Published on May 11, 2021, but signed on May 10, the motu proprio of Pope Francis Antiquum ministerium institutes a new ministry, that of catechist.
To grasp exactly what this is, one must first recall what the term “ministry” covers today, and how it was introduced.
A Very General Term
The word once referred to “all the functions of the priest as well as the services and activities attached to his office.” It was in fact synonymous with “priesthood.”
It could be specified to designate a particular function or set of functions: parish ministry, ministry of the altar. This meaning is still relevant today.
This is why the priest, and more generally the cleric, was often referred to by the name of minister: minister of the altar, minister of worship.
Introduction of a Specific Meaning
Pope Paul VI, in his motu proprio Ministeria quaedam, of August 15, 1972, provided a more limited meaning of the term “ministry,” by reforming the discipline of minor orders. These four traditional orders: porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte, were an integral part of the steps leading to the priesthood. As such, they were received by any future priest.
This discipline has been preserved in Tradition, which continues to confer - now with the endorsement of Rome - these four minor orders.
The reform was to abolish these four functions as part of the sacrament of orders — at the same time as it abolished the sub-diaconate — and to replace the whole with two “ministries”: lector and acolyte.
They correspond to a service vis-à-vis of the word and of the altar. The term ministry is explicitly given by Pope Paul VI to replace the term “minor orders.” He immediately adds that, as a result, their conferral should not be called “ordination,” but “institution.”
The new and specific meaning of ministry thus refers to a stable function, established in the Church for a well-defined purpose, entrusted to a lay person on a permanent basis. It should be added that, the ministries were reserved for men by Paul VI, but were opened to women by Francis.
The Ministry of Catechist
As the motu proprio Antiquum ministerium points out, the possibility of establishing new ministries was already inscribed in Paul VI’s text, Ministeria quedam, which gave as an example precisely that of “catechist.” The new ministry instituted by Pope Francis therefore has the same properties as those that already exist.
It is clear that the Church did not wait for this motu proprio to entrust the task of catechist to lay people, nor did it wait for Vatican II to “become aware” of the importance of this function, as some seem to think.
Give a title and an institution to a position that is already held, why not? But the internal logic of the creation of these ministries, reported above, is insidious and based on a distorted view of the priesthood.
Servers at Mass, who perform the function of the minor orders of lector and acolyte, receive a one-off delegation to perform a role assigned to the clergy. The institution of the Ministries of Lector and Acolyte gave lay people, on a permanent basis, the power to partially replace the clergy during Mass.
Catechists who assist the priest, due to lack of clergy or for language reasons, as in mission countries in particular, receive a temporary delegation from the bishop, through the priest, to be associated with the teaching role of the Church. The institution of the catechist ministry gives lay people, on a permanent basis, a role that naturally belongs to the clergy.
As Paul VI already said, and as Francis repeats, referring to Lumen gentium, the constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council, it is the distinction between “the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood” that is at stake. The essential difference between Orders and the common priesthood is disappearing.
The sacrament of orders is thus being gradually shared between clergy and laity, between priests and the faithful.