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Major Orders by Matthew Please

The Major Orders

In Part One of this series we discussed the Church Militant, the Laity, and the Minor Orders.

Who’s Who in the Church Militant – Part Two

Major Orders

There are three Major Orders which are received in the sequence listed below. As the name implies, there is a substantive difference between the Major Orders and Minor Orders. Once the bishop permits a seminarian to be ordained a subdeacon, normally advised by the seminary faculty, it means he believes the seminarian has been called by God to the priesthood.

During the formative years of Minor Orders, the bishop (and/or seminary faculty) may tell a man he must leave that seminary as they have discerned he does not have a vocation there.[1] However, after a man has entered Major Orders, he would be asked to leave only under the most exceptional circumstances. Granted, men do still leave the seminary in those final years, but this choice is based on personal discernment, not upon the bishop and faculty ‘changing their mind.’

Thus, the passage from Minor to Major Orders marks a highly significant step in the seminarian’s path. There is perhaps no other more intense time for prayerful reflection upon God’s call. A possible exception might be the decision to enter the seminary in the first place, yet the decision to proceed to the subdiaconate is far more informed as the seminarian has already been in religious formation for approximately four years.

It is extremely regrettable that this crucial step has been destroyed by the modern innovations following Vatican II. Seminarians are no longer given this specific time for intense prayer and reflection, which leads to more weakly-willed decisions for some and consequently, an increased probability of abandoning the priesthood in the future.

Subdeacon: With this first step in Major Orders, a man is now permitted to be much closer to the Altar of Sacrifice – physically and liturgically. The subdeacon assists the deacon, brings the sacred vessels to the altar, and ensures the availability of holy water for the holy rites. The subdeacon also chants the Epistle at a Solemn Mass. He assists the deacon in serving the priest at the Altar. He wears a humeral veil while bringing the chalice to the altar (at the Offertory). During part of the Roman Canon, he even veils his eyes – mystically representing the people of the Old Covenant.

Deacon: Receiving the stole and the dalmatic are specific liturgical symbols that a man is being ordained a deacon. The dalmatic is commonly referred to as the deacon’s vestment because the stole is also worn by priests. The stole symbolizes the priest’s authority to perform the sacraments, and since the deacon is an ordinary minister of the sacrament of Baptism, it makes sense that he also receive the stole. The deacon, however, wears the stole as a diagonal sash across his torso, whereas the priest wears the stole around his neck with both ends hanging down the sides of his torso. This is the easiest way to distinguish a deacon from a priest within the liturgy.

Once a man is ordained a deacon, he receives a new sacramental character as the bishop explicitly prays for him to “Receive the Holy Ghost.” The Council of Trent explains:

“If any one saith, that, by sacred ordination, the Holy Ghost is not given; and that vainly therefore do the bishops say, Receive ye the Holy Ghost; or, that a character is not imprinted by that ordination; or, that he who has once been a priest, can again become a layman; let him be anathema.”[2]

The deacon assists the priest by baptizing, proclaiming the Gospel at Mass, preaching the sermon, and administering Holy Communion. He also directly assists the priest with the sacred vessels at Mass and can transfer the Blessed Sacrament to and from the Tabernacle.

The diaconate traditionally refers to the order that a man receives before his ordination to the priesthood. The introduction of the “permanent diaconate” by Paul VI represents an obvious rupture with the immemorial tradition of the Church. Nowadays, a deacon may be either a single or married man who remains in this state permanently, rather than serving as a deacon for roughly one year before ordination to the priesthood.[3]

There are numerous problems with this novel “married deacon” state, but the most pernicious is that it paves the path for “married priests” and then for women to be ordained to the diaconate. Such an action would be a grave abuse striking at the heart of Apostolic Practice and Divine Commandment, yet there are many voices in today’s hierarchy endorsing such a sacrilege.

Priest: The priest offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and administers all the Sacraments. He hears confessions and instructs the faithful in the truths of the Faith. He is an “alter Christus,” or another Christ. There is a great dignity to the priesthood because the priest must resemble Christ. The Catechism of St. Pius X explains:

“The Catholic Priesthood is necessary in the Church, because without it the faithful would be deprived of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and of the greater part of the sacraments; they would have no one to instruct them in the faith; and they would be as sheep without a shepherd, a prey to wolves; in short, the Church, such as Christ instituted it, would no longer exist.”

Priests can be either secular (meaning they are not part of a religious order and serve a diocese) or religious (meaning they are part of a religious order). Both secular and religious priests make vows of obedience and celibacy; however, the secular priest does not make the vow of poverty. In practical terms of today, this means a secular priest can own his own belongings and property (house, car, land, etc.), whereas a religious priest does not personally own such items as all property is held in common by the religious order and under the direction of its superiors.

Bishop: A bishop is a priest who is elevated to a higher level of ordination. The bishop oversees the parishes and priests within his diocese. He usually has a cathedral church. The bishop is the “ordinary minister” of Confirmation. At certain times in the Mass and in various liturgical ceremonies, he wears a mitre on his head and carries a staff, called a crosier. When you greet a bishop, it is proper to first kiss his ring.[4]

Bishop Pierre-Marie Theas of Lourdes, in Only Through These Hands: A Treatise on the Office of the Bishop in the Catholic Church, remarked on the episcopacy, the office of the bishop: “The episcopacy is not a human institution. It was not established because there was a need for good management, nor because the Bishops are delegates whom the Pope chooses to exercise his office. Rather the episcopacy has a divine origin – instituted by Christ: no one may suppress it, not even the Pope.” He continues elsewhere: “The responsibility of the Bishop is sublime and the charge which the Church imposes on him is very heavy. Pray for your Bishops and look on them with the faith of the Church.”

Pope: The Pope is the Head of the Catholic Church. He is the Vicar of Christ and called the “Holy Father”. Today, he is chosen by an election only after a Pope dies (or resigns), and yet in the past the Pope has been selected by other means. The manner by which a new Pope is selected is not of divine origin but the office of the papacy is divinely established. Today, only Cardinals vote in that election, which has taken place in the Sistine Chapel in Rome for centuries.[5] After each vote the ballots are burned. If the smoke is black, that means no Pope is chosen. If the smoke is white, that means there is a new Pope.

You must always pray for the Pope that he may guide the Church as Christ would.[6] This is so important that the Church has traditionally associated praying for the Pope as a standard condition for nearly all indulgences. The prayer is not specified but a commonly accepted practice is to pray an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be. A good Catholic does this every day and forms the habitual intention to gaining all the indulgences he possibly can. We are specifically supposed to pray for the Pope’s intentions, and so a good way[7] of doing this is to pray for the traditional intentions of the Pope (that is, of the papal office), which have been defined and fixed by Holy Mother Church herself. There are six:[8]

  1. The Exaltation of the Church
  2. The Propagation of the Faith
  3. The Extirpation of Heresy
  4. The Conversion of Sinners
  5. The Concord between Christian Princes
  6. The Further Welfare of the Christian People

This obligation to pray for the Pope is even more necessary today and is an integral part of the Message of Fatima. Our Lady specifically asked us to pray for the Pope; and Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta especially, prayed and sacrificed very much for the Holy Father. We strongly encourage you to offer prayers and penances for the Pope every single day.

In the final portion of this article, we will take a cursory look at those members of the Church Militant who have taken religious vows.


[1] In such circumstances, a seminarian might nonetheless have a vocation to the priesthood. It has often happened that a man leaves the seminary of one diocese and joins the seminary of another diocese or of a religious order where he is ordained. Another might leave the house of formation of one religious order, say the Jesuits, to join another, for example the Dominicans, and it is there that he finds his true vocation from God. The same holds true for women religious.

[2] Canon IV, Session XXIII of the Council of Trent (15 July 1563). We encourage anyone interested in learning more about the Sacrament of Orders to read Session 23 from Trent, as it is here that the Church very clearly laid out infallible principles concerning this holy sacrament.

[3] Whereas before Vatican II a man would enter the clerical state with his tonsure, a ceremony that precedes the first minor order, the Church now views the clerical state as only beginning with the diaconate. Priests ordained in the New Rite still are ordained as deacons before their priestly ordination, as it is the only order that has been kept leading up to the priesthood. This, of course, is not the case with Traditional Orders who still maintain, with the Vatican’s permission too, the traditional minor orders in addition to the subdeaconate. It is important to note that no authority on earth – not even the Pope – can eliminate these orders, as Holy Mother Church has already infallibly taught: “If any one saith, that, besides the priesthood, there are not in the Catholic Church other orders, both greater and minor, by which, as by certain steps, advance is made unto the priesthood; let him be anathema.” – Canon II of Session XXIII of the Council of Trent. The second chapter of this same Session enumerates the seven orders.

[4] It should be noted that abbots, while in their monastery, also have the right to the mitre and crosier. Abbesses receive the crosier as well, but do not receive the mitre.

[5] For many centuries it was the local clergy of Rome who elected the Pope; cardinals did not exist until the second millennia of Church history. Today the College of Cardinals only votes for a cardinal to become Pope. However, for the first thousand years of the Church’s history it was not licit for a bishop of one diocese to become the bishop of another diocese. This practice was firmly mandated by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD (Canon 15). Thus, the Popes in the early centuries were never bishops, but usually monks, deacons or priests.

[6] The Pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals. For example, when the Pope declared that Our Lady is the Immaculate Conception, this was infallible (without error). The Holy Spirit guides the Pope in making these declarations and Catholics can be assured of their truth. However, papal infallibility does not apply to ordinary papal statements or the Pope’s personal opinions. The Pope is not impeccable, meaning sinless. Infallibility and impeccability are vastly different.

[7] We recommend this manner of praying for the Pope’s intentions as a “good and safe” Catholic way of praying. We know that today many faithful Catholics are concerned about praying for certain intentions published by the current Holy See which run contrary to Catholic piety and infallible doctrine. This has even led some Catholics to stop praying for the Pope’s intentions altogether. This is lamentable as they are then not eligible for many indulgences. Worse, it is not what Our Lady of Fatima requested. Thus, please do pray for the Pope’s traditional intentions, which never change!

[8] I elaborated on these six in another article posted at The Fatima Center’s website: Praying for the Pope’s Intentions: The 6 Intentions of the Holy Father.

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