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.

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