The Subdeacon and Liturgical Symbolism

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Following the release of Pope Benedict’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, the Church has witnessed an increasing number of priests offering the Traditional Latin Mass, or what is now called the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.  As I have discussed previously, an entire generation of ordained and lay faithful are rediscovering the sacred beauty of our liturgical heritage.  While many Catholics still primarily experience a Low Mass when assisting at the Extraordinary Form,  more of the faithful are being introduced to the ritual grandeur of the Solemn High Mass. One aspect of this Mass which immediately differentiates it from the Ordinary Form familiar to most is the role of the subdeacon within the liturgy.

The traditional order of priests known as the Institute of Christ the King explains the responsibility of subdeacon as follows:

The roles of a subdeacon at Solemn High Mass include the chanting of the Epistle, holding the Gospel book while the Deacon chants the Gospel, and assisting the deacon in serving the priest at the altar. The subdeacon brings the chalice to the altar at the Offertory while wearing the humeral veil. He continues to wear it while holding the paten during a large part of Solemn High Mass, from the Offertory to the Our Father.

It is this ancient liturgical practice, replete with its timeless mystery, that catches our attention. The subdeacon, wrapped in the humeral veil, holds the paten before his eyes, thereby obstructing his vision of the altar. This practice, dating back centuries, is understood to hold multiple significations.

Some today (here and here) contend that the action symbolizes “the cherubim who covered their faces from the Divine Presence in the Book of Ezekiel, again calling to mind the mystery of the God hidden underneath the sacramental veils of bread and wine.”

Additional interpretations can be found from the late nineteenth century U.S. based Catholic periodical “Donahoe’s Magazine“. As explained in an article from 1895:

This hiding of the paten has many significations, as the hiding of the apostles during the passion of our Lord; the hiding of our Lord’s divinity under the veil of his human nature, especially during the Passion; the blindness of the Jews who would not receive Him for the Promised One, and would not see Him, though present before their eyes.

Donahoe’s concludes by noting that the unveiling of the paten is also rich with symbolism:

At the words, “Forgive us our trespasses,” the sub-deacon uncovers the paten, and takes it from before his eyes, so he can see the altar, and this is a figure of the vision to come to the Jews towards the end of the world, when they shall see the truth, our Lord Jesus Christ, and believe in Him.

Indeed, there is no shortage of interpretations for this ancient practice within the Traditional Mass. Sometimes it makes no difference as to which understanding of a ritual is most true to the original intent; rather we might simply take satisfaction in accepting that Holy Mother Church has seen value and purpose to a particular liturgical action for an untold number of centuries. Something to ponder the next time you are blessed to hear a Solemn High Mass.

Photo credit: John Cosmas

Posted on August 16, 2015, in liturgy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. This is a good article about the symbolic layers of meaning that can build up (legitimately, in my opinion), but we have to remember that there is always a practical reason behind the rituals of the Roman Rite — Michael Davies talks about this too, so it’s not a modernist idea! The wonderful thing about this ritual covering and holding of the paten by the subdeacon is that none of the scholars seems to be certain about its exact origin: there are conflicting theories. For example, one theory that has enjoyed popularity is this:

    “The unity of the local church with its bishop celebrated in the stational liturgy was especially evident in the ancient practice called the fermentum (literally ‘leaven’). Roman presbyters were obliged to celebrate the Eucharist on Sundays and feast days in their own churches (tituli) for those who could not take part in the solemn papal Eucharist. As a symbol of the communion shared between the Bishop of Rome and his flock–present and absent–the bishop broke off small pieces of his host at the time of Communion which would be given to each of the tituli for their own Eucharist that day. The small piece of that host was then carried by the acolytes or deacons back to those churches. At the moment of Communion, the presbyters would place the small fragment of the papal host in the chalice. Pope Innocent I attests to the practice in a famous letter sent to Decentius, Bishop of Gubbio, in the year 415. It is not clear when the custom was introduced, and after the seventh century, with the waning of the stational liturgy, it was only continued at the Easter vigil. Perhaps the holding of the paten in a humeral veil by acolytes and later subdeacon evolved from the bringing of the fragment of the fermentum from the papal liturgy to the various tituli. One can imagine that a minister would hold this paten with the papal fragment until it was time for the comingling (whose origin is certainly in this practice of the fermentum).” (Read more here: http://renegadetrad.blogspot.com/2011/08/humeral-veils.html)

    • Thank you for your comment Prof. Kwasniewski. I was not familiar with this potential origin of the ritual. I found this subject a bit difficult to research as there were surprisingly few articles about this liturgical practice. With the Missa Solemnis being offered with greater frequency these days,hopefully some will find this post and your comment to be of some help.

      Pax!

  2. Alexander Toledo

    Ho can be Subdeacon?

  3. In response to who may subdeacon:
    As far as I can understand only those ordained to the role of subdeacon in traditional communities or priests and deacons (diocesan or other) may officially serve as subdeacons. However, a letter by the Ecclesia Dei commission says those who have received the tonsure or clerical attire may serve as “straw” subdeacons. First, the tonsure is only still done in traditional communities (fssp, icksp, etc) which would seem to rule out diocesan seminarians, however, the “or clerical attire” caveat is reference to diocesan seminarians when they are permitted to wear the cassock with a Roman collar. Most diocesan seminaries allow their seminarians to wear a cassock with collar from either the very beginning of seminary or after a short period. I have heard various debates regarding the status of seminarian acolytes and instituted non-seminarian acolytes as well. Again from the various traditional liturgists (who are always willing to give an opinion) and documents that I have researched, being an acolyte does not seem to equate to being a full subdeacon as opposed to a “straw” subdeacon. The main differences between a subdeacon and “straw” subdeacon are that a straw subdeacon would not wear a maniple or pour the water and wine at the offertory (there may be a few more little things I am forgetting, but those are the main ones I can remember from when I subdeaconed as a seminarian). Finally, there are even some who think that any Catholic layman can fill the role of “straw” subdeacon. I personally can’t find any evidence saying this is permitted, but am not confident enough to say authoritatively that it’s never allowed. Now allow me to give a final disclaimer, all of the things I have stated are the result of my own very fallible research, but perhaps it will be found helpful. Policies may even differ from diocese to diocese (does anyone have more info on this?).

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