Last week, I wrote a post Ascending by steps, congratulating seminarians from Wonersh who had received the ministries of lector and acolyte. A commenter said "I thought all the minor orders had been done away with?" which raises two questions. Can we still speak of seminarians ascending by steps to ordination to the sacred priesthood? and have the minor orders been done away with?
In 1972, Pope Paul VI issued the Apostolic Letter Ministeria Quaedam (English translation via EWTN.) Perhaps the most radical element of this letter is the enactment "First tonsure is no longer conferred; entrance into the clerical state is joined to the diaconate." The letter also laid down that "What up to now were called minor orders are henceforth to be called ministries" and said that those of reader and acoylte were to be preserved but no longer restricted to those who are candidates for Holy Orders.
In fact, in most countries, lay people are not generally instituted as lectors and acolytes. A possible reason for this is their restriction to men. Generally only seminarians are instituted as lectors and acolytes, though I heard that in Australia non-seminarians are sometimes instituted as lectors and acolytes in parishes.
Ministeria Quaedam was a significant departure from tradition. Pope Paul himself noted that:
Certain ministries were established by the Church even in the most ancient times (vetustissimis iam temporibus) for the purpose of suitably giving worship to God and for offering service to the people of God according to their needs.The minor orders do indeed have a long history: they are mentioned by Pope Cornelius and in the Apostolic Tradition. Tertullian mentions the lectorate.
After Ministeria Quaedam, a new status of admission as a candidate for Holy Orders was introduced. In English seminaries, this is usually given after institution as lector and acolyte, though most Roman documents presume that it will come before, rather as a parallel to the traditional tonsure. When I was a student in Rome, the ministries of lector and acolyte were given at Pallazzola because the Bishop there would allow them to be given before candidacy whereas the Vicariate of Rome would not. (As I received candidacy in Rome, I had to go for a special canonical exam at the Vicariate.)
Again in Rome, I think it must have been in 1983, Pope John Paul issued a letter requiring all those who had been admitted to candidacy to wear clerical dress. This was a dramatic change for the English College since prior to that we were not allowed to wear clerical dress in the College before being ordained to the diaconate.
The reasoning behind this was that in the new scheme, a student did not become a cleric until ordination to the diaconate. I understand that legally this is still the case, even in the FSSP and the ICKSP where those who have received the tonsure are not legally clerics (though, of course, they wear clerical dress.)
So there is some confusion in the present state of things. Non-clerics wear, and are even mandated to wear clerical dress even though they are not clerics. And the "lay ministries" of lector and acolyte are normally only given to seminarians. As a personal opinion, I would be in favour of a return to the old scheme of the minor orders and entrance into the clerical state with the first tonsure, normally given after two years in major seminary. Again as a personal opinion, if the present scheme is retained, I would be in favour of candidacy being given at about that time into training, with the expectation of wearing clerical dress, and a conditional understanding that both the student and the staff are confident that all things being equal, the student is expected to proceed through training to ordination provided that no pressing reason urges otherwise.
So can we speak of "ascending by steps"? Well certainly we can because the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis of 1985 uses exactly that expression:
The priesthood is reached only by steps: these are indicated by the liturgical rite of admission and by the ministries of lectorate and acolytate which dispose towards determined ecclesiastical functions, after which there takes place a good pedagogical and spiritual initiation.And have the minor orders been done away with? Not if we consider the FSSP and the ICKSP who have ceremonies for ordination to all of them. The unfortunate legal situation whereby the tonsure does not admit to the clerical state is an anomaly. It would be good for a revision of this situation to take place serenely in due course. Once again as a personal opinion I would say that Ministeria Quaedam has not been the most successful of post-conciliar reforms.
Al sacerdozio si giunge solamente per gradi: questi sono indicati dal rito liturgico dell'ammissione e dai ministeri del lettorato e dell'accolitato che dispongono a determinate funzioni ecclesiastiche, dopo che si è avuta una buona iniziazione pedagogica e spirituale.