Two Bishops: Lay Help at Mass Must Have Faith

BEND, Ore. — Lay people who are not following Church teaching should not serve in functions such as lector or an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.

So say two recent bishops in statements reaffirming diocesan policies.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago in early June sent a letter to pastors saying Catholic lay people who disagree with the Church's teachings should not be allowed to assist in distributing Communion, the Chicago Sun-Times reported June 10.

And Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore., has requested that lay people who serve the Church in functions such as lector make an “affirmation of personal faith.”

Lay helpers in Oregon seem grateful for the new letters. Dr. Richard Thorne, a retired physician, heads the liturgy committee at St. Thomas Parish in Redmond, Ore. He also serves as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion for that parish.

“I welcomed it,” he said. “I think it's long overdue.”

Priests, too. Father Rogatian Urassa, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Kalamath Falls, Ore., is glad Bishop Vasa addressed the issue. “If they want to remain on the margin, they don't have to serve,” he said about lay people. “They cannot be representing a faith they are opposed to.”

Karl Keating, president of Catholic Answers, said the issues in Oregon and Chicago might have surfaced because of the controversy about communion and abortion votes.

“I suspect it's connected with the controversy over pro-abortion politicians receiving Communion,” Keating said. “I think it has been a concern of the bishops. But now it is being publicized — and it should be publicized.”

Though it could not be confirmed, Cardinal George might have been writing in response to pleas from a frustrated parishioner at St. Giles Parish in Oak Park, Ill.

“If a minister should manifest his/her disagreement with Church teaching, he/she should not continue in active ministry until such time that the minister is reconciled to the Church's teaching,” Cardinal George wrote.

The archdiocesan policy was reiterated, the cardinal said, in response to recent questions posed to the Church and in the media.

Parishioner Bill Rice said a state senator who is pro-abortion is allowed to be a lector.

The lector, Illinois state Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, he said, should not be allowed to continue serving in that capacity. After bringing up the issue last October but getting no satisfaction at the parish level, Rice said he appealed to the archdiocese and was eventually led to believe that Harmon would no longer be allowed to serve as a lector if he continued to publicly dissent from teachings.

St. Giles pastor, Father Thomas Dore, told the Register he met with Harmon after the letter came out and that Harmon agreed to stop being a lector. Harmon said he was disappointed and acknowledged that he is “pro-choice” — but not “pro-abortion.”

Archdiocesan spokesman James Dwyer declined to speak further on the Harmon issue but said Cardinal George's letter was simply reiterating common policy — that the Church expects lay helpers at the altar to adhere to its teachings. He said although the cardinal's letter focused on the administering of Communion, the same goes for all lay assistance, including lectors, cantors and youth ministry directors.

‘Minding the Flock’

Bishop Vasa's pastoral letter, “Giving Testimony to the Truth,” also clarifies an existing diocesan requirement that lay people in the sanctuary be of “outstanding moral character.” Then it adds an affirmation of personal faith to be made by all lay help during the next year.

Bishop Vasa said in spite of the fact that he has every confidence in lay participants, he also has a responsibility before God to be a shepherd and a teacher.

“While it is sufficient for me to ‘presume’ that Catholics who attend Mass and receive Communion adhere to these teachings (unless the contrary is clearly evident), such a presumption is not sufficient for those whom I commission to teach and act in some official capacity,” his letter states.

The process of obtaining certification as a lay helper would be conducted privately between the lay person and the pastor. Ministry candidates would state unequivocally: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church teaches, believes and proclaims to be revealed by God.”

In a June 8 telephone interview, Bishop Vasa said he is pleased with the many supportive reactions he received after issuing the letter and the attached affirmation. And he noted that contradictions in service must be avoided. He said his proposal stems in part from a number of concerns expressed by some parishioners, not from any one particular situation.

He said lectors, cantors, youth ministry directors and all other ecclesial helpers must be held to a higher degree of accountability than parishioners sitting in the pews.

“The clearest example would be if somebody did not believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist,” Bishop Vasa said, noting that it would be contradictory for them to serve as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion. This is true, he said, “clearly in their public life but also in their private life if they are rejecting the teachings of the Church.”

Bishop Vasa acknowledged that some lay assistants and parishioners expressed concerns after he issued the proposal. But he said he has met with about a dozen of them, a few at a time, and that the meetings were cordial.

Armando Machado writes from Mount Vernon, Washington.

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