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 are 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. In the previous issue of CBCP Monitor, we had looked into the formal aspects of the document; now let us go to the more salient norms.
Observations on Content: collaboration vs. participation of the non-ordained faithful in the priestly ministry.
In the substantive level, the most important word—a veritable hermeneutic key of the document—is a term that appears in the title itself of the document. In effect, the title speaks of the collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the priestly ministry.
It can be noted that in the preliminary discussion, the term initially used was participation. Thus, the title of the symposium in April 1994, which launched the serious preparation of this document, was The Participation of the Lay Faithful in the Priestly Ministry. It must be pointed out, however, that the Holy Father himself, in his address to that symposium, never used the term participation in this context. In fact, he belabored the distinction between participation in Christ's priesthood by virtue of baptism and confirmation, and the eventual exercise of some tasks entrusted to them by the priests:
“The laity's every ecclesial action or function—including those for which the Pastors ask them to stand in, where possible—is rooted ontologically in their common participation in Christ's priesthood and not in an ontological participation (either temporary or partial) in the ordained ministry proper to Pastors. Therefore, it is clear that if the Pastors entrust them, in an extraordinary way, with some tasks ordinarily and properly connected with the pastoral ministry but not requiring the proper character of Orders, lay people should know that these tasks are existentially rooted in their baptismal ministry and nowhere else! It must always be remembered that the exercise of such tasks does not make pastors of the lay faithful: in fact, a person is not a minister simply by performing a task, but through sacramental ordination.”
The terminological shift is important. In effect, participation (partem capere = “to take part”) in the ministerial tasks could not strictly speaking take place without the subject ontologically taking part—for that matter—in the ministerial priesthood itself. This could only happen with priestly ordination. From this we see the aptness of the term collaboration (co-laborare = “to work with”) when applied to the non-ordained faithful's cooperation with the ministerial work of priests. With this in mind, we can point out the following doctrinal conclusions:
1. Lay collaboration in priestly ministry is not a right. The document contains several assertions that call for hermeneutic clarification. Thus, the part concerned with Theological Principles (n.4) says with respect to the tasks and functions which are considered along the lines of collaboration with the sacred ministry that the non ordained faithful do not enjoy a right to such tasks and functions. Obviously, there is no wish here to deny that these faithful can legitimately exercise the tasks and functions mentioned. The document wants to state, however, that the non ordained faithful do not have the right to demand that they be assigned to the above mentioned tasks or functions.
Elsewhere the Instruction says in fact: “the officia temporarily entrusted to them ... are exclusively the result of a deputation by the Church” (art. 1, §2). Deputation by the Church is a shorthand expression for deputation by the Church's lawful Pastors. This complete formulation, used in other passages of the Instruction, avoids an identification of the Pastors with the Church herself. And §3 of the same article correctly indicates that the temporary deputation for liturgical purposes mentioned in c.230, §2 does not confer any special or permanent title on the non ordained faithful. The following sentence states that it is unlawful for the non ordained faithful to assume titles such as pastor, chaplain, coordinator or moderator. As is obvious, what applies to temporary deputation applies with all the more reason to permanent deputation for liturgical or pastoral tasks (cf. CIC, c.230, §1, 517, §2,).
2. Lay collaboration is supplementary—i.e., only in cases of necessity. By their ecclesiological nature all of these particular functions belong to the realm of the ordained ministry, in which a lay person, however, can collaborate in cases of necessity, if he has been lawfully deputed to do so. But it must be noted here: in case of necessity!
For example, it could never be the Church's objective to replace the Eucharistic celebration by promoting Sunday celebrations without a priest. Nevertheless, wherever there are no other possibilities, the Church is grateful to that lay person who, being well disposed and following the instructions of the Bishop who appointed him, conducts a Liturgy of the Word for and with the faithful who have no other opportunity to celebrate the Lord's Day. It is clear that the lay person here is truly a supplementary aid. This does not degrade the lay person; on the contrary, his willingness to accept this task does him honor. However, for the good of the faithful—and that is what always counts—he too will be glad when a priest is available to celebrate the Eucharist.
The Instruction enables us to indicate many other analogous situations. However it would be a mistake to conclude that it reduces the role of the laity in the Church to a mere stopgap. The Instruction will seem restrictive only to those who consider these supplementary tasks as a desirable field of activity for the laity.
3. Responsibility for abuses. The practical provisions of the Instruction are not limited to listing possible or actual abuses, but they always seek to indicate the theological coordinates underlying the respective field of activity and thereby to draw the necessary consequences. The problems mentioned are caused, first of all, by the fact that they are found in a border area. Abuses occur when exceptional solutions become alternatives, changing an extraordinary competence into an ordinary one, or, on the other, when the limits provided for collaboration are unlawfully extended and a competence is assumed that has not been given. A case in point would be the way the so-called extraordinary minister for the administration of Holy Communion—the laypersons duly deputized for this—goes beyond exercising the faculty in extraordinary occasions to become in practice the ordinary minister for such a liturgical task, day after day, Sunday after Sunday.
In this regard, it should be pointed out that the laity usually cannot be considered responsible for true and proper abuses. They in fact fulfill—normally with good intentions—that role which has been introduced in their particular Church and has been entrusted to them. On the other hand, it should be noted that the norms established by the Bishops' Conferences or by individual Bishops generally do not contradict the ordinances of universal law, but their clarity at times is not enough to prevent the spread of an abusive practice.
In conclusion, we can say that the activity of the lay faithful is in no way placed sub iudice by the Instruction; on the contrary, it is precisely from the laity's commitment and dedication that the Church expects a great deal both now and for the future. However we have to insist that commitment and dedication must develop harmoniously within the framework of the Church's hierarchical constitution that is, in the spirit of true communio, which requires the acknowledgement and appreciation of reciprocity, to avoid at all costs an egalitarianism that erodes identity.