After having instituted the ministry of catechist with the motu proprio Antiquum Ministerium of May 10, 2021, the Pope approved and published in December 2021 an Editio Typica which introduces a specific rite for the institution of catechists.
The text of this rite entered into force on January 1, 2022. A letter from Msgr. Arthur Roche, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, was addressed to the presidents of the conferences of bishops with the decree.
It specifies that it is up to the diocesan bishop to discern the call to the ministry of catechist by evaluating the needs of the community and the capacities of the candidates, men or women.
In addition, “the episcopal conferences have the task of clarifying the profile and role of catechists, of offering them adequate formation courses, of forming the communities so that they understand their service.”
A Ministry Distinct from the Ordained Ministry
This “ministry” which can be regulated in terms of “duration, content, and modalities,” is secular. It is therefore “essentially distinct from the ordained ministry,” insists the prefect, the catechist having to exercise his role in “collaboration with the ordained ministers and under their direction.”
To avoid any misunderstanding, the prefect explains that the term “catechist” indicates different realities in relation to the ecclesial context; the catechists of the mission territories are therefore different from those of the Churches of ancient tradition.
In the great variety of forms, however, we can distinguish two main types: catechists who have the specific task of catechesis, others who participate in different forms of apostolate, such as the organization of community prayer, assistance to the sick, the celebration of funerals, the formation of other catechists, the coordination of pastoral initiatives, helping the poor.
Do Not Institute “All Catechists”
Msgr. Roche's letter specifies that given that this ministry “has a definite vocational aspect. . .and consequently calls for due discernment on the part of the Bishop . . . not everyone who carries out a service of catechesis or pastoral assistance and who are called ‘catechists’ have to be instituted.”
“It is preferable that the following should not be instituted as Catechists: ...candidates for the Diaconate and the Priesthood... men and women religious (irrespective of whether they belong to Institutes whose charism is catechesis); those who teach Catholic religion in schools; those who carry out a role exclusively for the members of an ecclesial movement: this function, which is equally valuable, is in fact assigned by the leaders of the individual ecclesial movements and not... by the diocesan Bishop.”
As for those “who accompany the initiation of children, young people, and adults. It does not seem appropriate for everyone to be instituted as a catechist... Instead, it is absolutely appropriate that at the beginning of each catechetical year they all should receive a public ecclesial mandate entrusting them with this important function.”
This does not prevent some of them from being instituted as lectors or of catechists, on the basis of their capacities and pastoral needs.
Ministry and Priesthood
A doctrinal reminder is in order. The term “ministry” once designated “all the functions of the priest as well as the services and activities attached to his function.” It could designate a function or a particular set of functions: parochial ministry, ministry at the altars.
According to tradition, the sacrament of Holy Orders has varying degrees. They are distinguished as major orders: priesthood, diaconate, and sub-diaconate; and minor orders: porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte. Starting with the subdiaconate, the cleric commits himself to perfect chastity – in the Latin Church – and normally can no longer return to the lay state, except with a dispensation from the Holy See.
Pope Paul VI, in his Motu Proprio Ministeria Quædam, of August 15, 1972, reformed the discipline of minor orders by suppressing these four functions and the subdiaconate – and replacing the ensemble with two “ministries”: lector and acolyte.
The term ministry is explicitly given by Pope Paul VI to replace the expression “minor order.” He immediately adds that, for this reason, their conferment should not be called “ordination,” but “institution.”
The new and specific meaning of ministry therefore designates a stable function, established in the Church for a well-determined purpose, entrusted to a lay person on a permanent basis. It should be added that, reserved for men by Paul VI, the ministries have been opened to women by Pope Francis.
As the Motu Proprio Antiquum Ministerium points out, the possibility of establishing new ministries was already inscribed in the text of Paul VI, Ministeria Quædam, which gave as an example that of the catechist.
The sacrament of Holy Orders is thus being gradually shared between clerics and lay people, between priests and faithful. At such point that current theological tendencies are now in favor of sharing of worship between these two “priesthoods.”
Recall that in his encyclical Acerbo Nimis (April 15, 1905), on the teaching of Christian doctrine, Pope St. Pius X already saw the need to call on the faithful to teach Christian doctrine, without instituting them in a “ministry” of catechist.
He stated: “In each and every parish the society known as the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine is to be canonically established. Through this Confraternity, the pastors, especially in places where there is a scarcity of priests, will have lay helpers in the teaching of the Catechism, who will take up the work of imparting knowledge both from a zeal for the glory of God and in order to gain the numerous Indulgences granted by the Sovereign Pontiffs.”