Lower degrees of the hierarchy are designated by the name of minor orders, in opposition to the
Minor Orders (Lat. Ordines Minores). The lower degrees of the hierarchy are designated by the name of minor orders, in opposition to the “major” or “sacred” orders. At the present time the ranks of the clergy are entered by the tonsure (q.v.), after which all the orders without omission are received in succession. Moreover, ecclesiastics, as a general rule, no longer remain in the lower orders, the liturgical functions of which are discharged either by the clergy in the higher orders, as in exorcism, or by the laity, as in singing and serving at the altar. Formerly one entered the clergy by being appointed to discharge any of the functions reserved to ecclesiastics. Such functions were of two kinds. The liturgical ones constituted orders, though of a lower rank; by ordination the recipients of the minor orders received official authority to perform these functions. The other ecclesiastical functions were rather offices entrusted to clerics, whether ordained or not. Thus in the first centuries there figured in the ranks of the clergy notaries, defensores ecclesiae, oeconomi, catechists, cantors, fossores (for the cemeteries), etc., to say nothing of deaconesses. But these various offices did not constitute orders, and those who filled them formed part of the clergy without having been ordained, like tonsured clerics and lay-brothers of today. As to the liturgical functions attached to the various minor orders, they are really but a participation, originally rather indefinite, in the liturgical ministry formerly confided entirely to the deacons. This explains why minor orders differ in the Latin Church and in the various Eastern Churches.
In the East, though at an early date we hear of porters and exorcists (never of acolytes), after the Trullan Synod in 692, in accordance with its sixth canon, only lectors and cantors are known, and often even these orders coalesce, or are conferred at the same time; the three other minor orders of the Latin Church (porter, exorcist, acolyte) are held to be included in the subdiaconate. In the East, moreover, the subdiaconate has remained a minor order; in the West it was gradually detached from the minor orders, on account of its higher liturgical functions and also because of the vow of celibacy it called for. Finally, Innocent III definitively included it in the major orders, and made the subdeacon, as well as the deacon and priest, eligible for the episcopate (c. 9, “De wtate et qualit.”, I, tit. 14, an. 1207). There are, then, in the Western Church four minor orders: porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte; the cantors merely exercise an office and are not an order. These four orders are all mentioned about the year 252 in the famous letter of Pope Cornelius to Fabius of Antioch (Euseb., “Hist. Eccl.”, I, vi, 43): “He (Novatian) knew that there were in this Church (of Rome) 46 priests, 7 deacons, 7 subdeacons, 42 acolytes, and 52 exorcists, lectors, and porters.” This quotation shows that besides the acolytes, who were enumerated separately and were at Rome almost assimilated with the subdeacons, there was a kind of indefinite class formed by the clerics of the three latter orders. This seems to indicate that all clerics did not necessarily pass through the four lower orders; as a matter of fact the Council of Sardica (can. xiii) mentions only the lectorate as obligatory before receiving the diaconate. Pope Siricius (Ad Himerium, nn. 9-10) and Pope Zosimus (Ad Hesychium, nn. 1 and 3) describe for us the ordinary career of Roman clerics: from boyhood or youth they are lectors; about the age of twenty, acolytes or subdeacons; those who enter the clergy when already grown up are first exorcists or lectors, after a certain time acolytes or subdeacons. Briefly, it appears that the obligation of receiving all the minor orders without exception is a law dating from the time when the minor orders ceased to be exercised in the original way. Moreover, there is no longer any fixed age at which the minor orders may be received. Canon law is silent on the subject. Canonists, including Benedict XIV (Constitution, “Eo quamvis”, May 4, 1745), admit that minor orders may be conferred not only on those who have reached the age of puberty, but on boys over seven years. In fact, minor orders are usually conferred on ecclesiastical students during their seminary studies. The Council of Trent requires merely that the candidates understand Latin (Sess. XXIII, c. xii).
Although several medieval theologians regarded minor orders as sacramental, this opinion is no longer held, for the fundamental reason that minor orders, also the subdiaconate, are not of Divine or Apostolic origin. The rites by which they are conferred are quite different from ordination to holy orders. Minor orders are conferred by the presentation to the candidate of the appropriate instruments, in accordance with the ritual given in the “Statuta Ecclesiae antiqua”, a document which originated in Gaul about the year 500. We do not know how even in Rome the porters and exorcists were ordained in former times. Lectors received a simple benediction; acolytes were created by handing them the linen bag in which they carried the Eucharist; subdeacons by the reception of the chalice. Moreover, while deacons and priests could be ordained only on the four Ember Saturdays and on two Saturdays in Lent, minor orders could be conferred on any day. Even at the present time the latter may be conferred, apart from general ordinations, on all Sundays and on Holy Days of obligation, not necessarily at Mass. The usual minister of these orders, as of the others, is a bishop; but regular abbots who have received episcopal benediction may give the tonsure and minor orders to their subjects in religion. By papal privilege several prelates Nullius (i.e., exempt) can confer these orders. It is an almost universal custom now to confer the four minor orders at one time, and the Council of Trent (loc. cit.) leaves the bishop quite free to dispense with the Interstices (q.v.)
Clerics in minor orders enjoy all ecclesiastical privileges. They may be nominated to all benefices not major, but must receive within a year the major orders necessary for certain benefices. On the other hand, they are not bound to celibacy, and may lawfully marry. Marriage, however, causes them at once to forfeit every benefice. Formerly it did not exclude them from the ranks of the clergy, and they retained all clerical privileges, provided they contracted only one marriage and that with a virgin, and wore clerical costume and the tonsure (c. unit., “de cler. conjug.” in VI°); they might even be appointed to the service of a church by the bishop (Conc. Trid., Sess XXIII, c. vi). This earlier discipline, however, is no longer in accordance with modern custom and law. A minor cleric who marries is regarded as having forfeited his clerical privileges. (See Orders; Acolyte; Exorcist Porter; Subdeacon; Abbot; Tonsure.)