Pope Francis’ Establishment of Lay Catechist Ministry Both Ancient and New

COMMENTARY: The move makes three key points: Vatican II’s teaching on mission; the missionary identity of all disciples; and the secular vocation of the laity.

Pope Francis holds his weekly General Audience in the Library of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace on April 28th, 2021.
Pope Francis holds his weekly General Audience in the Library of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace on April 28th, 2021. (photo: Vatican Media)

By means of the apostolic letter Ancient Ministry (Antiquum ministerium) Pope Francis established a formal “lay ministry of Catechist.” This new form of an ancient mission gives “recognition to those lay men and women who feel called by virtue of their baptism to cooperate in the work of catechesis.” 

The ministry is both ancient and new. Laypeople have been collaborating with bishops and priests in catechesis since the Acts of the Apostles, but a formal “ministry” for laypeople is something new. Hence the Holy Father was at pains to make it clear what is, and what is not, being done: 

“It follows that the reception of a lay ministry such as that of Catechist will emphasize even more the missionary commitment proper to every baptized person, a commitment that must however be carried out in a fully ‘secular’ manner, avoiding any form of clericalization” (7).

The rite for formally instituting catechists will follow shortly, but the Holy Father’s letter makes three key points: Vatican II’s teaching on mission; the missionary identity of all disciples; and the secular vocation of the laity.


Vatican II

Pope Francis situates the new ministry of catechist in Vatican II’s document on the missions, Ad Gentes (To the Nations). It’s a good reminder that the fruits of a council can take decades to mature. 

“Beginning with the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, the Church has come to a renewed appreciation of the importance of lay involvement in the work of evangelization,” writes the Holy Father. “The Council Fathers repeatedly emphasized the great need for the lay faithful to be engaged directly, in the various ways their charism can be expressed” (4).

Vatican II praised the “army of catechists” who have already build up the Church around the world. That is more necessary today.

“When there are so few clerics to evangelize such great multitudes and to carry out the pastoral ministry, the role of catechists is of the highest importance,” teaches Ad Gentes (17).

One thinks, for example, of the oft-repeated praise of Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea for lay catechists, who were effective in evangelization without compromising the identity of the priest.

“I come from a young Church,” Cardinal Sarah said. “I knew the missionaries going from village to village to support the catechists. I have lived evangelization in my flesh. I know a young Church doesn’t need married priests. On the contrary. She needs priests who will give her the witness of the lived cross. A priest’s place is on the cross. When he celebrates Mass, he is at the source of his whole life, that is, at the cross.”

Cardinal Sarah argued vigorously against married priests for mission lands in part because of his positive experience of the work of catechists. The priest should be wholly dedicated to the ministry of the altar, but that doesn’t mean that the work of mission is his alone. 

It bears noting that the decision to formally institute a ministry of catechists follows the decision of Pope Francis last year not to permit married priests in the Amazon region, despite the recommendation of the Amazon Synod. It may be that Cardinal Sarah’s interventions influenced both decisions.

In many parts of the missionary Church, catechists undertake not only instruction in the faith, but also “parish” organization and lead worship in the absence of priests. For that reason, it is expected that the formal ministry of catechist will be taken more in those parts of the Church. Whether CCD and RCIA teachers in U.S. parishes will be invited to the lay ministry remains to be seen.


Missionary Disciples

The new ministry makes it clear that the mission of handing on the faith is the responsibility of all Catholics, not just the clergy. It is not that laity must step up because there are not enough priests; rather than “in virtue of their baptism” all the lay faithful are called to be missionary disciples. 

The new ministry is thus in direct continuity with Evangelii Gaudium (On the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World), the charter of this pontificate, which called for a “missionary transformation” of the entire Church.

“This [lay] presence is all the more urgently needed today as a result of our increasing awareness of the need for evangelization in the contemporary world and the rise of a globalized culture,” Pope Francis writes. “This requires genuine interaction with young people, to say nothing of the need for creative methodologies and resources capable of adapting the proclamation of the Gospel to the missionary transformation that the Church has undertaken” (5).


Secular Missionaries

There arises a possible confusion that Pope Francis is at pains to avoid. Does a “lay ministry” seek to put the lay faithful on a clerical track, or at least think of them in terms of clergy? Are they junior partners, or second-rate clergy? Instead of the Church going out in the world, might a formal ministry bring more of the world into the sacristy?

The Holy Father addresses this head on. The primary vocation of the laity is not to assist the clergy in doing church-like things, but to bring the light of the Gospel to the secular order.

“The lay apostolate is unquestionably ‘secular’,” writes Pope Francis (6). “It requires that the laity ‘seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will’ (Lumen Gentium, 31). In their daily life, interwoven with family and social relationships, the laity come to realize that they ‘are given this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth’ (ibid., 33).” 

The formal work of catechesis is only “in addition to this apostolate” for those “called in different ways to more immediate cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy.” Pope Francis likens this work to those who assist St. Paul in his missionary activity.

How to sort out those two dimensions will be the task of national bishops’ conferences, who are charged with developing a program so catechists “receive suitable biblical, theological, pastoral and pedagogical formation to be competent communicators of the truth of the faith.”