Seven Deacons, Seven Subdeacons, Seven Acolytes, Seven Candles - An Inquiry

One of them ceremonial curiosities that turns up from time to time is mention of the number of seven in relation to various clerics and sacred ministers within the liturgical sphere. This has mainly received some attention in relation to the pontifical liturgy of the traditional Lyonese rite, but in point of fact, their use of this is likely a proverbial 'hat tip' to the practice of the Roman church itself.

Within the organization of the city of Rome under the Emperor Augustus, the city was divided into fourteen administrative regions. By the time the third or fourth century rolled around, the Church would half this and make an ecclesiastical division of the city of Rome into seven regions, coming to gradually replace the Augustan division. Tied to each of these seven regions was one deacon (diaconus regionarius), who in turn were assisted each by a subdeacon (subdeaconus regionarius)  -- thus making seven Roman district deacons and subdeacons -- which, the fifth century Roman-Christian church historian Sozomen also attributes symbolically as follows: "There are but seven deacons at Rome, answering precisely to the number ordained by the Apostles."

However, these were not the only such regional roles, there were also the regional notaries (notarii regionarii), the 'defensores' (defensori regionarii) and the acolytes (acolyti regionarii).  As a body they are simply referred to as the "regionarii" and elsewhere we read that they were seven acolytes per district.

The Ordo Romanus Primus itself notes that the following: must be observed that the city of Rome is divided for ecclesiastical purposes into seven districts, to each of which is allotted one district-deacon ; and the collets [acolytes] of each district are subordinate to the deacon of their district by reason of his office through the medium of the district-subdeacon... it is necessary to know, in order to understand how the number of the ecclesiastical districts and the number of the days of the week correspond, what order they successfully follow. On the first day of the week (that is, of Easter), the third district is responsible ; on Monday, the fourth district ; on Tuesday, the fifth district ; on Wednesday, the sixth district ; on Thursday, the seventh district ; on Friday, the first district ; and on the Sabbath, the second district. Each district, therefore, will have its proper position both in procession and in church, or wherever a particular day may constrain them to go or to minister by reason of its rank, according to the ancient constitution.
Given this organization into seven, it should perhaps come as little surprise that this might also find its way into the Roman liturgical sphere as well.  Turning to the ceremonial of the papal liturgy, The Ordo Romanus Primus continues:
...the subdeacon-attendant goes before him [the pope] with the censer, diffusing the perfume of incense : and the seven collets [acolytes] of the district which is responsible for that day, carrying seven lighted candlesticks, go before the pontiff to the altar.
The seven acolytes shown in a traditional papal Corpus Christi procession

The seven acolytes seen in procession at a papal liturgy under Pope Benedict XVI

Of course, beyond this matter of a division of seven ecclesiastical regions in the church in Rome, it must also be noted that this imagery of seven lights or lamps is also found biblically, being mentioned in the Book of Revelation:
And from the throne proceeded lightnings, and voices, and thunders; and there were seven lamps burning before the throne, which are the seven spirits of God. (Rev. 4:5)
 This imagery is shown above the apse in the Roman basilica of Ss. Cosmas and Damian:

Photo: Lawrence Lew, O.P.

The same is true of the basilica of S. Prassede in Rome:

Whether this biblical imagery has any specific co-relation to the use of seven lit candles within the liturgy, or the division of Rome into seven regions, is however is purely speculative, but it is worth noting all the same since the potentiality for an interconnection or at least an influence certainly exists.

Of course, seven acolytes carrying seven candles before the pope in procession is hardly the only such instance of the use of seven lights liturgically. It is well enough known that it also turns up on the altar in the traditional form of the pontifical liturgy where the number of candles placed on the altar for the ordinary is, once again, traditionally seven. For a time this usage had apparently disappeared during a portion of the middle ages, but by the thirteen century the cardinal-deacon Giacomo Gaetani Stefafneschi notes in his work, Liber Ceremoniarium Curiae Romanae, that seven candles are be placed on the altar when the pope celebrates solemnly -- and of course, from there it would come to also find expression in other solemn pontifical liturgies as already noted.

Seven candles seen on the altar of St. Peter's for a Solemn Papal Mass

This rubric was one that we saw revived under the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI as well:

As we already referred to earlier in this article, the pontifical form of the Rite of Lyon not only included the seven acolytes with their seven candles, but also seven deacons and seven subdeacons (not to mention seven priests including the archbishop primate himself).

The seven candles of the acolytes as seen in Lyon

If you look closely, you'll see the seven acolytes with their seven candles, before them seven subdeacons, on the altar seven candles, and while not easily discernable in this photo there are also seven deacons and seven priests -- including the archbishop himself. It is thought by some that this usage of seven in the pontifical rite of Lyon was influenced by the earlier papal liturgy.

So then, where do we end up in all of this? Did this usage come as a result of biblical inspiration taken from the Book of Revelation? Was it influenced by the ecclesiastical organization of the city of Rome into seven districts with its seven district deacons, subdeacons and seven acolytes per region? Or was it an indirect mixture of influences and factors, not least of which how the papal liturgy came to be expressed? Which is the chicken and which the egg? 

Unfortunately not everything can have a distinctive conclusions and some things are destined to remain the realm of hypothesis and speculation, lost as it were, to the mists of time. This may be well one of them, but in some senses that makes the matter that much more interesting.

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