Viewpoint: Lay and Ordained Ministries

by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

Recently, I had a long conversation with a seminarian (not from our diocese) who confessed that he thought the rise of lay ministry in the Church was threatening the role of the ordained priest.

What our conversation brought home to me was the ongoing confusion, even in seminaries, regarding the specific identity of and relationship between lay and ordained ministries.

There are many factors that prevent clarity in this area. Chief among them is a failure to observe that while ordained ministry is general and comprehensive, lay ministry is always specific and limited. The ministry of the bishop, for instance, is not focused on any particular area of the life of his diocese. Rather it ranges widely over the whole spectrum of diocesan activity. In the same way, the parish priest is called to carry on a comprehensive and wide-ranging ministry of oversight in his parish. His focus is not on any particular area, but on the right ordering (think “holy orders”) of the parish.

The role of the lay person, on the other hand, is more specific—even if the same person carries on a number of ministerial activities at the same time. In the liturgy, the lay person is a reader, or an extraordinary ministry of Communion, or a musician. In the parish at large, men and women may be participants in one of the many ministries that build up the parish community: a catechist, a servant of charity, a visitor to the sick.

For this reason, a generalized lay ministry should be regarded as something of an anomaly. This is not to say that a lay person may not perform the more general task of coordinating and directing a group of lay ministers. A director of religious education is a good example here.

Yet, even then there remains a clear focus on a definite grouping of ecclesial ministries. When, however, the function of lay coordination and direction loses it focus, it becomes blurred and begins to take on the character proper to the ordained.

In this perspective, we can see that, properly defined, lay ministry is no threat to the ministry of the ordained. Indeed, the opposite is the case. Each type of ministry is directed to the other. Without the existence of ordained ministry, the ministerial role of lay persons would never come to be.

By the same token, the vocation of the ordained is to generate and promote the ministries of all the baptized. Indeed, one can say that the measure of effective ordained ministry is the extent to which it brings forth and activates the gifts and particular vocations of the laity.

This explanation satisfied my seminarian friend—to some extent. However, he thought that this casts the role of the ordained priest into no more that a purely functional manager or moderator of parish ministries.

Accordingly, I had to expand my explanation by pointing out that the priest is more than a managerial functionary. He is, in fact, called to the vocation of “ordering” the sacramental life of the parish. This is expressed most fully in the priest’s unique role in the celebration of the eucharist, where he acts “in the person of Christ” in an irreplaceable manner signified by priestly ordination.

But, my friend asked again, do not all Christians act “in the person of Christ” in carrying out their baptismal vocations? Indeed, they do—but within the specific ministries to which they are assigned.

This explanation satisfied my seminarian friend—“for the moment” he added.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent’s parish, Salt Lake City.

By permission of The Intermountain Catholic, Salt Lake City. 


  1. I like some elements of Msgr Mannion’s response here. But some of it is wack. It points out two substantial missed opportunities for reform and renewal. And it fails to mention one key distinction in the lay apostolate as realized in ecclesial ministry.

    First, we Catholics have an impoverishment in a practical and pastoral understanding of the vocation of baptism. If every believer were strongly formed as baptized disciples, with the understanding this is undergirded by serious discernment, a bit more would be cleared up for this unfortunate and confused seminarian.

    The second missed opportunity is that a substantial portion of seminarians and ordained clergy lack the development of their baptismal vocation. They lack a foundation absolutely necessary to their ministry. How can they order expressions of the Christian apostolate for something they haven’t experienced and do not know? Is this some magical thing they “get” at ordination? I don’t think there’s any Biblical basis for this. And I think one would be hard-pressed to find such a ridiculous notion supported in mainstream tradition.

    If lay people appear to have the gift/s for ordering ministries, perhaps the Holy Spirit is sending a message that a human being should have the requisite gifts before being discerned to the priesthood. And as long as we don’t operate in that way, we are frustrating men by promising something that neither bishops not the Holy Spirit have given. We frustrate lay people who order and are ordered because there is no recognition for what has been in many circumstances practically discerned as a ministerial reality. It’s more than just faith formation directors, my friends.

    Lastly, many lay people, and not a few priests fail to make or live the distinction between “ministry,” serving as Christ served for others, and “activity,” which might include serving with one’s authentic gifts, but without the sense of sacrifice that is part and parcel of ministry.

    The difference between a minister and a doer is that the former is unafraid of delegating, forming, and training another to take his or her place. And the latter is focused on “my” gifts, “my” abilities, “my” contributions.

    And the latter people are not bad people. Just lacking formation.

    This touches on the Cardinal Muller nonsense as well. A lot of these guys don’t have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening on the level of the Holy Spirit. Not bad men, certainly, They sense something is wrong or off or out-of-joint. But they just can’t make the connections while remaining inside the institution and lacking the odor of the sheep.

  2. Thanks, Todd – excellent analysis.
    To reinforce your first point…..VII defined the church by starting with *mystery* and then aspects/images that bring out this mystery. But, the key definition is that we are all church (it does not start with clerical or hierarchical first or even separate from laity). Many of the images – people of God, pilgrim people, journey, mission, ministry, etc. start with the baptismal call to all….only then do you eventually drill down to the episcopal and then presbetyr orders. His explanation appears to start first with the *sacrament of orders* and we really do need to explain *persona Christi* differently than Mannion. (issues with gender; exclusion of women, etc.)

    Here is a different approach from Gary Macy, Santa Clara University:

    pdf file – Catholic Theological Society of America‎
    by G Macy – ‎2013 – ‎Cited by 1 – ‎Related articles

  3. The logic of this essay escapes me entirely. What of a priest who is not the parish priest (pastor) but is responsible for Christian education in the parish, or music, or youth ministry? Some priests are fine teachers, some are not. Some have a gift for administration, some don’t.

    A parish priest, or the superior of a religious house, may need the overall and comprehensive role that Mgr Mannion describes. So may a lay president (rector, vice-chancellor, etc.) of a Catholic university. In both cases this is about responsibilities and talent rather than ordination.

    We have gone from St Paul’s beautiful teaching in I Corinthians 12 (varieties of gifts, but the same spirit) to the bizarre claim that the ordained “generate” the ministries of the laity. What does the Holy Spirit do? Or do we receive the gifts of the Spirit and the call to holiness and evangelism only through the mediation of the clergy?

    That strikes me as utterly wrong, on the same level of clericalist idiocy as Fr Z’s conceit that, in the army of God, the clergy are the officers and the laity the footsoldiers.

  4. “There are many factors that prevent clarity in this area. Chief among them is a failure to observe that while ordained ministry is general and comprehensive, lay ministry is always specific and limited.”

    Actually, it seems that this is one of the major areas that promotes misunderstanding. The idea that lay ecclesial ministers, by virtue of nothing other than not being ordained, are called only to limited ministries or to specific areas has been one of the leading causes of confusion.

    It is true that some lay people called to ministry have been, historically and experientially speaking, called to one area. Say, religious education. But it is hardly true of the whole. Some are called to leadership or general ministry in the church. Likewise, many priests have been called to particular ministries – ie, parish pastor, military chaplain, etc. – and have been given gifts particular to working in only one field.

    The idea that lay people can only exercise ministry in a limited and specific scope is merely a fear-reaction by these same clerics who fear the undermining of the priestly identity. They only fear this, because they misunderstand priestly identity as being about power, instead of one of service. The biggest difference between lay and ordained ministry is not its scope, but the nature of its relationship to the community and permanence. And even then, no doubt there are many lay ministers who should be ordained, and not a few ordained ministers who would fit better as lay ministers.

    When we start ordaining people to serve an office to which they are called and gifted, and only those people, then we can see better what is proper and distinctive to the presbyterate and the diaconate, and what is proper and distinctive to lay and lay ecclesial ministry. Until then, it does not help to impose false limitations on lay ministry just to keep priests from feeling insecure about their self-identity.

  5. I have noticed something that PP Francis has mentioned a few times: sacristy Christians and the clericalize laity. I think that this represents a real moment of agreement between more “conservative” strains of Catholic teaching and more “progressive” strains. The lay baptized, in assuming more and more roles that have traditionally been assigned to priests, are often doing less of their work out their consecrating the world. The ordained priest exists for the laity. The ordained priest consecrates the bread so that the laity can consecrate the world. The more lay people who perceive that the most important part of their “ministry” is fulfilled in proclaiming a reading, serving a mass, or administering communion, the worse off we are. Now, I am not against readers, servers, or EMHC. On the other hand, the primary job of the laity is to be focused on their vocation to the married life and on their commitment to bring Christ out into the world. I think that liturgically this is best illustrated by the priest fulfilling those roles that tradition have been assigned to him and the lay baptized doing the same.

    1. @Steven Surrency – comment #8:
      Many lay people, likely most, do not see liturgical ministry as the culmination of their life of service.

      I would agree that there is a poverty of recognizing the vocation of baptism and a deep reticence about evangelization, which is the proper and primary task of the entire people of God. I don’t think Catholics are any better or worse at evangelization than they were before they took roles formerly filled by clergy.

      When I train and form liturgical ministers, I always suggest that their service in the liturgy should form, support, and inspire their role as evangelical disciples in the world. That’s not something I’ve heard from many priests.

      Andrew has a telling comment: many clergy are insecure and fearful about what other people do. That implies a lack of thorough discernment at the front end of their ministry and perhaps a poverty of ongoing examination. Some apologists, possibly like Msgr Mannion, seem to over-think the issues, adding on more layers than necessary. A back-to-basics approach of discerning spiritual gifts is needed. If we trusted the Holy Spirit, people would be more fruitful and even happy knowing they were contributing to the mission of Christ in the very best way with their very best gifts.

      The notion that ordination confers numerous gifts and turns priests into spiritual jacks-of-all-trades is just silly. It’s burdensome to many ordained men, and disrespectful to God and to those who suffer giving and receiving poor service.

      1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #10:

        I didn’t mean to describe their conscious psychology, but rather I mean to say that there is an unconscious perception, a subliminal message sent in the liturgy (These words are too strong, I know.), that being really HOLY is being involved in liturgical ministry. When I became Catholic, after people saw that I was involved for a while, people started expecting me to “get involved.” This was primarily invitations to become a greeter, a Eucharistic Minister, a reader, etc. (I have since become the default MC. So I didn’t exactly resist this temptation!) While there isn’t anything wrong with these things, it illustrates the mindset that exists that equates holiness (or at least being “active” in a parish) with being liturgically up front. This is one of the reason why I think so many people feel a need to use much larger numbers of EMHC than needed (or sometimes when not needed at all). They want people to have something to do! The laity already have something to do! Go to the soup kitchen! Get involved in the community affairs! Sure, if you an accountant, help with finances. If you are a gardener, do the gardening! These things are holy! I do agree that there is something more about the symbolism of the male priest, consecrated hands, etc. I think there is something there- though the something can’t be found in the hyper-traddy quotes thrown around online. But what I am primarily concerned with here is the psychology that can easily equate “being in the sanctuary” with “being the best Catholic.”

      2. @Steven Surrency – comment #11:
        I can only say I’m into discernment. People who work with me know the script.

        That said, liturgy gets an inordinate amount of attention because it is the entryway into faith, source and summit and all that. It’s less about psychology and more about opportunity. And ease of involvement.

        Yes, some people want to stay on the mountain. The same “mindset” you mention is also operative in people who want to be priests. They think the holiest thing is to say Mass and hear confessions.

  6. Steven, that is a far more balanced way of putting it — different roles in the same dance, rather than the clergy “generating” the ministry of the laity.

    In our parish’s solemn Masses, for example, the (lay) MC typically carries the gospel book and prepares the altar. But if a deacon is present, he does these things; likewise, the priest turns to the deacon to say “Offerte vobis pacem” and “Ite, missa est”. When we have multiple priests at a Mass, we don’t use extraordinary ministers. We always have lay lectors, and I think this is a good thing. They come from the assembly to read, and return to their pews once they have read the lesson. They don’t wear special vestments.

    We do these things because they are in the rubrics. However I think the shared understanding is not that the deacon has holy hands or ontological superiority to the lay MC, but that this is his role. In an orchestra, a cellist can substitute for a missing double bass player, but when the instruments that the composer wanted are present, it’s better to use them without substitution. This has nothing to do with cellos being “better” than basses.

    With all this said, the understanding that you articulate here — and that I have also seen in Pope Francis’s talks — is rare amongst traditionalists and conservatives. It is an all-too-easy slide from “complementing roles” into talk of ontological superiority, consecrated hands, the sanctuary representing heaven, the nave representing earth, the altar rail representing the gate of heaven, the priest becoming the groom (male, active) to the assembly’s bride (female, passive), etc., etc.

  7. In case anyone thinks that I am making up the language about the symbolism of the nave, etc. – look here. This is a video tutorial on the Mass by a priest of the FSSP; note, not the separated SSPX, but the traditionalist group in full communion with the Holy See.

    I transcribed a few sentences to give you a flavour of this:

    The server represents, in a way, the help that all of the faithful want to give to support the priest, in his awesome task and responsibility.

    The nave represents those who have come in from the world to seek what God alone can give them.

    The altar rail represents the barrier, the chasm that exists between our sinfulness and the holiness and majesty of God.

    The priest is the one who mediates between these two realities, who moves from the nave into the sanctuary in order, as an instrument, to make Christ present.

    1. @Jonathan Day – comment #12:
      While this isn’t the imagery I would be most comfortable with, it sounds like nothing much different than a video I recently saw of Venerable Fulton Sheen describing the mass.

      The job of the priest is awesome- and serious. But SO is the job of the laity! The servers, unfortunately, did represent the people. In fact, they substituted for the people so that they didn’t need to perform their roles of signing, responding, and praying. The rail is a barrier, but one that could be crossed by Christ who gives himself to us! He is the one who crosses the barrier to come into our world. The priest mediates in the person of Christ and, once we receive Christ, we are to go out and do the same.

    2. @Jonathan Day – comment #12:
      Jonathan – needed a laugh today…this made it! Shoot, expect Allan to borrow this.
      It does repeat and smack of some of the worst from the Year of the Priest sermons, pronouncements, etc.

    3. @Jonathan Day – comment #12:
      Jonathan, three things:
      1. Anyone who thinks you’re making this up either doesn’t know you or is a fool.
      2. The setting appears to be EWTN’s Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, Blessed Sacrament Chapel or as some call it, Mother Angelica’s Gold and Marble Temple, so I’m not a bit surprised.
      3. The comments are the most frightening part: I’ve copied one of them:

      “..and in San Diego, CA in ST B in PB, the priests give the “sacred hosts” in the faithful’s HAND; the wine, is given to ALL of the faithful, again not by the priest but by anyone who “aids” the priests… May be I was dreaming, due that the daily mass it is at 7:30 AM every day, but I do not think that neither the host nor the wine should be given by anyone but the priests. Further, the wine is only drank by the PRIEST nor the faithful. Apostacy at 101%, sad! Thanks for uploading..”

      All I can say is ugh. I wonder if this is what the confused seminarian is attracted to…

      1. @Dale Rodrigue – comment #16:
        In addition, there is often lament over good seminaries and dioceses where immature views are challenged and young seminary candidates are urged to reform and renew themselves. “Discrimination” against traditional Catholics is bemoaned, when quite often discerning directors found that some of these “old school” candidates are unfit for ministry.

  8. In all the studies of priests in USA, including the most recent one which I reviewed for PrayTell, it is clear that priests may be to use Andrew Greeley’s words “some of the happiest people in the world” and that the source of all that happiness is in their role in the liturgy and sacraments and their key role in many of the most important events in people’s lives. The laity are not in any way real competition.

    So the simple answer that priests and laity should give to seminarians and young priests who see laity exercising important roles, and express concerns about confusion of roles is to cite the research and tell the young priests that they will grow into their roles, will likely live very satisfying lives, and are going to need the help of a lot of laity. This is more of a temporary (but sometimes permanent) psychological issue than a theological issue.

    A lot of non-ordained people, mostly sisters and lay women, now have very important even essential roles especially in large parishes. They have done so much religious education and sacramental formation that they know the issues and detailed practical problems (which again are mostly psychological and sociological) so they can really help the pastor very much and take over many things he really does not want to be involved with.

    On the other hand, young priests can have a great deal of difficulty having similar visible roles and having their days filled with countless details to take care of outside of saying Mass. One young priest who later left spent most of his days in his room at the parish house with nothing to do. Another bounded in each day to the parish office with all the enthusiasm of kid with his latest toy. “I felt like I needed to be a mother” said the pastoral associate.

    I think we need to go the vir probati route for most associates in large parishes. I have even seen older priests have difficulty finding a role that fills all their time as associates, but at least they don’t take it out on the laity, or have feelings of insecurity, and they usually have an easier time of finding a admiring support group among the older people of the parish. Some but not all young priests can find an admiring support group among the youth of the parish.

    We need to follow the Jesuit model of longer formation periods for young priests and that should involve substantial experience in various ministries, including third world countries, and in the USA Hispanic ministry. In others words some maturity building ministerial experiences that lay people typically don’t have. In my own professional life, I have found there is nothing like having had several different successful jobs to give one the confidence that you can tackle whatever problems there are in the present job.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #18:
      JR – my experience in formation and mentoring/supervising newly ordained in their first assignments reflects some of what you say.
      OTOH – most seem to have been prepared via internships, summer assignments prior to ordination, internships in mission lands or for various non-profits, etc. My experience is that candidates from seminaries with a very regimented formation process; that emphasizes a more *cultic* role for the priest; where candidates were not allowed many non-seminary experiences are the ones that have significant challenges in their first assignments – especially if their style is radically different from the pastor.

      Agree – the Jesuit formation route is healthier – it is not structured necessarily by a rigid 5 or 8 years and you are expected to be ordained. It relies upon lots of prior professional assignments/experiences with numeous mentors and excellent feedback – thus, ordination decision is based upon readiness; not years put into a pre-set schedule. It also prevents pressure to be ordained because of lack of personnel. These experiences also focus on more than just academic success – it entails abilities to relate to people across all spectrums; entails ability to perform and meet professional standards; etc.

      CARA studies indicate that more than 80% of all church work is done by laity and that the overwhelming majority of these folks are female. If a seminary does not take this into effect; does not have female/lay staff; does not allow for internships that require lay folks to provide feedback – then that is a seminary with a rigid and cultic approach. Have seen our local seminary expand enrollment but at the cost of lowered academic standards; less internmships; fewer interfaces with laity or lay staff/boards; and an emphasis on pushing candidates to ordination. Results are mised – the best do well in their first assignments; those who struggled to get to ordination via this system; struggle in their assignments.

      Biggest risk today, IMO, are the lowered academic standards driven by lack of vocations and need for personnel now. This is complicated by seminaries such as Neo-Cats who accept significant numbers of 1st generation US candidates who still need to learn english, meet basic academic standards in terms of philosophy, psychology, etc. – the time required to do this reduces the time to focus on theology, liturgy, ars celebrandi, internships, etc. in order to meet a 6 or 8 year (college to ordination) schedule. Have seen many lay folks on boards resign because of the quality (or lack of quality) of candidates that they provided feedback on during brief summer assignments. It just became too discouraging. These candidates may do very well but need a more expanded; longer, and more rigorous process that should not be pre-set.

      1. @Bill deHaas – comment #20:
        CARA studies indicate that more than 80% of all church work is done by laity and that the overwhelming majority of these folks are female. ”

        Not much has changed since the council, except that these women are not vowed religious.

        The Roman church has long had deaconesses in practice but not form/sacrament, just without calling them that….

      2. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #22:
        It’s not just Catholicism. There was a notable U Washington study several years ago that found a deeper religious attachment cross-culturally and worldwide.

        Excluding the priesthood, the deeper you go into Catholicism, the more women: 55% of parishioners, 60% of givers and volunteers, 80% of ministers–maybe a bit more when you include teachers.

      3. @Todd Flowerday – comment #23:
        Just to add that it may be difficult to judge clearly the developing roles of lay and ordained people, as long as the matter is clouded with the current ongoing male practice, lacking though it is in convincing supportive evidence, of excluding women from all ordained roles and in practice from many leadership roles.

  9. The role of the laity in specific ministries of the parish cannot be underestimated or under appreciated. I think seminarians will come to appreciate them once they realize how much they need them for all the various ministries that large and small parishes have.
    In terms of paid personnel in ministry positions, the laity far out number the clergy in my parish and they out number the men too as most are women. The DRE, Music Director, Principal, Youth Director are all lay women. Most of the volunteers in the parish are women too, coordinating Holy Communion to the homebound, and so on. Any newly ordained priest who comes into a parish like mine and decides he doesn’t need the laity to collaborate with him, will very clearly burn out if he thinks he can do it all. It takes about a year for them to see the light!

  10. Consider the directives for Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion: “officially”, these ministers are called upon when there is not a sufficient number of “ordinary” –i.e., ordained– ministers of Commmunion.
    In fact, as we know, this is not the practice in many places. There is no distinction between ordinary and extraordinary. In some places lay ministers consider themselves the ‘primary’ ministers in their parish.
    For many there is no essential difference between a Mass and a Communion Service Without a Priest; the Mass is just a bit longer.
    I’ve seen extraordinary ministers place an unconsecrated host into a pyx to bring to the sick.
    I’ve seen the left over Precious Blood spilled into a regular sacristy sink before the cup is soapped and washed. All of this accepted parish practice, slightly altered when the bishop comes for confirmation.
    I’ve seen reactions of incredulity at the concepts “Real Presence”, “sacrifice”, “valid matter”, “inspiration of sacred scripture”, orthodoxy.
    There is often a great disparity between official church teaching and actual parish practice and catechesis. Local communities reserve for themselves the right to decide what is “right”.
    All of this may be known and overlooked by dioceses.
    So…. do questions concerning the difference between lay and ordained ministries make any real practical difference?

    1. @John Swencki – comment #25:
      It is true that lay Communion ministers are “ordinary” in the sense that they are the ones who are trained, who are assigned duties, who fulfill their scheduled obligations, who come to pray before Mass, who pray in between assignments, and who quite literally and physically share faith in Christ with their brother and sister believers. You can’t get around that.

      As for your laundry list of offenses, none of them are exclusive problems to the laity, and all may be found among priests. Is the problem that some laity are picking up bad habits from the clergy?

      As for the notion of “no distinction,” this is just silly. Ordained people wear vestments. Lay people serve in street clothes. We all know who “confects” the Eucharist. Having men wearing clothing in 1700-year-old styles doing everything isn’t necessarily going to communicate Christ any more fruitfully than a lay person with genuine faith and a sense of sacrifice in serving others.

      I think it’s lamentable that some priests are threatened by the strong faith outside of their ranks. But as long as they insist on being lone rangers, it’s their problem. Not ours.

      1. The revolution in lay participation in the Mass is highly anthropological in nature. If I have rejected the androcentricity and caste of the hellenistic-Roman clan and the medieval court through postmodern life, then out of integrity I must also reject clan and court in worship. This rejection includes equal gender participation as well as an erasure of superior/inferior distinctions in clerical and lay roles to the extent now theologically permitted. One who wishes to exclusively live in Charlemagne’s throne room (e.g. the EF) and also benefit from egalitarianism beyond the church vestibule inhabits a split-personality which cannot endure forever.

        My last frontier in accepting the OF with whole heart as well as intellectual assent is the reality of laypersons administering the Eucharist. Logical consistency demands that I accept this development as part of the anthropological revolution in western Christian worship. The participation of laypersons as ministers of the Eucharist is an expression of just and ethical human interaction in the postmodern era.

        Even so, the reservation of ordinary eucharistic administration to a bishop or priest in the throne room, while androcentric and also indicative of a view of major orders as higher social station than the laity, also bears a beautiful symbolism. Every blessing of the EF, some grouped in threes and others in twos (certainly not by coincidence!), culminates in a priest’s blessing of each communicant with the host. The blessing Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi + custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam (“May the body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul to everlasting life”) is not merely a statement of what the Eucharist is, but also a declaration of a soul’s participation in the eucharistic mystery.

        This blessing is still reserved to those in major orders. Even if the old communion blessing were returned as an option, could priests ethically reserve the administration of communion for themselves? I do not believe so.

  11. Ladislas Orsy (Receiving the Council): there is no theological content to the term laity.

    We are not a church of lay and ordained but a church of the baptized, some of whom are ordained.

    Card. Tagle: How many gifts of he Spirit has the church squandered?

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