Rorate Caeli

Guest Article: “The Seven Steps of the Altar”

Rorate Caeli is grateful to Canon Heitor Matheus, ICRSS, for sharing with us this beautiful homily he preached some time ago at St. Mary's in Wausau, Wisconsin. It is fitting to share it this week as we recall the dies natalis of St. John Vianney on August 4th (with his Mass in the usus antiquior on August 8th). We are reminded that the minor and major orders are very much alive in the Church today, continuing immemorial tradition. Young men responding to the Lord's call desire and deserve to have these rites for their strengthening and sanctification.

The Seven Steps of the Altar: Ascending to the Priesthood

Canon Heitor Matheus, ICRSS

THIS YEAR on the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (July 2), our Institute had the great joy to give nine more priests to the Church—nine more men who were ordained to continue the work of Redemption of Our Lord Jesus Christ. So I wish to speak today about this beautiful adventure that we call vocation and how a man becomes a priest.

As in a great puzzle, God has a place for each one of us, and we have the duty to try to find out where our place is. And I tell you that we are only going to be happy, truly happy, in the vocation God has for us. Our vocation is the most important decision we have to make in this life: it will decide the course of our life here below, and also bear upon our eternity.

But how do we find out our vocation? First of all, we have to know that the word “vocation” means “calling.” A vocation is a calling from God. We don’t hear this calling with the ears of our body, but we can perceive it by the affections of our heart. For example, when a young man enjoys coming to church, serving at the Altar, learning about the Faith, spending time in prayer… when it is as if he is drawn by a secret force to the things of God. Such things are signs of a vocation.

When a young man thinks that he might be called by God, he should take counsel with a priest, in order to discern the will of God in his life. And if he really thinks that he is being called by God and intends to respond to this calling, he will then go to the Seminary, where he will begin this beautiful journey which will lead him to the Altar of God.

Now, one thing has to be said: the Seminary is not only for those who are really smart, no. It is true that the seminarian will have to study, and study a lot, but even if he is not that bright, he can still be a priest, and a very good priest. A priest is not required to be a scientist, but a man of God, a man who serves God in poverty, chastity and obedience.

So, after the first year of formation, the young seminarian will receive the cassock, which is the uniform of the army of Christ. He will be dressed in black, because he should be dead to the world, and the things of the world should be nothing for him.

After the cassock, the seminarian will receive what we call “the tonsure.” The tonsure is a very ancient ceremony, in which the bishop cuts the hair of the young man in the form of a cross, and the young man repeats after the Bishop the words of Psalm XV: Dominus, pars hereditatis meae et calicis mei, tu es qui restitues hereditatem meam mihi. “O Lord, the portion of my inheritance and my chalice, You are He who will restore my inheritance to me.” The seminarian declares that the Lord is his portion and his lot in this world, as with the Levites of the Old Testament. And this is the meaning of the word ‘cleric’: to have the Lord as our portion, and to be ourselves the portion of the Lord.


Traditionally, the tonsure is considered to be the entrance into the clerical state, and it leads the young seminarian to the seven steps of the Altar, which are the seven degrees of the sacrament of Order. So even though the sacrament of Holy Orders is one, it is nevertheless divided into degrees, and the seminarian will climb one step at a time.

The first step is the order of Porters. By this order, the seminarian receives the charge of opening and closing the church, and taking care of the sacred vessels.

Porter: porrection of the key

The second step is the order of Lectors. By this order the seminarian receives the task of reading the Holy Scriptures during the Divine Office, and catechizing the people.

Lector: porrection of the book

The third step is the order of Exorcists. By this order the seminarian receives the power to expel the devil from the bodies of those who are possessed (although the use of this power is subject to further training and permission).

Exorcist: porrection of the book

The fourth step is the order of Acolytes. By this order the seminarian receives the office of serving Mass.

Acolyte: porrection of the candle

Acolyte: porrection of the cruets

These are what we call the four minor orders. Then come the three major orders.

The fifth step of the Altar is the Subdiaconate. It is during this ordination that the young Levite makes his promise, his vow of perpetual chastity. Then he receives the power to assist the deacon and the priest at the Altar. So you see, first he promises chastity, and then he receives the power to serve at the Altar. By this, we can see clearly that chastity and the service of the Altar should always go together.

Subdeacon: promise of chastity

Subdeacon: porrection of the chalice

Subdeacon: porrection of the Epistle book

The sixth step of the Altar is the Diaconate. By this order the seminarian receives the power to assist the priest at the Altar, to proclaim the Gospel, to preach, and to baptize.

Deacon: imposition of the hand

Deacon: porrection of the Gospel book

Finally, the seventh step of the Altar is the order of Priests, which includes both simple priests (presbyterate) and bishops (episcopate).

Priest: imposition of the hands

Priest: unction of the hands

Priest: porrection of the chalice and host

Priest: promise of obedience

In his ordination, the priest receives a power that was not given to the very angels of God: the power of consecrating the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the power of forgiving sins. The great plan of salvation is placed in the little hands of the priest. The priest is so small, but at the same time so great. What a mission, what a vocation! The most sublime vocation on earth: to be a priest, to be another Christ, to continue the work of Redemption of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

We, priests, we remember with great emotion every step that led us to the Altar of God: our tonsure, the minor orders, the subdiaconate, the diaconate, and finally the priesthood. It is a great joy to be a priest, in such a way that we would never look back. If we had a thousand lives, a thousand times would we give ourselves to God, for the salvation of souls.

What a joy to baptize, and to give spiritual life to a soul! What a joy to reconcile the sinner to God in the sacrament of confession! What a joy to bless a marriage, asking the graces of God upon the new family! What a joy to accompany the dying in their last moments, with the sacrament of extreme unction, opening for them the door of the kingdom of heaven by the power of the keys placed in the hands of the priest! What an amazing joy to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and to elevate the Sacred Host and the Holy Chalice for the glory of God and the salvation of souls! What a joy to be a priest!

But, in order to be fair, I have to say that to be a priest is also a cross. This is not a complaint, but a fact. When we come to share more in the life of Our Lord, we come to share more of His sufferings. And because the Priesthood is the strongest assimilation to Christ, it is normal that it brings suffering. On the day of his ordination, the mother of Saint John Bosco told him: “My son, today you begin to suffer.”

These are, indeed, strong words, which should not make us afraid, but should remind us that every priest, as another Christ, is called to be a priest and a victim. Every priest is called to offer Christ to the Father, but also to offer himself with Christ, for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. The Priesthood is the mystery of Holy Thursday: it brings together the joy of the Last Supper and the agony of Gethsemane.

So, my dear brethren, I would like to ask you to pray every day for your priests, so that we may be faithful to our vocation. And, please, pray also that many young men may hear the voice of God, and have the courage to leave everything behind and follow the Master. Amen.

Prostration during Major Orders