You may have seen monks with a tonsure, or images of saints with a clerical tonsure. The Latin verb ‘tondere’ means “to shear”. Tonsure is a sacred rite instituted by the Church for those being received into the clerical order. It involves the shearing of his hair and the investment with the surplice.
Among the Greeks and Romans having a shaved head was a badge of slavery. On this very account, the shaving of the head was adopted by monks. Historically the tonsure was not in use in the primitive Church during the age of persecution, since it would expose a cleric. After the persecution, the practice gradually gained adoption and towards the end of the 5th or beginning of the 6th century, the custom passed over to the secular clergy.
Types of Monastic Tonsure
Clerical tonsures can have various shapes and forms. In past centuries, the tonsure of secular priests in the Kingdom of Naples (Italy) was for example in the shape of a small host. However the monastic tonsure is the most commonly known. Some writers have distinguished three kinds of monastic tonsures:
- The Roman tonsure, or that of St. Peter, when all the head is shaved except a circle, of hair;
- The Eastern tonsure, or St. Paul’s, when the entire head is denuded of hair
- The Celtic tonsure, or St. John’s, when only a crescent of hair is shaved from the front of the head.
The person 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.
In the Latin Church instituted a separate ceremony about the end of the 7th century, when parents offered their young sons to the service of God. As a sacred rite, the tonsure was originally joined to the first ordination received, as in the Greek Church it still is to the order of lector.
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. Tonsure is to be given by a candidate’s Ordinary (Bishop), though mitred Abbots can bestow it on their own subjects. The ceremony may be performed at any time or place.
Canon Law (1917)
According to the 1917 Code of Canon Law, all clerics are bound to wear the tonsure under certain penalties. 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.”
(Source: Catholic Encyclopedia)
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