An essay on problems and challenges in the exercise of liturigical ministries in the Catholic Church today.


About John Lilburne



2335 K Tue 18 Jun 2002

Today I wrote a 2000 word essay for Liturgy.

Using the following documents as your starting point: Lumen Gentium (1964), Christifideles Laici (1988) and Instruction on Certain Questions regarding the Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests (1997), what are the problems and challenges in our understanding and exercise of liturgical ministries in the Church today?


Problems and challenges of liturgical ministries in the Roman Rite of today's Catholic Church are discussed. In particular the lay liturgical ministries of lector and acolyte are considered. These ministries give a particular liturgical role to those men, setting them apart from other lay people. At Vatican II there was little discussion of these. More recent clarifications of these issues are presented.

Vatican II

The principle is outlined in a paragraph in Lumen Gentium 33:

Besides this apostolate which belongs to absolutely every Christian, the laity can be called in different ways to more immediate cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy like those men and women who helped the apostle Paul in the Gospel, laboring much in the Lord (cf. Phil. 4-3; Rom. 16:3 ff.). They have, moreover, the capacity of being appointed by the hierarchy to some ecclesiastical offices with a view to a spiritual end.[Footnote 1: Austin Flannery, Vatican Council II, Volume 1 The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (USA, Costello Publishing, 1996) 391.]

In the previous chapter of Lumen Gentium 29: "At a lower level of the hierarchy are to be found deacons, who receive the imposition of hands "not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry."" There is no specific mention of the minor orders of porter, exorcist, acolyte and lector.

Liturgical Reforms

They were discussed by those contributing to the reform of the liturgy at a meeting 1-3 July 1965. Archbishop Bugnini summarized the discussion:

Minor orders have thus become transitional steps to the priesthood and are no longer effectively correlated with a real situation. In fact, the duties at one time assigned in minor orders are now exercised by lay persons and not by those who receive the orders. The offices are simply empty titles and contrary to the principle of "truthfulness" that is to be followed in the liturgical reform.[Footnote 2: Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975, (Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 1990) 728.]

He describes how the October 1966 meeting of the Concilium voted in favour of suppressing the minor orders of porter, exorcist, acolyte and lector.[Footnote 3: ibid 733-734.] However he wrote:

The discussion reached a mature stage in the decisions of the Fathers, but it stopped there. In fact, the discussion had hardly begun when some zealous "servant" falsely reported to the Pope that the Consilium intended to abolish all the minor orders; the "news" greatly disturbed him.[Footnote 4: ibid, 736]

It seems to me there were grounds for him to be disturbed. But his direction of 4 May 1967 prevailed: "Minor orders must be retained, but their concept and functions must be developed, and they must be integrated into the preparation for diaconate and priesthood."[Footnote 5: ibid 737]

In the Motu Proprio Ministeria quaedam of 1972 Paul VI wrote:

While Vatican Council II was in preparation, many bishops of the Church requested that the minor orders and subdiaconate be revised. Although the Council did not decree anything concerning this for the Latin Church, it stated certain principles for resolving the issue. [Footnote 6: Documents on the Liturgy (Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 1982) 908.]

In this document the ministries of instituted lector and acolyte were outlined and these changes were incorporated into the 1975 Roman Missal.

Christifideles Laici

But there has been a reluctance to implement them. Some of the concerns are evident from John Paul II's 1988 Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, n 23:

In the course of Synod work the Fathers devoted much attention to the Lectorate and the Acolytate. While in the past these ministries existed in the Latin Church only as spiritual steps on route to the ordained ministry, with the motu proprio of Paul VI, Ministerial Quaedam (August 15, 1972), they assumed an autonomy and stability, as well as a possibility of their being given to the lay faithful, albeit, only to men. The same fact is expressed in the new Code of Canon Law. (Footnote 77: Cf. Code of Canon Law, Can. 230.1). At this time the Synod Fathers expressed the desire that "the motu proprio Ministerial Quaedam be reconsidered, bearing in mind the present practice of local churches and above all indicating criteria which ought to be used in choosing those destined for each ministry." (Footnote 78: Propositio 18).

In this regard a Commission was established to respond ...

Recent Reinforcement

But the only changes made have been to reinforce the role of the instituted lector and acolyte. For example in the 1997 Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests, Article 1.3 has:

The non-ordained faithful may be generally designated "extraordinary ministers" when deputed by competent authority to discharge, solely by way of supply, those offices mentioned in Canon 230.3 and in Canons 943 and 1112. Naturally, the concrete term may be applied to those to whom functions are canonically entrusted e.g. catechists, acolytes, lectors etc.

Instituted lectors are not "extraordinary ministers" to do the first reading, they are the "ordinary minister" for this task.

According to the 2000 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) 99, which is about instituted lectors:

99. ... In the celebration of the Eucharist, the reader has specific duties which he alone ought to perform, even though ordained ministers may be present. ...

101. In the absence of an instituted reader, other lay people may be designated to proclaim the readings from the Sacred Scriptures ... [Footnote 7: Study Translation of the USCCB BCL Secretariat, (Washington, USCCB BCL, 2000) 22.]

The 2002 GIRM 99 made the instituted lector's role as even clearer, with the removal of the last words in the 2000 GIRM 99: "quamvis adsint ministri ordinati". The translation would now be:

99. ... In the celebration of the Eucharist, the reader has specific duties which he alone ought to perform.

Problems and Challenges

But in my experience, since being instituted as a lector on 27 February 2000, this is rarely followed. Even at the Pope's 2001 Christmas Midnight Mass a woman (who cannot be instituted as a lector) did the first reading. So it seems that in Saint Peter's Basilica they do not follow the 1981 General Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass, n. 51: "When there are instituted lectors available, they are to carry out their office at least on Sundays and major feasts, especially at the principal Mass of the day." It is difficult to accept that instituted lectors are not available there.

What problems and challenges does this indicate for the Church today? Perhaps poor communication, education and enforcement of the liturgical books. But why is this done poorly? I see it as concern for the Church's structure and a reluctance to admit past mistakes.

The role of the instituted lector, according to the liturgical books, is to wear vestments, be in the entrance procession, sit in the sanctuary and read at the lectern. Its similar to the role of the priest. I think many bishops have judged it is too much like the priest. For a lay man to have this role is seen as too powerful. Perhaps this is what is meant by Christifideles Laici n. 23 reference to:

... "clericalization" of the lay faithful and the risk of creating, in reality, an ecclesial structure ...

The lector would have this role without the controls for a priest or religious: no requirement for celibacy, no restrictions in running a business, and free to live anywhere, not just in a particular diocese. The lector could be seen as more like Jesus, the teacher who read in the synagogue (Luke 4:16-17), as opposed to the chief priests who offered sacrifice and had Jesus arrested.

Would men who would have chosen to become priests instead choose to become instituted lectors, if this were offered as a real alternative? What would that mean for the diocese and for those who had made a commitment to celibacy?

Perhaps these were the concerns of bishops in 1972. If the institution of lectors did not happen then it becomes more difficult to introduce them with each passing year. Embarrassing questions could be raised: Why wasn't it introduced earlier? Were seminarians instituted as required? Did they follow the liturgical laws to wear vestments and sit in the sanctuary? Who was responsible? Who went along with ignoring the liturgical books and was ordained?

Challenging as these may be it would be better if the 1972 Motu Proprio Ministeria quaedam were implemented in 2002 rather than in 2032. Continuing failure to implement it would mean undermining Church law and discipline. While some men may choose to become lectors instead of priests having a real choice between celibate and non-celibate ministries should lead to a better discernment of vocations.

On-going Liturgical Reform

Another challenge for the Church today is the on-going nature of the liturgical reform. In 2000 a new GIRM was published and the Third Edition of the Roman Missal was expected that year. But this was not published until March 2002. Now the Conferences of Bishops can make their adaptations, as bishops in the USA published in "Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion under Both Kinds in the Dioceses of the United States of America" the May 2002 Newsletter of the USCCB Committee on the Liturgy.

An illustration of the complexity this creates can be seen in the ministry of giving communion by intinction. Who should hold the chalice? The priest or acolyte?

Acolyte, 1975 GIRM 246(a)

Priest, 2000 GIRM 287, although this contradicted 2000 GIRM 191

Acolyte, 2002 GIRM 287

Priest, "Norms for the Celebration and Reception of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds in the Dioceses of the United States of America" n. 49, approved by a decree of 22 March 2002.

Further changes can be expected with the translations into English and the process of approving them. Questions will be asked of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and answers published in Notitiae. Clarifications will be provided which will change how the liturgical books are interpreted. There are reports that Pope John Paul II is preparing an encyclical on the Eucharist which may lead to different interpretations of the liturgical books.

Adding to the problems of understanding is a reluctance to admit mistakes and instead look for "face saving" solutions. When the 2002 Roman Missal was published it was with the decree of Holy Thursday 2000, which was also the decree for the 2000 GIRM. Since the 2002 GIRM was different there must have been later changes. John Paul II wrote of approving them in 2001 in his letter to the Vox Clara committee on 20 April 2002: "... the editio tertia of the Missale Romanum, the publication of which I authorized last year. ...".[Footnote 8: From the Internet, Adoremus. 2 May 2002.] But this has not been headline news. It was reported in USCCB BCL Newsletter of March 2002 "Minor adjustments made to the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani have not resulted in a text substantively different from that published by the Holy See in the Spring of 2000. The most significant change appears to be in GIRM, n. 43 ...".

Many changes were made and with its publication in March 2002 this Roman Missal is the liturgical book that should be faithfully followed. But in practice how could the world's Catholics do this? With liturgical laws that are so complex, inaccessible and ever changing it becomes difficult to distinguish genuine ignorance from deliberate disobedience.


The identification of problems opens the way for opportunities to improve the Church's effectiveness in its mission. This year John Paul II spoke to the US Cardinal about the issue of sexual abuse: "... so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier church ...". Similar things could be said of the problems of liturgical abuse. By faithfully following the liturgical books and responding to these challenges there are opportunities to improve unity and justice in the church.



Documents on the Liturgy. Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1982.

Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani July 2000 An English Language Study Translation. Washington: USCCB BCL Secretariat, 2000.

Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests. Strathfield: St Pauls, 1997.

Lectionary Volume 1, Study Edition. Sydney: Collins Liturgical Australia, 1983.

Missale Romanum Editio Typica Tertia. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2002.

Bugnini, Annibale. The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975. Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1990.

Flannery, Austin. Vatican Council II, Volume 1 The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents. USA: Costello Publishing, 1996.

John Paul II. Christifideles Laici. Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. Homebush: St Pauls, 1989.

Copyright J.R. Lilburne, 18 June 2002.