While Evan was home (we had him for the better part of a month) we spent some time talking about the seminary and what’s he’s been learning and doing. Among other things, this past fall he was working at drop-in shelter/soup kitchen. When they found out that he could bake, they set him to work making cookies and pies and such — anything that didn’t need to rise to be cooked. We also spent a little time talking about how religious formation has changed over time.
This might sound a bit esoteric, but it actually gives an interesting peek inside the history of the church in the post Vatican II era.
Prior to 1973, candidates for the priesthood went through several well-defined steps during their training. It started with the tonsure — a ceremonial haircut to mark the candidate’s entry into religious life. Think of the bowl cut you associate with Friar Tuck or Brother Cadfael. It was considered a sign that the candidate no longer cared about worldly fashion. By the middle of the last century, though, the bowl cut had given way to a ceremonial clipping of five tiny tufts of hair as the points of a cross on top of the candidate’s head.
During formation, the candidate would go through the four minor orders — porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte. The progression through the minor orders was a bit like gaining rank in the military, each of them brought the candidate new responsibilities. None of them were Divine or Apostolic in origin and they were added to the church at different times.
Formal ordination began with the order of the subdeacon. As the name implies, the subdeacon shares in some of the responsibilities, but not the full authority of an ordained deacon.
Candidates then — and now — go through ordination to the deaconate before making their final vows as priests.
In 1973 Pope Paul VI issued the Ministeria Quaedam which changed the minor orders into ministries. In doing so, he said:
Nevertheless, since the minor orders have not always been the same and many functions connected with them, as at present, have also been exercised by the laity, it seems fitting to reexamine this practice and to adapt it to contemporary needs. What is obsolete in these offices will thus be removed and what is useful retained; also anything new that is needed will be introduced and at the same time the requirements for candidates for holy orders will be established.
Many of the tasks which had been reserved for those in training have been taken over by the laity. This reflects the goal of Vatican II to encourage “full, conscious and active participation” by “all of the faithful”.
What’s interesting to me is that there are groups seeking a return to the use of minor orders. They feel that we have somehow lost something important. I wouldn’t want to interfere with anyone’s personal piety, but I think they may be missing the larger picture. Minor orders were never dogma nor did they reflect core theology. They were simply a process which reflected the needs of the church at the time. I would even suggest that the minor orders made it possible for the laity to sit back in the pews and treat the church as something to be observed rather than experienced; an inactive religion that kept faith at a distance from life.
For myself, getting involved has helped grow my faith. When you dedicate time to an activity — a job, a hobby, a cause or a religion — you naturally engage more fully in it. You learn, you question and you grow. Which, I guess, is my ultimate point.
The formation for Holy Orders is vital to the future of the church. We need the religious to fulfill their particular roles. But we’re fooling ourselves if we think that we shouldn’t be in constant formation as well.