The Confusing New “Ministry of Catechist”

The recent establishment of a ministry of lay catechist raises more questions than it answers.

Pope Francis instituted the “lay ministry of Catechist” this year, and the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments promulgated a rite for instituting catechists.  

My questions about this project are three.

First, what is the foundation behind this lay ministry?

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Francis’ motu proprio establishing catechists was entitled “Antiquum Ministerium,” “an ancient ministry.” One of the guiding principles of Vatican II reform was resourcement, “going back to the sources.”  

But resourcement, especially in the liturgical area, seems to lack a clear methodology. The “sources” are, of course, normative for the Church. Sacred Tradition looks, for example, to how a doctrine has existed in the Church’s history.

But many liturgists seem to have a selective approach to “sources.” In the name of removing “accretions” from the liturgy, many of the reformers canonized the first five centuries of the Church, as if the Holy Spirit suddenly ceased to guide ecclesiastical development afterward, in the medieval period. (He, of course, supposedly came back with a fury in the 1970s, but that Conciliar “Spirit” was apparently ignored by the latter Pope Paul VI and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI). Why is post-Patristic development deemed second class?

On the other hand, those same liturgists who otherwise invoke the Church of the first five centuries today seem to regard the Eucharistic liturgy as it developed during that period and was subsequently transmitted (and developed) to become the Missal of 1570 as not only not normative but an actual threat to ecclesiastical unity. That’s the logic of Traditionis Custodes and the subsequent “Responses to dubia.” So, which is it, gentlemen? Is the ecclesia primae quinque saecula “the” standard or “a” standard, to be picked and chosen from in the moment?

My other concern about the lack of methodology behind this appeal to the ancient Church is its certain anachronism in approaching the past. Uncritically taking the past without taking into account historical development leads to its false “recapture.” An example: in the 1980s, several diocesan liturgical offices tried to shut down confessions during the Paschal Triduum by appealing to the example of antiquity that reconciliation occurred by Holy Thursday morning. Apart from the damage done to real penitents today, denied access to the sacrament in the name of some historical “recovery,” the application of models of Patristic canonical penance to today’s auricular confession was an example of comparing apples and oranges.

I raise these examples because “catechist” as it existed in the biblical and Patristic church is not simpliciter the “catechist” of today. To pretend otherwise is historically inaccurate. That there were catechists then is one thing; that this “ancient ministry” can simply be revived amidst different historical circumstances, as if it were in suspended animation and defrosted, is another.

Second, what will this “ministry” be?

I raised questions back in 1997, on the 25th anniversary of Ministeria Quaedam, Pope Paul VI’s motu proprio establishing the ministries of lector and acolyte, because of the confusion in practice that arose from that document. Ministeria abolished various “minor orders,” primarily replacing them with lector and acolyte, which were open to lay men (and, as of this year by decision of Francis, lay women). 

But, in practice, where did lectors and acolytes practically become lay ministries? Officially installed lector and acolytes became new de facto minor orders. The average person reading Scripture at Sunday Mass or being an altar server was not “installed” in those “ministries.” So, do we not in fact have official “lay ministries” in which few lay people are officially installed and a lot of unofficial “I-wasn’t-installed-as-a-lector-or-acolyte-but-I-act-like-one-on-Sundays” lectors and acolytes? Do we not need to resolve that anomaly first?  

I call for clarifying that “mess” because its damage cuts two ways: the “lay” ministry is never clearly articulated as such, while its institutionalization (and especially its close association with priesthood preparation) leads to confusion about Holy Orders, blurring the distinction between a sacrament and a sacramental.

Third, what qualifies as a “catechist?”

Francis leaves that question unanswered. His motu proprio simply tells episcopal conferences to implement the ministry and establish “the necessary process of formation and the normative criteria.” Catechists in Amazonia are going to look different from catechists in Arizona. That’s not necessarily bad, but it does beg the question: what are we looking for in an official catechist in the United States?

The most cursory survey of the state of catechesis in the United States over the past fifty years should honestly lay a good part of the blame for the state of the Church in this country at its door. The dumbing down of catechesis, even while it was often professionalized as “religious education,” is in no small degree responsible for the religious illiteracy and subsequent falling away of Catholics.

With no disrespect to those ministries, being a lector or acolyte does not require a demanding skillset. Acolyte involves being able to carry a cross and cruets, ring a bell, and learn the choreography of the Mass. Lector entails reading literacy and, hopefully, rudimentary public speaking skills.  

Catechists will require much more.

How will we train catechists? Will we be content with the catechist staying one chapter ahead of the student in the religion book? Or will we require some kind of educational program? Who will run it? Dioceses? Catholic colleges or universities—the same institutions whose theology departments have largely declared they are “independent” of the teaching Church? 

Will catechists require some sort of canonical mission, preceded by a profession of faith? How will their orthodoxy be tested/certified/reaffirmed? Will a catechist be an ad hoc religion teacher in St. Joseph’s Parish but cease to be a “catechist” if he moves to another parish? Or will his “institution” and its canonical credentialing (if the latter exists) be valid across parishes? Across dioceses?  

Given the greater degree of preparation and commitment that catechist entails, will the Church pay for the training and/or compensate the work?

Lots of orthodox parents, sorely disappointed with almost three generations of catechism-by-coloring, will likely look warily at the next bureaucratization of an “institutionalized” ministry, wondering whether this much ado will fix catechetical problems, be about nothing, or make matters worse.

Perhaps the moment has come for the Church to establish a ministry of catechist, but these questions demand answers before we create another ecclesiastical “mess,” one that the sheep if not the shepherds are disinclined to endure.

  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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