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What the Pope’s Letter About Lectors and Acolytes Means for Us

What the Pope’s Letter About Lectors and Acolytes Means for Us

A reader reads at the Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on April 4, 2015. (photo: Martha Calderon / CNA/EWTN News)

Pope Francis’ “Letter,” properly implemented, has the opportunity to realize an almost 50-year-old vision of lay ministry that has largely lain dormant.

In 1972, Pope St. Paul VI issued the motu proprio Ministeriam Quaedamreforming the steps governing advancement to the priesthood. Back then, there were “four minor and three major” orders: porter, exorcist, lector, acolyte, subdeacon, deacon, and priest. Tonsure (a symbolic clipping of hair) preceded them all.

MQ abolished porters and exorcists (since the former was practically defunct and the latter a special role generally performed only by designated priests). It also abolished the subdiaconate, since its primary functions (proclaiming the Word and assisting at the altar) overlapped with lectors and acolytes. A new rite of “Candidacy” marked the formal public declaration of a man to seek ordination to the priesthood and the Church’s acceptance of that declaration by the act of the bishop. Entry to the clerical state would henceforth coincide with the first of the major orders of the sacrament of Holy Orders — diaconate — and not with tonsure.

The most radical change of MQ was the recharacterization of being a lector and acolyte as “ministries,” which could now be conferred on laymen while also remaining prerequisites for future entry to the clerical state and ordination as deacons and priests.

As I observed in an article in Irish Theological Quarterly in 1998 on the 25th anniversary of MQ, whatever that apostolic constitution said, its vision never actually happened. While MQ talked about lectors and acolytes being “lay ministries,” they never actually became that. The only persons who were instituted as lectors or acolytes, according to the rite prescribed for bishops to administer, were still seminarians for eventual priestly ordination. De facto acolytes and lectors remained quasi-“minor orders.”

Pope Francis’ Jan. 10 “Letter of the Holy Father Pope Francis to the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith on the Access of Women to the Ministries of Lector and Acolyte” will hopefully begin to straighten out some of the theological mishmash resulting from the unfulfilled vision of MQ. I admit, however, that the “Letter” may have some problems of its own.

Both MQ and the “Letter” seek to add some clarity to what Vatican II about how “the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood,” while differing “in essence and not only in degree,” nevertheless are “interrelated” (Lumen gentiumNo. 10). All the sacraments, including Holy Orders, presuppose Baptism (as last summer’s situation in the Archdiocese of Detroit, where the invalid Baptism of a “priest” necessitated his “repetition” of all the sacraments, including ordination). By Baptism, all Christians receive the threefold office of Christ: priest, prophet and king (see Lumen gentium, No. 31).

Pope Francis reaffirms all this in his “Letter,” noting the difference between free-flowing “charisms” of the Holy Spirit and stable, publicly recognized “ministries” in the Christian community like lector and acolyte. The Pope says that these ministries do not inherently flow from Holy Orders but rather from entrustment by the bishop to those who, having received Baptism and Confirmation, now carry out that entrustment.

I qualify that last sentence because of a remark in Pope Francis’s “Letter.” On the one hand, he says that lector and acolyte are “instituted” ministries for those who have been recognized as possessing these charisms, being appropriately prepared for them, and installed. “Many other ecclesial services … are in fact exercised by so many members of the community, for the good of the Church, often over a long period of time and with great efficiency, without any particular rite being provided to confer the office.” (Translation mine — I note the Vatican has currently issued this document only in Italian and Spanish.)

Does that mean that the Pope is going to move toward the vision of MQ and truly open the installed ministries of lector and acolyte to lay people? Or does it mean that he is going to continue the “mess” of the current state of de jure and de facto lectors and acolytes, with a few token lay men and especially lay women being formally added to the de jure pool? That would hardly be a realization of MQ as much as paying it lip service.

I say that in taking seriously the vision of MQ to treat lectors and acolyte as lay ministries. A few token installed lectors and acolytes do not a “lay ministry” make. Good liturgical order (which is also part of “the liturgical act of the bishop”) is maintained by proper ecclesial recognition and authorization of the ministers exercising those ministries, which all lies at the service of the Church. For these reasons, if Pope Francis’s “Letter” is to be taken seriously, bishops’ conferences (as he instructs) need to institutionalize this vision of ministry.

Now, if lector and acolyte are to become what they were supposed to be — lay ministries — then the ritualization of the path to priesthood will become rather skimpy. It is also likely to enhance rather than clarify the confusion in the “essential” difference between “the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood.” That turmoil will be further exacerbated if the result of the Pope’s “Letter” is that most things remain the same but for some token lay woman lectors and lay man acolytes, because it will nourish an ecclesiology that sees the call to ordination coming not from God through the summons of the bishop but from the congregation through passive ratification of “just doing it” — a good slogan perhaps for Nike, but poor theology.

In summary, Pope Francis’ “Letter,” properly implemented, has the opportunity to realize an almost 50-year-old vision of lay ministry that has largely lain dormant. “The devil’s in the details” whether in fact it does or not.

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