Minor Orders: An Approach to Parish Ministries

10_06_18_orders_stairsThere is a lot of talk about making better parishes.  One popular idea is greeters, as at some Protestant churches.  I think of an Evangelical Free church I attended one Easter morning, where a very enthusiastic, very Protestant greeter welcomed us: “Alleluia!  Praise-alluia!  Praise-alluia-to-ya!”  Pleasant, and surely hospitality is an important part of our Catholic faith and of building good parishes, but this feels a little shallow.

Here is an approach that draws from our own tradition: the minor orders.


From very early on until Vatican II, along with the “major orders,” sacramental orders of apostolic origin, there were other “minor orders” in the Church, not sacramental, not apostolic, but serious ministries in the Church, treated as life-changing, an entry into the world of the clergy.  Bishops, priests, and deacons are the major orders.  The minor orders included lectors/readers, acolytes/altar boys, “exorcists,” and porters.

The early modern period – let’s say roughly 1650-1900 – tended to let opposition to Protestantism define Catholicism.  But like every error, Protestantism has plenty of elements of truth, like its devotion to Scripture, active participation in worship, and the equal holiness of lay vocations.  Much of the work of reform today is in rediscovering these traditional Catholic truths.

The original insight of the minor orders – and the diaconate – was that these too, alongside the priesthood, were important public services to the Church.  They were not priests, but they were, in this sense, “clergy,” public servants of the Church.  The early modern period, with its doubling down on the priesthood, turned this inside out, so that instead of being separate public ministries alongside and subservient to the priesthood, these ministries were swallowed up by the priesthood.

In practice, then, the minor orders and the diaconate became ritualized steps on the way to priestly ordination, never seriously practiced.  Rather than drawing priests from people who had seriously served as deacons, even deacon became an almost meaningless ritual during seminary.

It makes sense, then, that in 1972, Paul VI (in Ministeria Quaedam) called for a rethinking of the minor orders.  Unfortunately, like much else during that troubled time, the rethinking became an extinction.


So what are the minor orders?  “Porter” is from the Latin porta, door: the doorkeeper – or greeter.  In a monastery, a porter really is the minister of hospitality.  The praise-alluia-to-ya Protestants have maintained a sliver of tradition here.

We can get another angle on this if we look at another Latin word for door, and another term used for this ministry.  From janua we get “janitor.”

Everything we need to know about the minor orders is in the distance in value we hear between “porter” and “janitor.”  Janitor now seems like an entirely unspiritual, unimportant, basically unecclesial ministry.  But once upon a time it was viewed in analogy to the priesthood, as a kind of public service to the church, a vocation.

Imagine a parish in which the janitor had spiritual qualifications.  He is responsible for making the church beautiful for worship.  He is responsible for welcoming visitors.  He is responsible for the most important ministry, often called on by Pope Francis, of keeping the doors open so people can come to pray.  Janitor is no small ecclesial ministry.

To treat the janitor as a minor order would mean seeking someone with a real vocation to the task.  We might also require a liturgical spirituality.  Imagine if the janitor were required to attend daily Mass and to pray, at a minimum, the reduced liturgy of the hours in Magnificat – or perhaps more.  Imagine if an annual retreat was a requirement of the job.


Imagine if lectors, too, were required to pray the Psalms, to discover a Biblical, liturgical, ecclesial spirituality.  (And imagine if church musicians were also considered “lectors,” ministers of the Word.)  Yes, they should also work on things like clear diction.  But that secular aspect of their vocation is part of a deeper liturgical ministry.

So too the porter-janitor of course does many humble, practical things, including the ministry of basic hospitality, even greeting people.  Praise-alluia-to-ya is part of it.  But that ministry would be greatly deepened if he was not just a greeter, he was the minister of the doors, and of the building.  If he had a ministry, a minor order, as porter.


“Exorcists” were really catechesists.  But note two things.

First, catechist is a vocation.  Not a celibate vocation, and consistent with holding another job, but something you really give your life to.  How would things change if we simply required all CCD teachers to pray the Psalms: to have a prayer life, and to discover Biblical, liturgical, ecclesial prayer.  To be incorporated into the life of the Church.

Second, they were called “exorcists” because their work was considered above all a ministry of prayer and spiritual warfare.  These were not the ones who took on the demon-possessed – that kind of “exorcist” has always been the province of priests.  But they were to see their task as fundamentally about the spiritual struggles of those committed to them, a task fought through words, but above all through prayer and fasting.


How would it change your parish if these “minor orders” were treated as vocations to public service in the Church?  What could we do to help people in these roles to discover that vocation?


One Comment

  1. I absolutely agree on all points. The greeter is the first person you meet upon entering a Church. The way this is carried out will be a lasting memory for the good or not so good…
    For catechist, of course of course. Know your subject and your students and pray pray pray each day and night this is serious business with eternity at it’s end.

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