What is Tonsure?
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.
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.