Lectors and Acolytes — we need to reflect first

Bishops’ Conferences around the world generally refused to grant these instituted ministries to lay people because women were excluded, though there were some individual exceptions. Removing this barrier means that bishops are now free to recognize and affirm the service of all lay people in these ministries, and indeed many bishops would like to.

I’d want to add a note of caution, though. There are many, shall we say, substandard readers in our parishes who routinely render a disservice to the Word of God, though they are completely unaware of this. Granting them an instituted ministry en bloc would not be a good idea. Similarly there are parish servers and MCs whose comportment on the sanctuary leaves something to be desired, though once again they do not realise it.

Institution in both these ministries should require prior in-depth formation. It’s not just about acknowledging a liturgical “job”.

I am reminded of the time in the Archdiocese of Chicago when priestly formation included a mandatory two-week intensive liturgical practicum. At the end of it, candidates were examined. If they couldn’t preside effectively and, just as importantly, preach effectively, no matter how worthy their motives or how brilliant their knowledge of theology and philosophy, they didn’t get ordained. As simple as that. I often wish the same rigour was applied to diaconal and priestly formation today. The people of God deserve it.

The same applies to those who read and serve. Just because they are already doing it doesn’t necessarily mean they should receive institution.

There are other considerations, too. Institution is permanent, even if a time comes when your gifts and abilities have changed or faded away. At present, it is possible to remove unsuitable readers and servers and assign them to other tasks that are more appropriate to them. With institution, this would be much more difficult. (In passing, I note that there is also a body of opinion that wonders whether ordination for life is also something that should be reviewed.)

Others have wondered about the dangers of a kind of clericalism creeping in if lay people go through an installation similar to what happens to seminarians on their journey through to priesthood, even if this procedure is not designed to lead to ordination. Ministry is not about status, and we can see in the Early Church the results of a misunderstanding in this area. Originally, candidates for any kind of ministry were selected according to what they were good at — the shorthand term to describe this is “charism”. Early on, some began to consider ministry as conferring status on the minister — the shorthand term to describe this is “office”. Once charism was replaced by office, the development of a clerical elite was set in train, where your position in the hierarchy of Christian people was more important than whether you actually had the gifts required to carry out your ministry.

I do not think we should be rushing to institute lay people indiscriminately, whether women or men, just because Pope Francis has now opened the doors to all lay people. Discernment of gifts, formation, and a proper understanding of ministry, are all required.

2 comments

  1. As a Lector for over 30 years in a cathedral, I agree. How many dioceses have proper formation programmes for lay ministers? Bishops, get on with it!

  2. Point well made, Paul.

    And maybe we should now be looking forward to the introduction of properly formed (and instituted) Cantors and doubtless other categories. I have long felt Pope John Paul II missed a trick when Christifideles Laici was published but he did not ‘correct’ the position re lay liturgical ministries.

    When properly formed and resourced this cadre of committed ministers really should help us all to a fuller appreciation of the liturgy as a work of the Church and not only of the ordained members of the Faithful.

    Incidentally the current English translation of the Letter, newly appeared on Holy See’s website, in the last but 4th paragraph, speaks of people being ordained Lector and Acolyte (not seen the Latin but the Italian – correctly – uses instituted).

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