A Further Clericalisation of the Laity?

Yesterday Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter motu proprio, Antiquum Ministerium, formally instituting the lay ministry of catechist. As you will see if you read the document, he is at pains to stress that this is a lay ministry:

6. The lay apostolate is unquestionably “secular”. It requires that the laity “seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” (cf. SECOND VATICAN ECUMENICAL COUNCIL Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 31). In their daily life, interwoven with family and social relationships, the laity come to realize that they “are given this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth” (ibid., 33). We do well to remember, however, that in addition to this apostolate, “the laity can be called in different ways to more immediate cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy, like those men and women who helped the apostle Paul in the Gospel, working hard in the Lord” (ibid.).

The role played by catechists is one specific form of service among others within the Christian community. Catechists are called first to be expert in the pastoral service of transmitting the faith as it develops through its different stages from the initial proclamation of the kerygma to the instruction that presents our new life in Christ and prepares for the sacraments of Christian initiation, and then to the ongoing formation that can allow each person to give an accounting of the hope within them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15). At the same time, every catechist must be a witness to the faith, a teacher and mystagogue, a companion and pedagogue, who teaches for the Church. Only through prayer, study, and direct participation in the life of the community can they grow in this identity and the integrity and responsibility that it entails (cf. Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, Directory for Catechesis, 113).

The only problem I have is not so much with the pope’s intentions as to how his instructions will be received by those to whom they are addressed. Are we going to see a further clericalisation of the laity? Years ago, I remember reading a great deal about the restoration of the permanent diaconate, how it would function quite differently from the transitional diaconate, but it didn’t universally work out like that. In some dioceses even the wearing of a clerical collar was prohibited; in others the new deacons appeared indistinguishable from priests, ‘all black and breviaries’ as one old nun said with a sigh.

We now have three lay ministries — lector, acolyte and catechist — and one wonders how they will develop in the post-pandemic Church. Evangelisation is as necessary as ever, and lay leadership of priestless communities is a ‘given’ in many parts of the world, but I have a suspicion that, initially at least, our understanding and development of these ministries will follow a familiar and ultimately clerical pattern. Perhaps that is the real challenge of Pope Francis’s decision: to pray and work for a fresh understanding of a role that has been with us from the beginning, of bringing others to faith, of sharing the riches of grace.


11 thoughts on “A Further Clericalisation of the Laity?”

  1. Thank you for this informative post(as always). am I right in saying the catechism would be a priest in all but right to celebrate the Eucharist? Or am I bring too Anglican here….!!

    In the Anglican community the lack of priests for parish communities continues to be a major problem…,sadly. The need for lay led services is growing and an essential to keep continuity in coming together for prayer, community and worship.

    • The role of the catechist in the Catholic Church is a bit different from what I think you would call ‘lay presidency’? What the pope has done is set a new challenge before us which will probably be attacked from both left and right. What ultimately ensues remains to be seen.

  2. Speaking as deacon (permanent) and the relationship with priests, I would be inclined to say that it is like school days in the past, a division between day boys and boarders. You are never quite accepted. In this context I would further say that clericalisation is a form of clerical priestly control aiming to get everyone to conform to a particular model fearful of change and innovation.
    We have a Pope who is effectively pressing the re-set button to re-establish a pastoral Church and in so doing asking all the baptised to venture not simply to the peripheries of society but also those in our own lives.

    • I’ve heard many deacons say they don’t feel accepted by priests, and listened to the moans of many priests about deacons. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is almost as bad as being a woman in the Church. More seriously, I think the importance of the challenge the pope has set us cannot be underestimated, but I do genuinely wonder whether we shall rise to the challenge or not.

      • I think it comes down to not recognising our essential equality as adopted children of God. Thank you also for the reminder that whilst I may feel grumpy at times (or lack humility) there are many other voices that never get heard.

        • You have great humility — you are prepared to say what you honestly think, and that is a grace too few have. I think we have all suffered from the ‘this kind of vocation is better than that’ thinking in the Church and failed to recognize the glory of being a child of God. I see the pope’s Apostolic Letter as an invitation to think, pray and take a few risks, as prompted by the Holy Spirit, I trust.

  3. As a parish catechist I believe the role depends very much on the parish priest. I was fortunate to have undertaken a course with the School of the Annunciation at Buckfast Abbey to gain an understanding of the role. The PP also supported me in the choice of materials for the preparation of candidates for Confirmation. During the courses I ran, he made a point of being present most weeks to open the sessions with a prayer and pretty much left us to it. I also had the support of the parish deacon and his wife throughout. However, another PP might do things completely differently and there lies the problem: a lack of consistency in the universal Church!

    • It will be different again in, for instance, the Amazon region or wherever priests are especially few and far between. We often forget how many priests we have in this country and the guidance they are able to give. How this works out depends on the laity as much as on the clergy. I see it positively, but with the potential for going the other way, especially at first.

  4. My experience of being a (trained) catechist is varied. A good and interested priest who has, after all ultimate authority in his parish, when that authority is worn lightly and he’s willing and keen to devolve that authority to the person who knows what s(he’s) doing is one thing; a feeling of being an authentic pastoral team working together. Then there’s the priest who only cares that ‘someone (with no training) takes the kids and is an extra pair of hands’ and calls that person a catechist, resulting in poor catechesis with short and long term potential for damage/withering to people’s faith. Not what Vatican II or Pope Francis has in mind.

    • I’ve been asking myself how far the pope’s decision reflects his South American experience and, more widely, Jesuit missionary experience, rather than the situation in Europe. I think that may affect the outcome in the Church more generally.

  5. I realise I am late to the party here, but the matter has been brewing in my brain for a while. Sadly I come to the conclusion that our dear Holy Father has missed out on the way the world is changing. The clock can‘t be turned back, which is somehow what this seems to want to do.

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