Lay Ministries: Acolytes, Lectors, and Catechists, Oh My!

Pope Francis’ recent changes in canon law to the lay ministries of acolyte, lector and catechist are aimed at empowering a missionary Church at the parish level.

Acolytes play a large role in Sunday Mass at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in Baltimore, Md.
Acolytes play a large role in Sunday Mass at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in Baltimore, Md. (photo: Mount Calvary Catholic Church)

Over the past six months, Pope Francis has made major changes in canon law to achieve widespread institution of laymen and women to the stable ministries of acolyte, lector and now catechist in Catholic parishes by their bishops. 

“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,” Pope Francis wrote in his motu proprio Antiquum Ministerium, establishing the lay ministry of catechist. “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, in the ‘plantatio Ecclesiae’ and the development of the Christian community.” 

The decree followed Pope Francis’ motu proprio Spiritus Domini, which changed canon law to state that women — not just men — could also be instituted to the lay ministries of acolyte and lector. All lay ministries have a rite of institution by the bishop, and the Holy Father said the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments would be issuing a rite of institution for catechists soon. 

In decreeing the institution of catechists, the Pope stated that lay ministers should be “faithful co-workers with priests and deacons, prepared to exercise their ministry wherever it may prove necessary, and motivated by true apostolic enthusiasm.” 

Most of the U.S. Church, with the exception of a small handful of dioceses, has little experience with instituted lay ministries or how it would work in concert with the ordained ministry. Most parishes have volunteers to fill liturgical functions, while some Latin Rite bishops instituted laymen as acolytes and lectors as a way to invite Catholic laymen in their diocese, such as in Lincoln, Nebraska, to take a more active leadership role in their faith. Although St. Paul VI established acolyte and lector as lay ministries with Ministeria Quaedam in 1972, when he abolished the subdiaconate as a major order in the Latin Church, the failure to implement the Pope’s decree widely is credited to bishops refusing to institute anyone other than seminarians to lector and acolyte because the Pope had not extended these ministries to laywomen. 

But the potential for these lay ministries can even now be seen in the dioceses that have adopted them. 

Drew Hall, an instituted acolyte at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in Baltimore, explained to the Register that the lay ministry of acolyte both involves serving at the altar and living out the Christian life in its fullness, particularly in service to the whole community. As an acolyte, Hall helps train the servers and instill in them an example of how to carry out service at the altar and deepen their appreciation of the sacred mysteries. At a previous Sunday, the acolyte assisted the pastor with a reflection delivered to the growing congregation, instructing them on not only the different postures of the Mass, but also their various meanings at the appropriate times. 

“There’s a much deeper life to this, to the Mass, that we can bring out there,” Hall said. 

Ordinariate's Class of 2017 Instituted Acolytes. courtesy
The Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter's Class of 2017 instituted acolytes(Photo: Courtesy photo)

But the vocation also has a diaconal, or service, aspect, as well. Hall and the other acolyte at his parish are involved in the parish’s soup kitchens and coordinate parish cleanups, and they look for ways to serve the parish and the community as disciples following Jesus Christ. 

“Our priest views this as a leadership role. He wants the acolytes to be leaders in the community and people who are supportive of the parish mission,” Hall said. 

The Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, a Roman Catholic diocese with Anglican traditions for the U.S. and Canada, has more than 80 acolytes instituted by Bishop Steven Lopes for service in the parishes. 

Bishop Lopes’ introduction to the acolytes manual at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Walsingham in Houston stated the acolyte is a “true vocation,” adding, “He is a minister chosen from among the lay faithful who, remaining part of the lay faithful, instructs them by word and example in the right conduct of the sacred liturgy, in devotion to the most Blessed Sacrament, and in the attitude of faith which allows sacraments to be fruitful.”

As lay ministers, he explained, acolytes “demonstrate more clearly” the interconnectedness between the universal priesthood of the baptized and the ministerial priesthood, as well as aid the deacon and priest in the celebration of the liturgy and bring the sacraments to the faithful, particularly those unable to join Sunday worship. However, the bishop made clear that this vocation “presupposes that the acolyte nourish his faith and relationship with Christ the Lord, particularly through frequent reception of the Eucharist and confession, and through regular prayer.” 

Father Al Scharbach, pastor of Mount Calvary, told the Register that the institution to lay ministry requires a commitment to this vocation and that commitment “just gives consistency” to a much greater degree than simply having volunteers who fill in. And the parish has reaped the benefits.

“Having the stability of people who are committed develops a piety and an institutional knowledge that in turn informs the faithful,” he said. 

The lay ministry also shows the faithful there is a greater responsibility in the life of the Church to aspire to. Altar servers, for instance, can see themselves becoming acolytes; and acolytes who are men can discern a vocation to ordained ministry of deacon or priest.

But the priest also stressed that there’s a danger to reduce lay ministry to a kind of “liturgical specialist” who simply enjoys liturgy and can execute the functions with dignity and precision. The pastor explained lay ministry requires a total commitment to the life of Christian discipleship, such that if a layperson in that ministry does not demonstrate his Christian witness outside the church, “then their presence in the sanctuary is discordant.” The priest has had to ask some people to step down from lay ministry because of that.

“You haven't grasped the beauty of holiness or the liturgy if that doesn't continue in your life [outside the sanctuary],” he said. “We say in our church that we lift up Christ in the beauty of holiness. It doesn't mean much if that holiness doesn't go outside our doors.”


Getting Ready to Implement 

Marc DelMonico, the director of certification for ecclesial ministry and service at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register that he personally believes the Pope’s actions on lay ministry are a “wonderful development.” DelMonico said Pope Francis’ decision to make the lay catechist an instituted lay ministry recognizes both the permanent need for catechetical engagement and also the permanence of the lay catechist vocation as a “foundational ministry.” 

“I think it’s an affirmation in many ways of what the bishops’ conference has already been doing for a number of years, in the support of development of standards and competencies for a variety of lay-ministry roles,” he said.

“Somebody who's trained and prepared as a catechist is going to continue to use that skill in various ways.” 

He said the potential for instituting laypeople to acolyte and lector as permanent ministry is an opportunity to more deeply consider how to deliver theological, pastoral and spiritual formation at “the level appropriate to that instituted ministry” and to develop creative ways to deploy them at the parish level. “So that's exciting,” he said.

Petroc Wiley, director of the Catechetical Institute at Franciscan University of Steubenville, told the Register that Pope Francis’ move on the lay ministry of the catechist is “in continuity with St. John Paul II’s work” and reflects “Benedict XVI’s reaffirmation of responsibility in the Church.”

“He’s developing something which his predecessors tried to affirm,” he said, particularly in enlisting the laity in the apostolic work of the New Evangelization.

“You can’t have an evangelizing Church unless its people are catechized and well-formed,” he said.

He noted that in some countries, “the laity are often running parish-mission stations.”

“You might have a parish with 20 mission stations, each run by a lay catechist,” he said of pastoral centers of Christian faithful that carry out evangelization and works of charity.

Overall, Willey said the Pope’s moves on lay ministry are a strong message of the laity’s co-responsibility for the Church’s evangelizing mission. Formalizing the lay catechist, as a ministry instituted by the bishop, stresses the indispensability of catechesis to Catholic evangelization.

 “It is going to raise all the boats if this ministry is taken very seriously.”