|Assisting at the blessing of gold, frankincense, myrrh, and chalk this past Epiphany.|
In the months following my institution as an acolyte in the Ordinariate, which I wrote about in my piece here last September, I unfortunately haven't yet been able to exercise the subdiaconal role for an Ordinariate liturgy because our parish doesn't have a deacon (which, as in the traditional Latin Rite, is required to have a proper high Mass with the three vested ministers). You could say my institution was partly in anticipation of us eventually getting one of our priestly candidates ordained transitionally to the diaconate. The good news is that in the meantime, I've been blessed to lend out my services in the role of subdeacon for three solemn Masses in the traditional Latin Rite at the local Cathedral-Basilica in Philadelphia, and once for a friend's wedding.
It's safe to say that in the western Church today, the vast majority of men who assist as subdeacons are either already priests, or they're seminarians from the Ecclesia Dei societies (such as the FSSP) who are just one or two years shy of being ordained as such. For them, the role is a stepping stone on the path that brings them ever closer to offering the holy sacrifice in their own right. This may be one reason why I haven't been able to find a written reflection anywhere on the Internet about one's experience in serving Mass as a lowly subdeacon--perhaps it's not been thought of as worth writing about. So, for today's column, I'll aim to fill the void by penning a brief reflection on my experience serving in this important but near-totally forgotten ministry.
The subdeacon, in essence, is the deacon's first minister, just as the deacon is to the celebrating priest. By wearing such a similar vestment and standing at the priest's left side just as the deacon stands to the priest's right, it's almost as though this ministry allows the deacon to "bilocate"--to stand in two places at once and more effectively carry out his own office. This will be clearer as we progress through the column. While it's true that subdeacons weren't used by the twelve Apostles, they're referred to in Christian literature as early as the 3rd century, demonstrating how cavalier it was to dispense of the office after 1970 like yesterday's garbage.
The subdeacon's office begins in the sacristy. Typically, when you walk in, the sacristan has already laid out three sets of vestments atop the central armoire, with the subdeacon taking the one on the left. Like the other ministers, after donning the cassock and washing his hands, the subdeacon starts with the amice, kissing it, laying it briefly over his head, then pulling it down and around his neck and shoulders. Ideally, he also recites the traditional vesting prayers before putting on each item, just as the priest does (I read them off of a card of my own design).
The vestment unique to the subdeacon is the tunicle with the prayer: "May the Lord clothe me in the tunicle of delight, and the garment of rejoicing." In theory, the tunicle is supposed to be a bit shorter and less embellished than the deacon's dalmatic, but in practice these days, they tend to look identical. Subdeacons began wearing these in Rome as early as the sixth century, although at various points in Church history, its use spread also to simple acolytes when serving in positions of honor such as carrying the processional cross--a custom still maintained in some Anglican and Ordinariate communities, and even some EF ones like our Cathedral Masses from time to time.
The tunicles laid out for me are usually of the stiff Baroque kind, which my longtime readers know I'm not fond of compared to the elegance of Gothic and other styles dating to the medieval era. On the other hand, I've come to accept that Baroque vestments are still infinitely preferable to the abominations you'll find in 98% of all the sacristies worldwide--polyester rags which any dime-store Wiccan priestess would be embarrassed to put on. Further, when I put on that tunicle, I become a servant, both to God and the people assembled to pray. If the vestments are devoutly made, meet the liturgical precepts, and edify the people who look at the ministers wearing them, who am I to complain? So, when I say "the garment of rejoicing", I really do mean it. It's a privilege to take up the subdiaconal office whenever I can.
Waiting for the signal, like "greyhounds straining upon the start", we line up for the procession in single file according to the order of precedence, although if the celebrant starts out with the cope instead of the chasuble, the deacon and subdeacon stand to his left and right to hold the edges up. Depending on how many people show up for a Mass at the Cathedral, we might take a circuitous route around the back of the church to make for a longer procession down the central aisle. Upon entering the Cathedral's enormous sanctuary, we turn left and right to salute anyone sitting in the choir stalls, then gather at the foot of the altar. The MC walks by to collect our birettas, then we begin reciting the Prayers of Preparation while the choir chants the Introit.
In the vast space of Ss. Peter & Paul, Psalm 42 and the Confiteor actually take on quite an intimate nature because no one in the congregation, and possibly not even the acolytes over by the credence table, can hear what we're saying. In fact, I can barely hear the deacon to match his cadence when reciting our versicles together. There's also the awkward feeling when you're standing to recite the Prayers at the Foot, because any altar server for the Extraordinary Form from the MC on down has, until this point, only ever recited the Prayers at the Foot while kneeling (at my Ordinariate parish, we stand for the Prayers of Preparation in English, but we recite them in the sacristy immediately before processing in for Mass, so that's different). When the priest turns from side to side during his confession to say et vobis, fratres ("and to you, brothers") and you're standing beside him, you get a sense that he's reciting the prayer as it was originally meant to be. At least in my mind, fratres doesn't seem to ring quite as true when the only one being addressed is a 10-year old boy.
We ascend the altar together so the priest can incense it. Whenever I go up the steps with the priest, I pinch and lift up the hem of his alb to give him greater freedom of movement as he goes up: one of many gestures that modern man derides, as though we treat the priest like an enfeebled old man. Every time the priest genuflects, I place my hand on his elbow to stabilize him and help him get back up. When he walks from side to side swinging the thurible, I lift up the edge of his chasuble to let him extend his arms freely. Of course, with a fiddleback, this is purely symbolic, but if he were wearing a voluminous conical chasuble, holding up the edges would be a practical necessity.
|On the Epiphany, the poinsettias were really getting in the way of things....|
You'll notice that the ministers go through much of the Mass lined up like ducks in a row above. The Roman Rite is fond of visually emphasizing order and how everyone has their assigned place. (Practically, it means the subdeacon spends a lot of time looking at the back of the deacon's neck.) Every old parish church with this series of steps leading up to the high altar was built with the idea that they at least had the potential to celebrate a high Mass with the traditional three vested ministers all lined up in a path of ascent. Just one of many signs of how radically priorities have changed is in the way altars are arranged in most modern churches: with no steps, but rather, placed just so that as many people as possible can gather around it horizontally.
The subdeacon's most visible, and audible, "job" at high Mass is chanting the Epistle reading. At the Cathedral, the MC walks up beside me, presents me with the Book of Epistles, and shows me to my place. It's a cavernous space to fill with one's voice, especially if you're facing ad Orientem ("away from the people", as the other party calls it). Right away, you appreciate the genius of requiring a minister to sing the text because, from a purely practical point of view, to merely shout the reading across the cathedral in the spoken tone without the aid of a microphone would make anyone go hoarse by the end of the lesson. Once that's done, I return to the priest, going up the altar steps at the Epistle side to present the book to him, kiss his hand, and receive a blessing.
After the priest privately reads the Gradual and Alleluia (or Tract in Lent) out of the altar missal, I go up to switch the missal over to the Gospel side, then return to the foot to help form up the gospel procession. We all follow the candle-bearing acolytes to the place where the Gospel is to be read, and I hold the Gospel-book for the deacon in such a way that he can chant it facing north (sideways, from the congregation's point of view). After the reading, I make a beeline for the priest, presenting the Gospel-book to him while pointing to the beginning of the lesson so he can kiss it. It's one of many small actions that you can easily miss just watching from the pew, but I like to think of it as one of many gestures that give lie to the idea that Catholics don't revere the Bible.
During the sermon (and possibly the Gloria, or even a very long Gradual) we sit at the sedilia. Unless the celebrant is also preaching, we feed his chasuble behind the back of his seat to let him sit down unencumbered, then the deacon and subdeacon bow to each other and sit. Sometimes we'll have the first and second MC on either side of the sedilia to even attend to the deacon and subdeacon with their birettas and the backs of the vestments. If that seems like an excessive chain of waiting-and-being-waited-upon, I'll assure you that there's no comfort whatsoever in sitting in a prescribed posture (upright, hands on knees, not gazing mindlessly around the church) with stiff vestments. Strictly speaking, just as in Downton Abbey, you're not supposed to lean against the back of the sedilia because the backs are strictly ornamental. With so many things to remember, both at the bench and throughout the whole liturgy, one can appreciate the wisdom, yet again, of having the MC prompt the ministers on when to doff their birettas (such as at the uttering of the Holy Name of Jesus, and certain sung phrases like suscipe deprecationem nostram/"receive our prayer"). It may be different for those subdeacons who are privileged to assist in the role on a weekly basis, but for those whom only perform the office on occasion, there's a lot to mentally keep track of while also maintaining any kind of prayerful reverence all at once.
At the Offertory, I go over to the credence table and allow acolytes to help clasp the humeral veil around me. With it, I carry the chalice and paten up to the deacon. Usually as an altar server, you might present the wine and water cruets to the priest for him to pour into the chalice himself, but at solemn high Mass, the deacon and subdeacon do the pouring for him. The deacon then gives me the paten to hold and "hide" under the humeral veil at the foot of the altar for the whole Canon of the Mass. This curious custom has had a lot of mystical associations fixed to it over the centuries, but its origins may stem from practices of the early Church that have otherwise long since passed into history. Mr. Louis Tofari has a detailed column on this very subject (using a photo from our nuptial liturgy for the header) here.
|Another one of the subdeacon's duties is going around, "passing the peace". The Roman pax, however, is a lot more deliberate and dignified than what most of us are accustomed to when we think of the "sign of peace".|
The most powerful moment of the Mass for me when serving as subdeacon is the priest's Communion. In the Ordinary Form, the priest's and people's Communions are done in a fluid sequence, but in the old rite, the order of Mass makes it clear that the celebrant's act of receiving Communion alone is what completes the holy sacrifice. There's a whole series of prayers and actions leading up to it, and the Communion for everyone else in attendance (even be he a cardinal) is made in a separate ritual which, for centuries, was more often done completely outside of Mass altogether. But when the priest receives, the deacon and subdeacon wait upon him on either side until right before he's about to receive the Host. At that point, they step a few paces back and bow to give the priest some space to reverently receive. We then return and I uncover the chalice so he can receive the Precious Blood. Again stepping back and then returning, after I replace the pall on top of the chalice, the deacon and I switch sides and proceed with the "second Confiteor".
Perhaps the worst aspect of assisting as subdeacon is in distributing Communion to the faithful. What I mean here is that, in the traditional arrangement, the deacon and subdeacon accompany the celebrant to every person who receives the Host from him. The deacon at least has a real job to do by holding the altar paten under each communicant's chin. The subdeacon, however, merely stands the celebrant's side ornamentally. I suppose he could come in handy if a ruffian came up to assault the priest, or if the priest accidentally dropped the ciborium.... but otherwise, the subdeacon just stands there, hands folded, watching God's children of every size and shape receive the Body and Blood of Christ. One thing I do like is how often I see someone come forward, sticking their hands out even while kneeling. Obviously to most of my readers, there's no Communion in the hand allowed at a traditional Latin Mass! But what it means to me when someone does this is that they've come to discover something new. It may be their first time attending a Latin Mass, or perhaps they accidentally walked into the "wrong Mass". That's okay, though, because the old liturgy is for everyone--not just a select few who have long cultivated an appreciation for dead languages and seemingly esoteric worship. The rebuilding of what was lost is done by just these sorts of encounters: one by one, soul by soul.
My last major duty is at the very end of Mass, or perhaps more properly speaking, just after the end. As I did for deacon during the Gospel reading, I hold up the Gospel again, this time for the priest to read John 1:1 off of the card. In other forms of Mass, the priest simply reads off of the card as it rests on the altar, but in a high Mass, the subdeacon will actually go to the corner and pick the card up for him to read. At the words et verbum caro factum est ("and the Word was made flesh"), the subdeacon is the only one in the church who remains standing because everyone else genuflects with the priest.
We're given back our birettas and recess out just the same way we came, back to the sacristy. Before removing our vestments, there's a beautiful little devotion that we do at the Cathedral which the congregation never sees. As the ministers approach the cross in the sacristy, the priest says, Prosit ("may it be to your benefit"). The deacon, subdeacon, and all the servers respond, pro omnibus et singulis (for all and for each). Then we all kneel to receive a final blessing. Thus, we put away our vestments, and the long, thankless work of our sacristans and servers in dismantling the high altar and all the EF-related items begins.
The subdiaconal ministry is a privilege to me for allowing me to be so close to the altar, and a blessing for those attending who get to partake in the full ceremonial of the Church's rich liturgical tradition. However, in the end, all I do is follow a set of instructions as closely as I can manage by people who know the ceremonies better than I do, all while maintaining a reverent and respectful bearing. The real work in making these grand liturgies possible is done behind the scenes. Remember that many Latin Mass communities (and Ordinariate groups as well) ultimately run the sacristy out of a few dedicated laymen's car trunks because they're using borrowed space. If you ever attend Mass at such a place, be sure to offer a kind word of thanks or a helping hand to those laymen who make it all possible!