Tonsure, Tonsure Meaning, What is Tonsure? Tonsure Definition

What is Tonsure?

In the Roman Catholic Church, "first tonsure" was, in medieval times, the rite of inducting someone into the clergy and qualifying him for the civil benefits then enjoyed by clerics. Tonsure was a prerequisite for receiving the minor and major orders. According to canon law, all clerics are bound to wear the tonsure under certain penalties. Failing to maintain tonsure was the equivalent of attempting to abandon one's clerical state, and in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, any cleric in minor orders (or simply tonsured) who did not resume the tonsure within a month after being warned by his Ordinary, lost the clerical state.

Tonsure Meaning and Tonsure Definition


(Tonsure: Latin tondere, "to shear")

A sacred rite instituted by the Church by which a baptized and confirmed Christian is received into the clerical order by the shearing of his hair and the investment with the surplice. The person thus tonsured becomes a partaker of the common privileges and obligations of the clerical state and is prepared for the reception of orders. The tonsure itself is not an ordination properly so called, nor a true order. It is rather a simple ascription of a person to the Divine service in such things as are common to all clerics. Historically the tonsure was not in use in the primitive Church during the age of persecution. Even later, St. Jerome (in Ezech., xliv) disapproves of clerics shaving their heads. Indeed, among the Greeks and Romans such a custom was a badge of slavery. On this very account, the shaving of the head was adopted by the monks. Towards the end of the fifth, or beginning of the sixth, century, the custom passed over to the secular clergy.

As a sacred rite, the tonsure was originally joined to the first ordination received, as in the Greek schismatic church it still is to the order of lector. In the Latin Church it began as a separate ceremony about the end of the seventh century, when parents offered their young sons to the service of God. Tonsure is to be given by a candidate's ordinary, though mitred abbots can bestow it on their own subjects. No special age for its reception is prescribed, but the recipient must have learnt the rudiments of the Faith and be able to read and write. The ceremony may be performed at any time or place. As to the monastic tonsure, some writers have distinguished three kinds: (1) the Roman, or that of St. Peter, when all the head is shaved except a circle, of hair; (2) the Eastern, or St. Paul's, when the entire head is denuded of hair; (3) the Celtic, or St. John's, when only a crescent of hair is shaved from the front of the head. In Britain, the Saxon opponents of the Celtic tonsure called it the tonsure of Simon Magus.

In the Roman Catholic Church, "first tonsure" was, in medieval times, the rite of inducting someone into the clergy and qualifying him for the civil benefits then enjoyed by clerics. Tonsure was a prerequisite for receiving the minor and major orders. According to canon law, all clerics are bound to wear the tonsure under certain penalties. Failing to maintain tonsure was the equivalent of attempting to abandon one's clerical state, and in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, any cleric in minor orders (or simply tonsured) who did not resume the tonsure within a month after being warned by his Ordinary, lost the clerical state. Over time, the appearance of tonsure varied, ending up for non-monastic clergy as generally consisting of a symbolic cutting of a few tufts of hair at first tonsure in the Sign of the Cross and in wearing a bare spot on the back of the head which varied according to the degree of orders. It was not supposed to be less than the size of a communicant's host, even for a tonsuratus, someone simply tonsured, and the approximate size for a priest's tonsure was the size of a priest's host. Countries that were not Catholic had exceptions to this rule, especially in the English-speaking world. In England and America, for example, the bare spot was dispensed with, likely because of the persecutions that could arise from being a part of the Catholic clergy, but the ceremonious cutting of the hair in the first clerical tonsure was always required. But on this subject, Taunton (loc. cit. inf.) says: "In English-speaking countries, from a custom arising in the days of persecution and having a prescription of over three centuries, the shaving of the head, the priestly crown, seems, with the tacit consent of the Holy See, to have passed out of use. No provincial or national council has ordered it, even when treating of clerical dress; and the Holy See has not inserted the law when correcting the decrees of those councils."

The fuller form of clerical tonsure led to the wearing of a skull cap in church to keep the head warm. This skull cap, called a zuchetto, is worn by the Pope (in white), Cardinals (in red) and bishops (in purple) both during and outside of formal religious ceremonies. Priests may wear a simple black zuchetto, only outside of religious services. All ordained members of the Roman Catholic Church are entitled to wear the zucchetto. All clerics who hold the episcopal character (that is to say, bishops — whether the Pope, cardinals, titular bishops or diocesan bishops) wear the zucchetto throughout most of the Mass, removing it at the commencement of the Preface and replacing it at the conclusion of the Communion. A short stand placed on the altar, usually made of brass or wood and known as a funghellino is used to hold the zuchetto during that part of the service. No other people are permitted to wear the zucchetto at Mass.
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