By formally instituting the “lay ministry of Catechist”, the Pope tries to redefine the place of the laity in a Church he sees as being too clerical.
“I establish the lay ministry of catechist.”
With these few words, Pope Francis hopes to fundamentally change the Catholic Church from within.
The words appear at the very end of a six-page “motu proprio” he published on Tuesday.
Antiquum ministerium (ancient ministry), as the text is titled, effectively opens another new ministry to the laity.
The move comes after Francis’ decision last January to officially extend the functions of acolyte and lector to women.
With this new document, he wishes to recognise the place of the hundreds of thousands of “competent” lay catechists who already “carry out a mission invaluable for the transmission and growth of the faith”.
The institutionalisation of this role, which Paul VI had already envisioned in 1972, has not been widely followed in the Church up to now.
Often associated with the Churches of the South, this ministry never really developed in Europe and North America.
Half a century later, the current Pope now wants to expressly and more firmly “invite” the bishops to make this instituted ministry “effective”.
He asks them to call “men and women of deep faith and human maturity” to this stable ministry.
He says pastors should look for people who are “active participants in the life of the Christian community and are capable of welcoming others, being generous and living a life of fraternal communion”.
These future catechists should then be given a “suitable biblical, theological, pastoral and pedagogical formation”, the Pope says.
Fundamental cultural change
Some see this as fundamental cultural change in a Church that, since the Middle Ages, has been marked by the presence of many priests.
“We are heirs to a time when priests were plentiful, and the laity were always put aside. It’s a complete and very profound change of mentality,” claims Jesuit priest and theologian Cesare Giraudo.
A retired professor of Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, the 80-year-old Italian is convinced that Francis is inviting Catholics to invent new roles for the laity in order to “shake up a Church that is too clericalised”.
“In the last few centuries, many different missions have found their way into the hands of priests, thanks to their numbers,” acknowledges Archbishop Vincent Dollmann of Cambrai in northern France, a former official at the Congregation for Catholic Education (2009-2012).
Archbishop Hervé Giraud, a former seminary rector and expert in priestly formation, agrees.
“Bishops and priests have too many powers that are far from their primary function,” says the 64-year-old head of the Archdiocese of Sens in central France.
Archbishop Dollmann, 56, also spent many years working in seminaries in France and Rome.
He believes this exclusively lay ministry should make it possible, as a mirror image, for the ordained priesthood to “rediscover its specificity”.
“The Pope is making us aware that not everything revolves around the ordained ministry,” another French bishop told La Croix.
By promoting these lay ministries, the Pope is also helping to redefine the role of the priest.
“An opportunity to be seized”
The question now is how to ensure that Pope Francis’ initiative does not remain a dead letter on the ground, considering it had little success in the 1970s after Paul VI’s original promptings.
“The lack of priests is now felt much more strongly in the West. And to be alive, the community needs ministers,” says Cesare Giraudo.
“As for mission countries, the Church has experimented with ways of doing things that can be reproduced, especially in the formation of catechists,” the Italian Jesuit suggests.
Arnaud Join-Lambert, professor of theology at the University of Louvain, says that these lay ministries promoted by the Pope also constitute “an opportunity to be seized, provided that two pitfalls are overcome”.
First of all, he notes that there is “inertia” inherent in any organisation, and even more so in the Catholic Church.
Archbishop Giraud agrees, but he also believes he should not act alone.
“Personally, this question of ministries seems urgent to me, but I prefer to act in collegiality with the other bishops,” he says.
The second risk, according to Join-Lambert, is to reduce these new ministries to a simple reinterpretation of existing roles.
Opening a perspective
On the ground, some bishops seem determined to take up the Pope’s invitation immediately.
For instance, Archbishop Giraud already has someone in mind to whom he’ll propose the new ministry of catechist.
“This can only apply to a very small number of people,” he cautions, adding that it should not be seen as a “reward”, but as a “service to all”.
All the bishops interviewed by La Croix believe Francis has opened up a perspective that goes far beyond the ministry of catechist.
“The fears surrounding the word ministry have been lifted, which will make it possible to give titles that indicate recognition of a gift from God, rather than an internal organisation,” insists Archbishop Giraud.
“This opens up a lot of possibilities for me,” agrees Archbishop Dollmann.
He sees this as an opportunity to emphasise that “not everything is centred on the Eucharist”.
“People must be able to feed on Jesus in the word of God,” he points out.
Dollman also wonders if there might not be a way to officially commission those Catholic faithful who regularly organise funerals.
“All this needs to be accomplished while making sure that these functions are not institutionalised too much,” he adds.
This is a way of being vigilant over the issue of clericalising the laity, which the Pope explicitly warns against in the “motu proprio”.
It encourages committed lay people. It also recognises and promotes them, but without perpetuating a clerical pattern that Francis, since the very beginning of his pontificate, has said the Church must overcome.
The “motu proprio” tries to strike a healthy balance, insisting that the ministry of catechist must be “carried out in a fully ‘secular’ manner, avoiding any form of clericalisation”.
“An authentic lay vocation”
Precisely to avoid these mistakes, these new ministries should be considered as “an authentic lay vocation, which can flourish throughout a lifetime”, noted Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation, at the launch of the new “motu proprio”.
Basically, these instituted ministries are much more than a simple recognition of services that are already rendered by lay people in their parishes or dioceses.
“This institution is done by means of a rich liturgy, which emphasises that it is a vocational mission, which comes from God,” says Join-Lambert.
The Louvain theologian believes the Pope’s new initiative “could change many things in the understanding of the Church, made up of all the baptised for the mission of announcing the Gospel and the faith”.
In any case, Francis intends to go all the way and not let this decision remain hanging.
At the end of the “motu proprio” he urges all bishops to take up this text and establish, country by country, the appropriate formation programs.
And he instructs the Congregation for Divine Worship to publish a “Rite of Institution” for this new lay ministry.
The 84-year-old Pope says the congregations should do this “soon”.
Reproduced with permission from La Croix International and Loup Besmond de Senneville and Xavier Le Normand.