Every so often, I have been asked by lay faithful about the proliferation of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and even more of so-called lay ministers. Their presence is quite noticeable, especially during Sunday Mass when in many places there is a veritable procession of them preceding the priest celebrant at the start of the Eucharistic celebration.
What really is the role of the lay ministers?
In November 1997, the Holy See published a document, entitled Instruction On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests. The document reaffirmed the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (especially Lumen gentium, n.33 and Apostolicam actuositatem, n.24). Its main purpose was to acknowledge and promote what is specific to the vocations of the lay faithful and of ordained ministers, with the goal of encouraging real communion in the Church.
Genesis of the Instruction
The Instruction stemmed from a new awareness of the ecclesial situation as a whole. In the past decade Bishops, priests and lay people had requested authoritative directives on the identity of priests and lay people with regard to particular cases of pastoral activity improperly exercised by non ordained faithful.
Thus in April 1994, with the approval of John Paul II, the Congregation for the Clergy organized a symposium in which some members of the worldwide Episcopate took part, representing their own Episcopal Conferences—chosen because this problem was particularly acute in those Churches. The Presidents or representatives of some larger groupings of Episcopal Conferences—including the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences—were also invited to the meeting, as well as the Secretaries of the relevant Congregations of the Roman Curia and well known theologians. The extensive exchange of opinions and particularly the Holy Father's final address led to important suggestions for preparing the document.
An Inter-dicasterial Commission was established, coordinated by the Congregation for the Clergy and involving seven other dicasteries: the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. In a series of meetings, this Commission gradually worked out a text which was sent to the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences and to the individual Bishops in those Churches where the need to address this issue was considered most urgent. About 92 percent of those questioned were in favor, but asked that ambiguous wording be avoided in the text, that the most authoritative legal form possible be used and, given the urgent need for clarification, that the document be published without delay. The Commission scrupulously followed these instructions.
In May 1997 the text was discussed by the heads of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia in the presence of the Holy Father. The result of this lengthy and thorough process was the Instruction we are now considering.
Preliminary hermeneutic clarifications: Canonico-Formal aspects
After an ample Introduction, the Instruction has two main parts entitled: Theological Principles and Practical Provisions. For a correct understanding of the document, we must first consider some of its formal aspects.
1. An Instruction is an administrative provision. An Instruction, by virtue of its juridical nature, is an administrative provision. As c.34, §1 states, instructions clarify the prescriptions of laws and elaborate on and determine an approach to be followed in implementing them. Thus, it does not create new law, but merely insists that the law currently in force be observed. As to the active subject of such acts, the same canon states that persons who possess executive power legitimately issue such instructions within the limits of their competency.
Furthermore, instructions are not addressed to everyone who is a subject of the current law. The same c.34, §1 states that they are given for the use of those persons whose concern it is to see that the laws are implemented and oblige such persons in the execution of the laws. Thus, the Instruction we are commenting on was primarily addressed, by reason of its timeliness and for the sake of prevention, to every Pastor of the Church, who, in accordance with c.392, §1, is bound to promote the common discipline of the whole Church and therefore to urge the observance of all ecclesiastical laws.
2. Involvement of 8 Dicasteries. On the one hand, it can be said that this procedure conforms to the legislative provisions of the Roman Curia. According to these provisions, what falls within the competence of different offices should be treated by all, under the coordination of the office primarily concerned with the question. In this case, one has the impression that various sorts of problems had piled up over time and had to be examined from different aspects, leading to a broad curial consultation. Nevertheless, it would have sufficed for the document to be signed by the Congregation for the Clergy, while noting the preceding inter-dicasterial consultation. The fact that all the dicasteries involved signed with their respective heads and secretaries clearly expresses their co responsibility as well as the importance that the Curia attached to the subject. On the other hand, such procedure manifested the importance that John Paul II attached to the document.
3. Binding force of the document. The importance of the document is also underscored by the fact that the Pope approved the Instruction in forma specifica. Consequently any form of appeal against it is impossible. This modality is envisaged by curial law only for certain dicasterial decrees with legislative force. The mode of approval chosen by the Pope must be considered in the light of the fact that as stated in the Conclusion: “all particular laws, customs and faculties which are contrary to the foregoing norms, and were conceded ad experimentum by the Holy See or other ecclesiastical authorities, are hereby revoked”. Thus we are spared the possible objection that an administrative act cannot derogate from the norms (laws or customs) currently in force; the intention to ensure coherent legislation in this entire matter is also apparent.
Other hermeneutic advertences: Objectives of the Instruction
To obviate any possible negative reaction to the document, it may be good to summarize the basic objectives of the Instruction. In brief, the document simply reaffirmed the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and of the more recent post conciliar Magisterium on the positive role of the laity in the Church's mission:
1. Encourage the ordained ministers. It encourages ordained ministers by forcefully reintroducing the subject of vocations to the priesthood, stressing that the Church's life depends on the sacrament of Holy Orders as a free, absolutely irreplaceable gift, because the ordained ministry (Bishops, priests, deacons) is part of the Church's very structure.
2. Remind the laity of their specific role. The Instruction also reminds us how the fundamental equality of Christians (by virtue of Baptism) is compatible with an essential difference (by virtue of Sacred Orders) and that lay Christians, precisely because of Baptism, are called to the consecratio mundi, which differs from the task of anyone who belongs, through the sacrament of Holy Orders, to the sacred ministry. Thus, by avoiding every form of clericalism, lay Christians are encouraged to become aware of their identity and to give their witness in the world and in the Church without considering the exercise of those ministerial duties which they may perform from time to time as a form of advancement but only as one of supply and substitution.
3. Expose the "functionalist" and "individualist" errors. The inter-dicasterial text also called for critical discernment regarding certain modern trends that still deeply affect our era. The functionalist approach, on the one hand, holds that human actions and things in general cannot refer to anything beyond themselves. In this mentality what really counts is to achieve the goal one has set for oneself. The very sacramentality of the Church is undermined. We can understand then how, even when moved by true pastoral generosity, some eventually think that whatever does not require the sacramental power of the Bishop, priest or deacon ad validitatem can be assumed ordinarily and permanently by the laity. But in doing so, the ordained ministry begins gradually to erode, no longer understood and appreciated by the People of God and therefore sooner or later to become obsolete.
The individualist approach, on the other hand, has become more and more widespread since the 16th century and leads to thinking in terms of personal success, competitiveness and power. In a theological context, this mentality tends to loose sight of the Church as communio and to over-value the individuality of every member of the People of God, to the detriment of the appreciation of the plurality of charisms and roles among the People of God.
4. Encourage terminological precision. The Instruction rightly insists on the need for a suitable terminology, clarifying the confused use of the word ministry which describes both the officia and the munera exercised by Pastors in virtue of the sacrament of Orders, and those exercised by the non ordained faithful. We have to remember that lack of terminological precision has repercussions on the theological level, creating ambiguity and confusion. The undue application of the term minister to the collaboration of laymen with the work of the clerics can and indeed has led to a confusion between the universal (royal) and the ministerial (ordained) priesthood.
5. Very limited scope of the Instruction. The Instruction has a very limited purpose and its title should be carefully read with that in mind. The subject is not collaboration between priests and lay people, but the priestly ministry in so far as lay people can collaborate in it. The document is thus concerned with only a limited area of the laity's field of activity in the Church. It is not a question of the laity, defined by their so called secular nature, who carry out their mission in civil society; nor are their autonomous activities within the Church being considered. The sole concern here—with one exception, to which we will return—is that area where the laity who say they are available receive an ecclesiastical deputation. But even this area is not examined in all its breadth, since the vast milieus of the school and the university, for example, are omitted. It is important not to forget this fact, since—except for the exception mentioned above—the vast, ordinary field of activity for lay people in the Church and the world is intentionally not considered by the Instruction. It is only concerned with giving appropriate direction to the exercise of particular functions by particular lay people.