Friday, May 18, 2012

The Stable Ministries of Lector and Acolyte

On a certain diocesan website (not the one from which the above photo is taken) reporting the conferral of the ministry of Reader upon some candidates for the permanent diaconate (congratulations to them), it was recently stated that "The conferral of this Ministry (of Reader) is one of the steps on the path to ordination."

Well, that's true of course, but this always brings to my mind an express wish of Pope Paul VI in his post-Conciliar reforms which has not been implemented in any region with which I am familiar.

The reforms are described in Pope Paul's Apostolic Letter Ministeria Quaedam "on first tonsure, minor orders, and the subdiaconate." The Pope abolishes the subdiaconate, (please leave aside any opinions concerning the more ancient usage known as the Extraordinary Form for the time being) subsuming it into the ministries of readers and acolyte. He also abolishes tonsure, and says that thenceforth there will not be reference to ordination but to institution. So there are no more "minor orders" but rather "ministries".

He promulgated the following norms to become effective January 1, 1973 (with some comments from me in parentheses):
  1. First tonsure is no longer conferred; entrance into the clerical state is joined to the diaconate.
  2. What up to now were called minor orders are henceforth to be called ministries.
  3. Ministries may be assigned to lay Christians; hence they are no longer to be considered as reserved to candidates for the sacrament of orders. [In other words, they are to be stable.]
  4. Two ministries, adapted to present-day needs, are to be preserved in the whole Latin Church, namely, those of reader and acolyte. The functions heretofore assigned to the subdeacon are entrusted to the reader and the acolyte; consequently, the major order of subdiaconate no longer exists in the Latin Church [of course, we know it does, in those institutes dedicated to the preservation of the older liturgy whose members are still ordained to the subdiaconate, and even when the extroardinary form of the Mass is celebrated in a more solemn form, priests or deacons or even lay people take on the role of subdeacon]. There is, however, no reason why the acolyte cannot be called a subdeacon in some places, at the discretion of the conference of bishops. [Interesting!]
  5. The reader is appointed for a function proper to him, that of reading the word of God in the liturgical assembly. Accordingly, he is to proclaim the readings from sacred Scripture, except for the gospel in the Mass and other sacred celebrations; he is to recite the psalm between the readings when there is no psalmist; he is to present the intentions for the general intercessions in the absence of a deacon or cantor; he is to direct the singing and the participation by the faithful; he is to instruct the faithful for the worthy reception of the sacraments. He may also, insofar as may be necessary, take care of preparing other faithful who are appointed on a temporary basis [ah, so there can be temporary appointment to this ministry, but clearly there is to be a distinction between the stably instituted lector and the temporarily appointed person] to read the Scriptures in liturgical celebrations. That he may more fittingly and perfectly fulfill these functions, he is to meditate assiduously on sacred Scripture. Aware of the office he has undertaken, the reader is to make every effort and employ suitable means to acquire that increasingly warm and living love [7] and knowledge of Scripture that will make him a more perfect disciple of the Lord.
  6. The acolyte is appointed in order to aid the deacon and to minister to the priest. It is his duty therefore to attend to the service of the altar and to assist the deacon and the priest in liturgical celebrations, especially in the celebration of Mass; he is also to distribute communion as a special minister when the ministers spoken of in the Codex Iuris Canonici can. 845 are not available or are prevented by ill health, age, or another pastoral ministry from performing this function, or when the number of communicants is so great that the celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged. In the same extraordinary circumstances an acolyte may be entrusted with publicly exposing the blessed sacrament for adoration by the faithful and afterward replacing it, but not with blessing the people. He may also, to the extent needed, take care of instructing other faithful who on a temporary basis are appointed to assist the priest or deacon in liturgical celebrations by carrying the missal, cross, candles, etc., or by performing other such duties. He will perform these functions more worthily if he participates in the holy eucharist with increasingly fervent devotion, receives nourishment from it, and deepens his knowledge about it. As one set aside in a special way [pretty strong - one set aside in a special way!] for the service of the altar, the acolyte should learn all matters concerning public divine worship and strive to grasp their inner spiritual meaning: in that way he will be able each day to offer himself entirely to God, be an example to all by his gravity and reverence in church, and have a sincere love for the Mystical Body of Christ, the people of God, especially for the weak and the sick.
  7. In accordance with the ancient tradition of the Church, institution to the ministries of reader and acolyte is reserved to men. [Aha! Let me repeat: "In accordance with the ancient tradition of the Church, institution to the ministries of reader and acolyte is reserved to men." Could this be the reason why hardly any episcopal conferences have, in fact, established these stable ministries among lay people and still only confer these ministries upon candidates for ordination, ignoring Pope Paul's intentions as stated in (3) above?]
  8. The following are requirements for admission to the ministries:
    1. the presentation of a petition that has been freely made out and signed by the aspirant to the Ordinary (the bishop and, in clerical institutes, the major superior) who has the right to accept the petition;
    2. a suitable age and special qualities to be determined by the conference of bishops;
    3. a firm will to give faithful service to God and the Christian people.
  9. The ministries are conferred by the Ordinary (the bishop and, in clerical institutes, the major superior) through the liturgical rite De institutione lectoris and De institutione acolythi as revised by the Apostolic See.
  10. An interval, determined by the Holy See or the conferences of bishops, shall be observed between the conferring of the ministries of reader and acolyte whenever more than one ministry is conferred on the same person. [Should one precede the other? Logically, and following the tradition, the ministry of acolyte would be considered a "higher" ministry and so one would receive the ministry of reader before that of acolyte, and this is, of course, the order followed for those who are candidates for ordination.]
  11. Unless they have already done so, candidates for ordination as deacons and priests are to receive the ministries of reader and acolyte and are to exercise them for a suitable time, in order to be better disposed for the future service of the word and of the altar. Dispensation from receiving these ministries on the part of such candidates is reserved to the Holy See.
  12. The conferring of ministries does not bring with it the right to support or remuneration from the Church.
  13. The rite of institution of readers and acolytes will soon be published by the competent department of the Roman Curia.
In the Novus Ordo Church which the vast majority of us inhabit, I think our sense of order in the liturgy would be vastly improved if suitable men were chosen to be stably instituted as lectors and, later, acolytes. What about the women? They could still be temporarily appointed to fulfill the function of a reader on  occasion, or even of an acolyte. But I would consider this to be an extraordinary circumstance.

Now, anyone from my parish who reads this needn't get themselves up in arms - I am not about to exclude all the women who have been entrusted with these roles from doing them in the future. I do, however, think it is only right that we know clearly what the intentions of the post-Conciliar reform were. After all, Pope Benedict has asked that in the Year of Faith we study again the documents of the Second Vatican Council. I think everyone knows of my concern at the fact that the majority of our Readers and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion are women. If the need for more readers and EMHC's to replace any who step down arises, I'll be looking for men to step up first to at least redress the balance of male performance of these roles.

But what if conferences of bishops enacted Canon 230 of the Code of Canon Law? Of course there is no obligation upon them to do so, but Pope Paul was pretty clear about his intentions as also about his view about the ancient tradition of the Church.
Can. 230 §1. Lay men who possess the age and qualifications established by decree of the conference of bishops can be admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte. Nevertheless, the conferral of these ministries does not grant them the right to obtain support or remuneration from the Church.

§2. Lay persons can fulfill the function of lector in liturgical actions by temporary designation. All lay persons can also perform the functions of commentator or cantor, or other functions, according to the norm of law.

§3. When the need of the Church warrants it and ministers are lacking, lay persons, even if they are not lectors or acolytes, can also supply certain of their duties, namely, to exercise the ministry of the word, to preside offer liturgical prayers, to confer baptism, and to distribute Holy Communion, according to the prescripts of the law.


  1. Re: number 7, yes. And rightly so. In other words, men get the title and the work. Women, as usual, get the work, but not the concomitant pat on the head. Lots of things are 'ancient tradition.' Some things are worth keeping. Some things are worth re-examining. It's obvious to me that in a seminary setting it would be quite okay to give a formal institution to men who will are seeking to become priests. They get (or should get!) a thorough training in scripture etc more so than the average Joe and Jane in the pew. [Not that they are always superior in knowledge to Joe and Jane - but as a group they are more likely to be.]

    On a parish level the priest is wise to seek equal numbers of men/women, boys/girls to fulfill these roles. AND TREAT THEM EVENLY. Not give one group the 'you will get the secret handshake' treatment and the other group 'you will do all the work but no acknowledgement as doing as much work as the other half.' So phooey on instituting instituted readers/acolytes in the average parish. [Of course if a seminarian is home on holiday at his parish he should be given preference in these roles.]

    1. So everything is up for grabs? Decide which piece of Papal legislation you accept and which you don't? Both "sides" are doing this and, as Trisagion says below, not without reason. The genie was allowed out of the bottle!

  2. I have to say that I think that Ministeria Quaedam is a deeply problematic example of the ultramontane positivism that characterised so much of the post-conciliar reform of the liturgy. If it is a juridic document - expressing a prudential judgement about what is good for the Church at a particular point in time - then fair enough: the Pope gets to make those kinds of calls. If, however, it is what it seems to be - i.e. the abolition of the very existence of sacramentals which have formed a part of the Tradition of the Church and an integral part of the understanding of the Sacrament of Holy Order - it seems to me to be precisely the sort of act that is so inconsistent with a hermeneutics of continuity.

    1. I couldn't agree more - quite a sweeping act to abolish such long-standing orders. The distinction between minor and major orders was quite clear, I thought. Of course, the point of incardination is another matter. Nevertheless, my comments point to a bit of selectivity on the acceptance of Vatican II and the post-conciliar reforms. "Spirit of VII" types do not embrace every letter of VII. I think Pope Benedict shows that he realizes there is a limit to Papal authority when it comes to tradition. He cannot (or should not) just do whatever he likes, abolishing this or that. The entrusting of these ministries (formally minor orders) to particularly "set apart" people not en route to ordination would not seem to me to pose any problem, however.

  3. Yes, Father, it's simply inconceivable that BXVI would feel that abolition the minor orders and the subdiaconate was open to him. Incidentally, the subdiaconate was not a minor order. Your point about the stable nature of orders is well made. Trent at session 23 saw the wisdom of such.

  4. On a peripheral note - your picture shews a bishop using the simple mitre with white vestments. This is particularly prevalent in France. I even saw it on Christmas morning in Lyon where the celebrant was no less that the Primate of the Gauls.

  5. Very incisive, Trisagion at 8.59. There is a disconcerting arbitrariness and reactiveness to what is a law of the Church.

  6. Thank you for the interesting post Fr.

    I agree absolutely that the ministries of reader/lector and acolyte are intended to be stable ministries.

    I am in formation for the Permanent Diaconate and am scheduled to receive institution as an acolyte in August. The ministry of lector was conferred last summer. My understanding of these ministries is that should ordination to the diaconate not follow I would remain a lector/acolyte. This in itself demonstrates the permanance of the two ministries.

    What's more the "formal" ministry of reader is more than being an occasional reader at Mass (c.f. point 5 of MQ and GIRM) and the ministry of acolyte is more than being an EMHC (c.f. point 6 of MQ and GIRM)

    I also agree that the ministries are rarely conferred because the are reserved to men. In fact, I'd go so far as to say they've almost become exclusively associated with candiates for Holy Orders.


    1. All the very best Chris in your preparation for the ministry of acolyte and, God willing, ordination.

  7. I never understood Pope Paul VI’s suppression of the Minor Orders and Subdiaconate. In seminary each - preceded by Tonsure, which made the seminarian a cleric - was seen as an important progression on the road to the priesthood with attendant and increasing responsibilities. There was a structure and an order to the steps and they were taken seriously. I fear that seminarians today have lost something of this progression on the road to the priesthood.

    So why did Pope Paul VI suppress them? Granted, the order of Porter would rarely if ever be employed in our post-Monastic times and that of Exorcist would only be exercised by a competent and sacerdotal exorcist. But each had significance for the ultimate state of the seminarian – as a priest.

    So was Pope Paul’s intent an extension of the misinterpreted actuosa participatio of the laity in the Liturgy? It would appear so. And while - as you note Father - the resulting ‘ministries’ were intended to be restrictive, in practice the floodgates were opened. As with many of the rubrics of the Liturgy, the dictum of being “given an inch and taking a yard” has unfortunately come to pass. It will be hard to get the horse back into the barn.

  8. I'm coming in on this late, but let me add an observation. One of the benefits of various ministries of the Mass is modeling roles of service to young people. One particular problem the church in the US has had in the last several decades is a priest shortage.

    I'm in the Lincoln NE diocese. We are the only diocese remaining in the US that has only boys as altar servers and one of the few diocese that has lay men serve as acolytes on the altar. Of course this flies in the face of US secular culture and we (the diocese) are often critisized for this structure.

    But.... The fruit of having men modeling behavior of service to the church, to the Holy Mass, and ultimately to Our Lord is evident. Our seminary is full, we have one of the highest priest/parishoner ratio in the US, the summer altar boy Leadership Camps have long waiting lists, etc.

    Personally, I just finished my training as a lay acolyte and will be instituted in April. The process has helped me grow in my faith. I'm humbled to help serve the church, our parish, and the Holy Mass in any way I'm asked.

    Thank you all for all you do! Blessings to you!

    Pax et Bonum,

    1. All eyes are on Lincoln, Nebraska. It seems to be the only place where Ministeria Quaedam has been implemented.

      Ironically, Pope Paul VI clearly intended to EXPAND the Ministry (nee Minor Order) of Lector to a rather large number of laymen, who would be permanently set apart, and thoroughly trained, as bearers of the Word of God. Most of these men would not aspire to become Deacons or Priests. The ordinary experience of Mass in a parish was to include Lectors who are officially instituted by the Bishop.

      But in practice, most parishes never see an Instituted Lector at any Mass. The Ministry of Lector is being "held hostage" by the feminists, who would rather see NO Lectors at all, if women are ineligible (as the Pope decreed). The "temporary delegation" of almost anybody to stand at the ambo has become the norm, in the absence of Instituted Lectors: male or female, confirmed or not confirmed, adult or child, trained or untrained, anybody can read, and anybody does. There is nobody "instituted" for the ministry, and Ministeria Quaedam is a dead letter.

      Even more ironically, outside of Lincoln, almost nobody but seminarians is ever instituted as a Lector. This is ironic, because the feminists have virtually guaranteed that the Ministry of Lector remains completely restricted to seminarians, as if it is still a Minor Order, reserved, not only to men, but to seminarians.

  9. For anyone that is interested. I've started a website for instituted acolytes. It is just in it's infancy and will be expanded soon (as I have the time). But, I envision it as a place of information for acolytes and others who serve on the altar. Soon I hope to have brief instructional videos. The website is

    God Bless,


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