Subdeacon The ancient Christian Church had but two classes of officers, the presidents, προιστάμενοι, ποιμένες, ἡγούμενοι, also ἐπίσκοποι, πρεσβύτεροι and the servants, διάκονοι; the former being charged with functions within the field of worship, while the latter were employed in administering the charities of the Church. In time, the episcopacy was developed out of the presbyterate, and the subdiaconate from the diaconate. The latter was always regarded by the Church as of human invention, and as having been introduced "utilitatis causa" (see Morinus, Comm. de S. Eccles. Ordinat. Exercitat. 11:1). Its introduction was, more over, gradual, and not uniform throughout the Church. Some churches were without subdeacons as late as the middle of the 9th century; and, before the hierarchy assumed a rigid and unchangeable form, the subdiaconate was not regarded an indispensable preliminary, to the diaconate. The existence of subdeacons in the Church of Rome as early as A.D. 250 is shown in a letter of pope Cornelius to bishop Fabius of Antioch (Euseb. Hist. Eccles. 6:43; comp. Jaff, Regest. Pontiff No. 8); in Spain as early as A.D. 305, in ch. 30 of the Synod of Elvira; in Africa about the middle of the 3rd century, in different letters of Cyprian (2, 3, 29, 30, etc.); and in the East by the middle of the 4th century, as appears from determinations of the Synod of Laodicea in 361 (Dist. 23:21-23), and a letter of Athanasius (Ad Solita. A.D. 330).
The subdeacons were reckoned among the class of Ordines Minores, and their functions were of inferior dignity. They were permitted to touch the sacred vessels if empty, in this having a pre-eminence over other Minores; but, in general, their duties were simply the receiving of oblations (hence Oblationarii), the care of the tombs of martyred saints, the guarding of church doors during the administration of the sacrament, etc. In course of time the reading of the lesson from the epistles was added and became their leading function.
The importance of the subdiaconate was enhanced when Gregory the Great included it under the operation of the law of celibacy (Dist. 31:1), and yet more when its members were made eligible to the episcopal office by the Council of Benevento in the pontificate of Urban II, 1091. The question now arose whether the subdiaconate must not be counted among the Ordines Majores, which was finally determined by Innocent III in favor of such promotion. Subdeacons thereby acquired the rights of the superior orders as respects personal independence, etc. They assume a title at ordination, take vows of celibacy, etc., and are forbidden to return to secular life. Their ordination is, however, peculiar, in that the candidates are not presented to the consecrating bishop by the archdeacon, the laying on of hands and questioning of the people are not used, and the consecration is performed instead by "traditio instrumentorum et vestium." The beginning of the twenty-second year was fixed by the Council of Trent (Sess. 23:12, De Reform.) as the proper age for entering on this office, and a year is required to intervene before ordination to the deaconate may follow bishops, however, may depart from this rule when needful (Sess. 23:11 Richter, Kirchenrecht, § 113). At the present time, the subdiaconate exists simply as a stage on the way to higher stations, and its functions are generally performed by laymen and presbyters. The term is sometimes used in Protestant churches, but without denoting any distinction of order.
See Morinus, De Sacris Ordinationibus, pt. 3, exercit. 12, Thomassinus, Vet. et Nov. Eccl. Discipl. 20:30 sq., Seitz, Recht des Pfarramtes, II, 1, 415 sq.; Richter, Kirchenrecht, § 91,103,113 Coleman, Ancient Christ. Exemplified, 23, 11; Herzog, Real-Encyklop. s.v., Walcott: — Sacred Archaeol. s.v.