting as subdeacon sang the second reading in the Epistle tone. I came away with the sense that it was the supreme model for sung vernacular liturgy in the Latin Rite today.

Our weekend began with Evening Prayer of Ember Friday
Instituted acolytes are authorized to serve Mass in both the Ordinariate's unique Missal; Divine Worship; as well as the Extraordinary Form (traditional or "Tridentine" Latin Mass), in the ancient role of subdeacon, clad in colored vestments, chanting the Scriptures, and standing at the priest's left hand or behind the deacon at the foot of the altar. In the Ordinary Form, they may be asked to purify the sacred vessels. In the absence of a priest or deacon, they may also lead hours of the Divine Office, deliver holy Communion to the sick, or prepare a monstrance for Eucharistic Adoration (but not give Benediction). Bishop Lopes, who personally delivered instruction to us despite having just returned from a visit with other American bishops to the Pope himself in Rome, made it clear that we were to be instituted not just for the Ordinariate, but for the entire Church. He encouraged us to engage and give service (in and out of liturgy) at our neighboring diocesan parishes, including for solemn celebrations of the Extraordinary Form.

In return, we pledged to intensify our prayer lives, frequency of confession, and particularly grow in devotion to the holy Eucharist through regular Adoration. We were asked even to take into account our public witness of Christ, remembering that we extend the ministry of the priest and deacon in places they can't reach. The subdiaconal ministry was compared to a Wifi signal in a large house. If the router is in a closet at one end of the house and you're trying to get a connection from the living room on the other side, your reception will be poor and slow; so to remedy, you might think to install a repeater to boost the signal. Likewise, in the places in and out of the church where neither the priest nor deacon can reach, the acolyte is there extend their ministry. It doesn't advance the kingdom of God for an acolyte to insult a parishioner in a Facebook comment one day and present themselves in a tunicle the next, so we're called to be the face of Christ as far as we can.

The cathedral rector, Fr. Hough (in cassock), teaching a practicum on the subdiaconal role in the Divine Worship Missal (photo by my friend Armando, one of our Ordinariate seminarians)

Another of my photos. This one models the acolyte holding the Gospel-book for the deacon, using the common "in the midst" method of singing the Gospel. In this style, the procession enters partly into the aisle of the nave. Though seldom used in the Extraordinary Form, it's also permitted there. I've also seen it done in Eastern Divine Liturgies with the congregation flocking in to surround the ministers.
It was an arduous journey which began with a train ride well before the crack of dawn, but I'm glad my wife and children were able to make the journey from Philadelphia to Houston with me and partake of the worship at the Cathedral; especially solemn choral Evensong at the end of the weekend, directed by Mr. Edmund Murray, whom I sang Gregorian chant with for many years. That Evensong, a form of Vespers which preserves some of the finest choral works of the Anglican tradition, such as four-part psalmody and even splendid compositions from 20th century masters like Sir John Tavener, was recorded and may be watched or listened to here or below. It was well attended by lay faithful, local diocesan clergy and seminarians, and Knights and Dames of the Order of Malta.

In the rite of institution, we approached the bishop two at a time as he presented a ciborium filled with unconsecrated bread. We held the base with our right hands as he said, "Take this vessel with bread for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Make your life worthy of your service at the Table of the Lord and of his Church."

As I finish this entry, the following verse from the Psalms comes to mind:
“What shall I render unto the LORD for all his benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD.”

More photos from the weekend can be found here.


  1. Congrats, James! I've wondered lately on how the process of becoming an instituted acolyte would work. Since this was through the Ordinariate, may I ask what parish/oratories/chapels you will be serving? I assume it's not just an ef or just an Ordinariate parish. What was the discernment process/training like? Did you undergo formal training in The Subdiaconate for solemn mass?

    -Thomas I.

    1. Thomas,

      Thanks for your comments. I'll answer your questions in order:

      "Since this was through the Ordinariate, may I ask what parish/oratories/chapels you will be serving?"

      To be clear, instituted acolytes don't receive an assignment (an officum) the same way a priest or deacon would; at least, not by default. Of course, I will continue serve my Ordinariate parish of registry, but it remains completely voluntary, as my time allows. Beyond that, I manage a men's Gregorian chant schola which sings all around the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (parishes, religious houses, the Cathedral-Basilica). I also help coordinate liturgical events for the Order of Malta in this area. Finally, I occasionally volunteer at/chant/serve Mass at Catholic hospital chaplaincy. But these activities were all acquired before I was nominated to be instituted as an acolyte. The only new thing I'll be taking on is occasional subdeaconing for solemn high EF Masses for the archdiocese. (I'm virtually the only non-priest in the metropolitan area who is both interested and legally eligible to do so. I won't use the word "qualified" because we have a few lay servers in the TLM community here who are far more knowledgeable of the rubrics than I am, but they're not instituted. Mater Ecclesiae Chapel has their own acolyte now, of course, but I'm sure his hands are full there.)

      "What was the discernment process/training like? Did you undergo formal training in The Subdiaconate for solemn mass?"

      I assume every candidate was nominated by their pastors for faithful witness to Christ and longstanding service in their communities. While, in my own case, I haven't been a member of my Ordinariate parish for very long, I was a parishioner and chanter at an Anglican Use church (Our Lady of the Atonement) for many years prior. Some were acting as lay clerks already (as they had been doing since their days in the Anglican world); however, the bishop has ruled that after the weekend of institution, any servers who exercise the subdiaconal ministry are required to be instituted (or else be deacons or priests, obviously). This was rightly done to set the role apart from other forms of altar service.

      On training, we worked on the subdiaconal ministry pretty much exclusively. Anything else can be taught at the local level, and most acolytes are probably familiar with serving Mass as MC, anyway. (Though now we may serve as MC in a way more analogous to the "clerical MC" of the EF, like handling the pall.) Part of the weekend's purpose was to establish norms for how the subdiaconate would be exercised throughout the Ordinariate, because there are no rubrics in our Missal for the position, other than that it exists. Much is left to tradition and custom.

      The only other two roles I remember us covering were, briefly, the verger and the tunicled crucifer. The verger's role was covered probably because it's not common outside of the Cathedral; although the role certainly doesn't require institution, it tends to be exercised by senior, respected men of the parish (many of whom were nominated to be instituted). As for the crucifer, it's not any different except that one must be instituted to wear the tunicle. If only one acolyte is present, he may carry the processional cross and then act in the role of subdeacon for the rest of Mass (as in EF pontifical Mass).

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Whatever valid criticisms you may have had on the use of female lectors was lost amid the unnecessary and unbecoming insults.....

  3. Did anyone ask why the men instituted as acolytes were directly instituted to that ministry instead of receiving that of lector first? Thanks.

    1. Hmm, I don't recall anyone asking that. However, from my reading of Ministeria Quaedam, it seems clear that the ministries can be conferred independently of one another, even though "acolyte" would follow "lector" in the traditional cursus honorum of minor orders. (The motu proprio also authorizes bishops' conferences to establish other ministries like "catechist", which wouldn't fit clearly into the old scheme; as well as restore the old orders of "porter" and "exorcist" on a regional/national level.)

      I suppose the practical answer to your question is that:

      1.) According to the motu proprio, a certain interval of time must be observed between the conferral of multiple ministries. For all acolytes to also be instituted as lectors would then require two separate visits to the Cathedral. That would be very expensive.

      2.) In the Ordinariate Missal's Rubrical Directory (its own supplement to the GIRM, you could say), the instituted acolyte is explicitly authorized to read the Epistle, in addition to exercising the subdiaconal role. So perhaps there is less practical incentive to host another event to institute the acolytes as lectors.

      Still, if I were accepted into diaconal formation, I assume that I'd have to be instituted as a lector at some point, if only to fulfill canon law.

    2. Dear Modern Medievalist,

      Congratulations on your institution to the Acolytate. May God bless you in your service.

      In response to your comments above, I would point out that if the Rubrical Directory states that an instituted acolyte is authorized to read the Epistle, the Directory may itself be presuming that all instituted Acolytes have already received the ministry of Lector before having been made acolytes since this used to be the universal practice.

      Also, I would like to point out an interesting Article published by Father McNamara on Zenit, which argues that the Lectorate must likely be received before one receives the Acolytate. However, he also points out that the bishop has the power to dispense from the interval between receiving the Lectorate and the Acolytate so that for a reasonable cause, both ministries may be conferred upon the same candidate in the same ceremony. I know that this can be done, because my bishop did confer both ministries on me in the same celebration.

      I would also point out Ministeria Quaedam says that the role of the subdeacon are split between the Lector and the Acolyte, the roles are not simply given entirely to one or the other of these two ministries, which suggests to me that ideally, one should have both of the roles before exercising the function of subdeacon. (Unless, the powers of the Lector are conferred upon someone automatically when they receive the ministry of acolyte. In which case, why would you need to be instituted as a lector retroactively?) That being said though, it's important to note that even in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, a man who had only been tonsured or had received any one of the minor orders, was allowed to function as a "Straw Subdeacon" at a Solemn High mass in cases of necessity. Of course, there were ritual restrictions on what these substitute subdeacons were allowed to do and wear during the mass, but they could fill most of the subdeacon's role.

      That being said, Ministeria Quaedam also entrusts all of the functions of the subdeacon completely to the Ministries of Lector and Acolyte, so that some Theologians wonder if one who has been instituted into the ministry of acolyte using the modern books is acting as a Straw Subdeacon or as an Actual Subdeacon since the Motu Proprio seems to bestow all of the Subdeacon's powers upon the ministries of Acolyte and Lector.

      If you're interested the Zenit article to which I referred, it may be read here:

      May God bless you.

    3. Hi Matt,

      I think there is a lot of confusion concerning how these ministries are supposed to be conferred when a person is not a candidate for the Diaconate or priesthood. I know that my bishop instituted me as a Lector and then as an Acolyte in the same ceremony, but I've also heard of at least one other person who was instituted as an Acolyte without previous institution into the Lectorate. Most Canon law and Vatican documents seem to make the presumption that these ministries are received in the traditional order. First, the Lectorate, and then second, the Acolytate.

    4. Hi Anonymous, I agree there is a good deal of confusion. I was reading a book called Minor Orders by Fr. Louis Bacuez. On page 16 he writes, "If the Order received per saltum were the priesthood, the person would, in virtue of his Ordination, have all the lower orders, since they are only parts or divisions of the Order of priesthood. But it would not be the same if the Order received were the diaconate, sub-diaconate, or one of the Minor Orders. The reason of this is that each of the lower Orders, up to priesthood, has an entirely distinct object, and since the lower does not belong to the higher, as a part to the whole, the power and grace which has already been received for the exercise of one does not imply the power and grace necessary to exercise the others."

      Granted, this is not a declaration from Rome, but it would seem to be food for thought about how the traditional hierarchy of the clergy is conceived. It would seem that, traditionally, each step of minor orders did NOT contain the previous orders in itself despite them being received in a specific order. Is anyone reading this above quote differently?

  4. A couple men from our local Ordinariate parish attended this as well. I have been subdeacon there a few times since I was instituted an acolyte (as well as lector, and given candidacy though that really doesn't matter any more since I left the seminary) and know my way around the sanctuary somewhat convincingly.

    I am glad Bishop Lopes sees the value of an instituted ministry restored more along the Tridentine thoughts on a restored Minor Orders versus relegating them back to just steps towards priestly ordination.