In the Western Church, the lowest of the two major orders that led to the priesthood. The origin of the subdiaconate has been the subject of much historical and theological speculation. The earliest mention of subdeacons, as distinguished from deacons, is found about the middle of the third century. Originally, the rite of subdiaconate resembled that of the order of acolyte, the highest of the four minor orders. As the functions of the subdeacon became more important, and the obligations of perpetual chastity and the recitation of the Divine Office became attached to his state, the rite for this order gradually assumed its present form. No one was permitted to receive the subdiaconate unless he had already received the tonsure and the four minor orders. However, the words of admonition addressed to the candidates at the beginning of the ceremony suggest that at one time laymen may have been admitted immediately to the subdiaconate.
The rite of subdiaconate comprised two parts: (1) the giving of the empty chalice and paten, and (2) the giving of the book of Epistles. In receiving the subdiaconate, the cleric was clothed for the first time in vestments characteristic of his office, from the amice to the tunic, with an appropriate formula for each vestment. Of these vestments, the one that is strictly proper to the subdiaconate was the maniple. The functions of the subdeacon were performed principally in the Eucharist, during which he chanted the Epistle and assisted at the Offertory.
In the motu prioprio, Ministeria quaedam dated Sept. 14, 1972 (effective Jan. 1, 1973), Pope Paul VI abolished the orders of Porter, Exorcist and Subdeacon.
Bibliography: a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique 14.2:2459–66. p. de puniet, The Roman Pontifical: A History and Commentary, tr. m. v. harcourt (New York 1932) 141–169. j. h. miller, Fundamentals of the Liturgy 483–485. a. baumeister, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 1 9:874–875.
[t. j. riley/eds.]