Something You (Sometimes) See in Seminary Chapels

I’m visiting Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans at present, and noticed an interesting detail in their chapel. It is surely not an accident that there are four steps leading up to the main sanctuary level, then three steps from there up to the high altar. Here is a photo:

Traditionally, there were seven “steps” in the ordained hierarchy of the Church. A man was ordained into each of these steps. The first five steps (see list below) were sacramentals of the Church; the last two are part of the sacrament of Holy Orders.

The seven orders were/are:

  1. Porter
  2. Lector
  3. Exorcist
  4. Acolyte
  5. Subdeacon
  6. Deacon
  7. Priest

These were divided into two classes: minor orders (the first four) and major orders (the last three). In 1972, Pope Paul VI greatly simplified this traditional arrangement, clarifying that the sacrament of Holy Orders consisted of deacons, priests, and bishops; he effectively abolished the orders of porter, exorcist, and subdeacon; and he made lectors and acolytes “ministries” that men in the Church may receive. On Fr. Carota’s old blog (may he rest in peace), he has a more extensive explanation: click here.

Because of this hierarchical arrangement, which was of very ancient origin and use in the Church, it was not uncommon that seminary chapels had four steps leading up onto the main sanctuary level and then three more steps leading up to the high altar. The priest, deacon, and subdeacon (in a Solemn High Mass, at least) stood on those upper steps, ministering at the altar. Access to the sanctuary was limited only to those who were clergy (clerics); i.e. those who had received one of the steps or ranks listed above.

It some seminary chapels there are even the names of each rank engraved or appliqued onto the faces of the steps. Here is a photo I took about five years ago in the gorgeous main chapel of Mundelein Seminary, near Chicago:

If you click to enlarge you might be able to make out the names more clearly; they are inscribed in Latin, starting with Porter (Ostiarius) on the bottom step and leading up to Priest (Sacerdos) on the very top step in the back.

Of course, when these chapels were built there was not a detached “table” altar marooned in the middle of the sanctuary and interrupting the visual and liturgical flow.

Interestingly, although Pope Paul VI technically abolished the classic ranking of orders in 1972, it has never fully gone away, and probably cannot ever. The various traditional institutes (such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of Christ the King, and the Institute of the Good Shepherd) still confer all the minor and major orders on their members. I believe the Eastern Churches still maintain these rankings also. While it may not be a very high priority for the Holy Father or anyone in the Vatican to think about at present, it is plausible that the classic ranking could be brought back on a full scale some day. We will see.

In any case, the foregoing is an example of one of the many ways that our Catholic faith was built into our places of worship in the past. It is to be hoped that we all could re-appropriate these rich traditions of symbolism and start incorporating them anew in the churches we renovate or build.

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