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

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

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

In 1972, Pope St. Paul VI issued the motu proprio Ministeriam Quaedam, reforming 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.”

Lay people who actually did some or most of the functions of lectors and acolytes — the person who read the readings at Mass or assisted the priest at the altar — were not installed in those roles and so in fact de facto discharged functions without formal commissioning. The theology and the practice were confused.

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 gentium, No. 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. 

The attention of the secular press focused primarily on change in canon law allowing the ministries of lector and acolyte to be entrusted to women, a focus abetted by the title of the Pope’s letter itself. In the light of the Pope’s ongoing “study” of whether women can be admitted to the diaconate and his failure to approve ordaining married men (viri probati) to the priesthood in Querida Amazonia, this is considered big news. In some sense it is but, in my view, the theologically more significant step seems to be that, almost 49 years after MQ, we may finally be realizing its vision of lector and acolyte as lay ministries. 

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.

At the same time, the Pope mentions sociology. One of the basic principles of sociology is that transition from one state to another normally involves steps of aggregation by which the candidate recognizes his progressive incorporation into a new state. Having worked in a seminary, I think that the post-MQ ritualization of entry into the clerical state is a bit sparse and bare: from the pre-1972 tonsure plus seven steps to priesthood we have come to a declaration (candidacy) plus two steps (diaconate, priesthood). The de facto role of installation as lector and acolyte served in practice to bolster that transition by adding two. 

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.