Subdeacon (or sub-deacon) is a minor order or ministry for men in various branches of Christianity. The subdeacon has a specific liturgical role and is placed between the acolyte (or reader) and the deacon in the order of precedence.
A subdeacon or hypodeacon is the highest of the minor orders of clergy in the Eastern Orthodox Church. This order is higher than the reader and lower than the deacon.
Like the reader, the clerical street-dress of the subdeacon is the cassock, which is usually black but only need be so if he is a monk. This is symbolic of his suppression of his own tastes, will, and desires, and his canonical obedience to God, his bishop, and the liturgical and canonical norms of the Church. As a concession in countries where Eastern Orthodoxy is little known, many only wear the cassock when attending liturgies or when moving about the faithful on church business. In some jurisdictions in the United States, a clergy-shirt will sometimes be worn instead of a cassock, and is commonly worn buttoned but with no collar or collar-tab to indicate a rank lower than deacon.
There is a special liturgy for the tonsuring of a subdeacon, although in contemporary practice an acolyte or a reader may receive the bishop's blessing to vest and act as a subdeacon generally or for a particular occasion if there is no subdeacon available. This situation often arises if there is a need for a subdeacon and a likely candidate has stated an intention to marry but has not yet done so, causing a delay in his ordination. The reason for this lies in the fact that the canons prohibit subdeacons to marry after their ordination (just like deacons and priests). This latter stipulation has led, in some places, to the reservation of the formal ordination liturgy as a stepping-stone for candidates for the priesthood, although this is by no means universal. It also means that, while teenagers who show particular fervour may be ordained as acolytes and readers, the subdiaconate is usually reserved for those of more mature years; the canonical minimum age for subdiaconal ordination is twenty years.
A custom in some jurisdictions is that former seminarians who have discerned not to have a calling to the priesthood or diaconate, are, if they wish (and provided that they are married, or being unmarried, do not intend to marry), ordained subdeacons as a sign of investment, faith, and to award their service.
In the Byzantine Rite, (followed by the majority of Eastern Orthodox churches), the subdeacon's liturgical role is primarily that of servant to the bishop. He assists the bishop during hierarchical liturgies, (at which a hierarch/bishop is present and presiding) by vesting him, by looking after and presenting the trikiridikiri, placing the orletzi, operating the veil and Royal Doors, and handing the bishop and relieving him of all that he needs so as to enable him to perform his role of prayer undistracted. Outside of hierarchical liturgies, the subdeacon serves in the altar as any other server but, as highest-ranking of the minor clergy, is responsible for co-ordinating and leading the serving team. In addition to the above duties, the subdeacon may read the reading from the Epistle at the Divine Liturgy if there is only one deacon. The subdeacon also has practical responsibilities in the care of the altar, by cleaning it, looking after the clergy vestments and the cloths of the Holy Table, cleaning and mending them, and changing them according to the feasts, fasts, and seasons. For this reason, he has a general blessing to touch the Holy Table and the Table of Oblation, which Readers and other servers may not do. He is also responsible for the training of new servers.
The clerical street-wear of a subdeacon is the inner-cassock (podryasnik) and outer cassock (ryasa). Many wear the cassock only when present among the church community or attending to church business.
For liturgies, the subdeacon is vested in a sticharion with an orarion tied around his waist, up over his shoulders (forming a cross in back), and with the ends crossed over, and tucked under the section around the waist. This distinguishes them from acolytes in those jurisdictions where acolytes are ordained and blessed to wear the orarion, as the latter do not wear the orarion crossed in front but simply hanging straight down.
The ordination to the subdiaconate is performed outside of the altar and in a context other than the Divine Liturgy. The reader who is to be tonsured subdeacon is presented to the bishop by two other subdeacons, who first lead him to the nave. There he faces east and makes a prostration before turning to make three prostrations towards the bishop, moving further west after each one. He is then led to stand immediately before the bishop. The subdeacons present the orarion to the bishop, who blesses it. The ordinand then kisses the orarion and the bishop's hand, and the subdeacons vest the ordinand in the orarion.
The bishop blesses the ordinand three times with the sign of the Cross upon his head, then lays his right hand upon the ordinand's head and prays the prayer of ordination. The new subdeacon kisses the bishop's right hand and makes a prostration before the bishop, after which the more senior subdeacons drape a towel over his shoulders and present him with a ewer and basin, with which he washes the bishop's hands after the usual manner. The bishop dries his hands and the three subdeacons receive the bishop's blessing and kiss his hands.
The senior subdeacons return to the altar while the new subdeacon, still holding the ewer and basin, stands on the soleas, facing the icon of the Mother of God and saying particular prayers quietly. The Sixth Hour is completed and the Divine Liturgy continues as usual. The subdeacon remains on the soleas until the Cherubikon, when he and two senior subdeacons wash the bishop's hands as usual.
At the Great Entrance, the new subdeacon joins on the very end of the procession, carrying the ewer and basin and, after the commemorations, takes the blessed water to the people so that they may bless themselves with it.
On occasions when there is a shortage of altar servers, the newly ordained subdeacon may be required to serve at the Liturgy, in which case the taking of the blessed water to the people may be omitted, and he may be asked not to stay on the soleas but rather to assist with serving duties in the altar and at the entrances.
In the Western Rite, the subdeacon's role is essentially as an assistant to the deacon in performing his diaconal role. This perhaps more clearly reflects the origins of the subdiaconate than in the Byzantine Rite, where, rather than the subdeacon assisting the deacon, many formerly diaconal functions have, over time, come to be seen as properly belonging to the subdeacon in his own right. In the Western Rite, the subdeacon is charged with reading the epistle at a High Mass (the most solemn and elaborate form of the western Eucharist) – a role that may be performed by a priest or reader at a simpler form of the mass, and with assisting the deacon with the preparation of the oblations and with carrying them to the altar, (in those western rites that retain the Offertory Procession). He also assists the deacon during the reading of the Gospel by carrying the Gospel book to and from (depending on the rite used) the place of proclamation, and by acting as a support for the book while the Gospel is read. At pontifical liturgies (at which a pontiff or bishop is present and presiding), the subdeacon also assists the deacon in the vesting of the bishop.
The usual street-wear of the subdeacon is the cassock. (There is no distinction between an inner and outer cassock in the Western Rite, and all clergy wear one cassock only).
During liturgies, the subdeacon vests in an alb, over which he wears the maniple, the cincture, and the tunicle. Unlike his brother subdeacons in the Byzantine Rite who wear the orarion, the subdeacon does not wear its western equivalent - the stole - which is reserved for deacons, priests, and bishops.
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Prior to the reform instituted by Pope Paul VI with his motu proprio Ministeria quaedam of 15 August 1972, the subdiaconate was regarded as the lowest of the three major orders of the Latin Church. He decreed that "the major order of subdiaconate no longer exists in the Latin Church" and that the functions previously assigned to the subdeacon are now entrusted to the acolyte and the lector; he also decreed that, where the local episcopal conference so desired, the acolyte could be called a subdeacon.
The traditional rites of ordination to the subdiaconate and the minor orders (those of acolyte, exorcist, lector and porter) are still employed for members of certain Catholic religious institutes and societies of apostolic life authorized to use the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite.
As men in major orders, subdeacons, like deacons, were styled in English-speaking countries as "The Rev. Mr." In French the title of Abbé was often given to them and even to those in minor orders, as in the case of Franz Liszt.
The subdiaconate was generally considered a major order in the Latin church from the late 12th century. After that, ordination of a subdeacon did not include the laying on of hands. Instead, the bishop handed to him an empty chalice and paten, his vestments, cruets of wine and water, and the Book of the Epistles and pronounced a prayer of blessing for him. As a recipient of a major order, a subdeacon could not contract marriage, and any breach by him of the obligation to observe celibacy was classified as a sacrilege (cf. canon 132 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law). Canon 135 of the same Code of Canon Law obliged him to say all the canonical hours of the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours or Breviary).
The other major orders were those of the deacon and priest, that of bishop not being then considered an order distinct from that of priesthood. Thus, in speaking of orders, the Catechism of the Council of Trent declares : "Their number, according to the uniform and universal doctrine of the Catholic Church, is seven, Porter, Reader, Exorcist, Acolyte, Sub-deacon, Deacon and Priest. [...] Of these, some are greater, which are called 'Holy', some lesser, which are called 'Minor Orders'. The great or Holy Orders are Sub-deaconship, Deaconship and Priesthood; the lesser or Minor Orders are Porter, Reader, Exorcist, and Acolyte".
Today the Latin Church, as stated in the Code of Canon Law in force since 1983 ("The orders are the episcopate, the presbyterate, and the diaconate"), recognizes only three orders, those of bishop, priest (presbyter) and deacon, also referred to as "sacred orders" or "holy orders". In line with Pope Paul VI's Ministeria quaedam, what were called minor orders are now called ministries.
In the Solemn High Mass form of Tridentine Mass and the Ordinariate Mass, the duties of a subdeacon included those of crucifer, singing the Epistle, holding the Book of Gospels while the deacon sings the Gospel, carrying it back to the celebrant afterwards and assisting the priest or deacon in setting the altar. The subdeacon's specific vestment is the tunicle, in practice almost indistinguishable in form from the deacon's dalmatic (the tunicle is sometimes somewhat longer than the dalmatic or had slightly less elaborate decoration, but this is often unnoticeable by the casual church-goer). Unlike deacon and priest, he never wears a stole. In the former Mass rites he wore a maniple and also wore a humeral veil while holding the paten from the Offertory to the Our Father; and, if the chalice and paten with host are not already on the altar, he also used the humeral veil when bringing these to the altar at the Offertory. In practice, the roles of deacon and subdeacon in Solemn High Mass were generally performed by men already ordained as priests, wearing the subdiaconal or diaconal vestments. The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter uses instituted acolytes in the role of subdeacon, but also uses men ordained as priests or deacons for the subdiaconal role.
In the Eastern Catholic Churches which use the Byzantine Rite, the order of subdeacon is the highest of the minor orders and its functions are equivalent to those of Orthodox subdeacons.
Whilst the office of subdeacon was not included in the Orders of Clergy when the Church of England was reformed during the 16th century, certain churches and communities in the Anglican Communion and within the Anglican Continuing Churches assign a layperson to act as subdeacon in the celebration of the liturgy of the mass or Holy Eucharist (especially Solemn High Mass). However, this is considered a liturgical function one fulfills and not an order to which one is ordained. In some dioceses and provinces, laypersons who act as subdeacons in this manner may be required to be specifically authorised by the respective bishop or archbishop. In practice, an Anglican subdeacon performs similar roles to those performed in Latin Catholic or Western Rite Orthodox churches. The proper garments of the subdeacon are the alb and tunicle.