Thursday, 26 April 2012

Unity of word and sacrament: the problem with lay lectors

Back when I first became a practising catholic thirty two years ago this week (on St George's Day), and became a daily Mass goer at the ANU campus chapel, the Dominican brother who managed the chapel occasionally used to hassle me to do the readings at Mass (and to be an Extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, but that's a different story).

I typically declined, as I have continued to do when attending the OF, with one more recent exception (some nuns at a monastery I was staying made me do it!), but I have to admit that I've never been able to articulate my reasons for not wanting to act as a lector very clearly.

But I came across a blog post  (thanks to The Pulp.It) this morning that nicely articulates at least some of the reasons why I think those attending the Ordinary Form should be encouraging the priest (or deacon if present) to do the readings rather than agreeing to act as lector themselves.

The bad reasons!

Some traditionalists, of course, take a fundamentalist view of St Paul's injunctions on women speaking in Church, and laud the more restricted role of the laity in general, and women in particular, in the EF Mass on this basis. 

But in my view that doesn't cut any ice.

In the case of women in the EF there are strong precedents set by what nuns are permitted to do in their own chapels.

There are the permissions for women to sing in the choir (and congregation). 

There are the permissions for the dialogue Mass.

Moreover, the 1917 Code of Canon Law explicitly permitted a woman to say the server's responses from the pews if no one else is available to say them (on the basis that it really is supposed to be a dialogue, and Mass without anyone but the priest present was reserved for cases of emergency only, such as the need to consecrate in order to give Viaticum).

And in the case of the laity in general, many EF Sunday Masses around this country actually involve far more laity in the liturgical action - in the form of the elaborate liturgical dance rubrics prescribed for the crowd of servers, not to mention the song of the choir - than the typical OF Mass!

The unity of word and sacrament

So why are the readings a particular problem so far as the lay engagement is concerned?

In a post on the problem of lay 'homilies' Fr Mullady OP has written a piece for EWTN that I think sets out nicely the reasons why lay lectors are problematic.  His argument is actually about why lay homilies are not generally permitted. 

Essentially, he points out that there is supposed to be an intrinsic unity between the Word of God in the readings, the homily, and the consecration of the Eucharist.  Having  layperson give the homily, he argues, breaks that intrinsic unity.  He doesn't say so (for obvious reasons), but his argument applies equally, I think, to the permitted option in the OF (but not requirement) of the laity doing the first and second readings:

"...the necessary relation between the liturgy of the Word, and the liturgy of the Eucharist. There are some people in the Church who consider this relationship to be accidental. This impression might have been created by the fact that the laity are permitted, in the ordinary form, to be lectors at Mass, and to participate in an action that is central to the celebration of Mass, something which does not take place in the extraordinary form. As the homily is, in a certain sense, the culmination of the liturgy of the Word, it could be construed by some that it does not matter who gives it as long as they are competent.

In fact, Vatican II is clear that there is an intense relationship between Word and Sacrament at the sacrament of all sacraments, the Mass. “The Eucharist appears as the source and the summit of all preaching of the gospel” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 5). The explanation of the faith is central as a preparation to the actual carrying out of the action of the whole Church by which the paschal event is made present to the faithful. Both word and sacrament must be intimately connected, as are knowledge and love. As such, the homily is meant to bridge that gap, and stands at the culmination of the word, and the beginning of the action of love itself. In principle, only the ministers who directly participate in the act of transubstantiation—namely: bishop, priest or deacon—have the right and faculty to preach. This is made clear in the canon mentioned in the question which clearly states: “The most important form of preaching is the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself, and is reserved to a priest or deacon” (Canon 767)...."

Reductionist views of the priesthood

We live in a time where reductionist views of the ministerial priesthood have become the norm. 

Where many would reduce the role of the priest to those parts of the Mass that only he can do, at the expense both of his broader role in the Mass and the sacraments more generally, not to mention his much broader pastoral responsibilities.  It is a disease that has infected even some EF priests.

We need to take all opportunities open to us to fight this pernicious infection.


Bernie said...

Having a lay lector is not merely a ‘permitted option’ in the OF, but the default:

'The function of proclaiming the readings is by tradition not presidential but ministerial. Therefore the readings are to be read by a reader, but the Gospel by the Deacon or, in his absence, by another Priest. If, however, a Deacon or another Priest is not present, the Priest Celebrant himself should read the Gospel, and moreover, if no other suitable reader is present, the Priest Celebrant should also proclaim the other readings as well.' ('General Instruction of the Roman Missal' (GIRM) 59)

(Indeed, the preferred option is for the lector who proclaims the First and Second Readings to be an instituted lector (GIRM 91, 99, 194-198).)

This all reflects 'Sacrosanctum Concilium' 28-29.

Fr Mullady’s argument based on the connection between transubstantiation and the Liturgy of the Word has problematic consequences, as of course the Deacon has no role in the transubstantiation. The natural conclusion of the argument would be to remove even the Deacon from preaching or proclaiming the Gospel (whereas in reality proclaiming the Gospel is specially the Deacon’s role rather than the Priest’s).

Innocent III said...

I couldn't agree more Kate. One of the objections I have with the OF is the division between the Sacrament of the Word and the Sacrament of the Altar. In the EF the word was proclaimed FROM the Altar (as indeed was the whole liturgy with the exception of the homily itself). Thus the unity of the liturgical action was maintained.

The shift to lectors and the shunting of the priest away from the Altar except for the actual consecration was part of the Protestantizing of the Mass so that now the Mass has a tendancy to resemble a preaching service with the Communion tacked on a la most Protestant liturgies. This reaches its climax in those ridiculous churches where the Altar is displaced to one side of the Sanctuary in order to symbolise as one person told me the equality of the Table of the Word (ambo) and the Table of the Sacrifice (altar). No clearer statement of the disunity of Word and Sacament is possible.

While I prefer ad orientam myself (with the priest turning to face the people when addressing them) I think a more urgent reform of the reform (or perhaps a more urgent first step) would be to restore the priests position at the altar throughout the liturgy, dispense with the ambo and lay lectors ( I will not even mention EMHCs), and bring back altar rails to clearly mark the sacred space wherein the liturgy is performed and within which only sacred ministers (bishops, priests, deacons and acolytes) are permitted.

I believe that such a move would restore the unity of the liturgy, lead to more reverence being shown to Our Blessed Lord in the Sacrament and may possibly lead to further improvements in time.

Father K said...

There are lots of basic errors in this piece. Firstly, we have a Code of Canon Law that replaces the 1917 Code; a priest may say Mass without another present for other reasons than an emergency. All good commentators say that the desire for a priest to celebrate Mass is sufficient reason to celebrate alone. The 1983 Code does apply to the celebration of the EF except in certain matters [ see nn. 27 and 28 of Universae Ecclesiae]. In fact n 23 explicitly states that a priest may celebrate Mass sine populo.

Secondly, a lay person can never preach a homily - they may preach in certain circumstances, but not a homily, which is reserved solely to a priest or deacon, ideally the celebrant of the Mass.

Thirdly it is inappropriate for the priest celebrant to do the readings, except for the Gospel [see the 2002 GIRM for details] as the proclamation of the readings is a ministerial role - hence a lector or other layperson should do them, but obviously not coerced into doing it.

That the celebrant in the EF read the readings himself in a low Mass has its reasons in historical circumstances, but the low Mass cannot be seen as the model for the EF. At a solemn Mass, which is the model, the subdeacon [or lector] sings the Epistle and the deacon sings the Gospel. [i.e. ministerial roles]. In the 1962 Missal the priest does not read them quietly to himself at the same time, an acknowledgement that the previous practice was a liturgical anomaly.

Kate said...

Bernie - Ministerial does not 'traditionally' (to look at the words you cite from GIRM) mean laypeople, it surely means clerics.

In the solemn EF Mass, the readings were traditionally done by the sub-deacon and deacon respectively.

Sacrosanctum Concilium must be read in the context of what was in place at the time: minor orders (sub-deacon and below) were abolished by Pope Paul VI long after SC!

So when it talks about laypeople, it is presumably talking about altar servers and so forth.

And so far as deacons (and sub-deacons) are concerned, they are positions specifically directed, at least so far as the liturgy goes, to assisting the priest in the liturgical celebration, so they are indeed, I think, very directly ordered to transubstantiation (even though they do not effect it).

The slippery slope was first the abolition of minor orders to fulfill these roles. And of course this was quickly followed by the almost universal failure to actually utilise instituted lectors properly garbed for service (ie in cassock and surplice or whatever) in most places.

Kate said...

Fr K - My point in citing the 1917 Code was not to specify what applies now, but to firstly refute those who would argue that the tradition is that women shouldn't speak in Church, and secondly to point to the tradition that the Mass is a dialogue between priest/ministers and people, with the server arguably speaking on behalf of the people in the low EF Mass. My point was simply that these are not Vatican II innovations that came out of nowhere.

As to the mass sine populo, there was a long stream of rulings right up to the 1950s that severely restricted the practice, essentially to emergencies. But it is quite true I agree, that the current Code reverses this through its commendation of daily Mass regardless of circumstances (though I've argued previously on this blog that priests concerned at acting within the tradition should do everything possible to find a server to aid them).

On Ministers, I’d add to what I said above to Bernie, that CL230 of the current code seems, deacons and priests aside, to restrict the use of the term Ministers to laymen who have been instituted as acolytes and lectors. Others can substitute for them, but they are merely laypeople supplying for them temporarily.

As to whether the low or sung mass should be the base model, in principle I agree the sung/solemn version is the normative one. But in practice, the average Sunday OF Mass is not modeled on that, having abandoned the propers and most of the other features of a sung/solemn Mass. Rather, it is modeled on the low mass where hymns are sung where the propers might otherwise be heard. Thus this does seem to be the right model for who should do the readings...

Ps I did put 'lay homily' in inverted commas the first time I mentioned it for a reason! The EWTN post I refer to sets out the full details of what is and isn't possible in this regard.

Father K said...

I have never actually met a layman installed as a lector except for seminarians. I wonder if this is because it is restricted to men? If parishes had installed lectors, [the odd parish or two still have installed acolytes but they are very rare now: maybe for the same reason?] then they would read, and women would not.

Kate said...


I'm not actually arguing in this particular post about whether women should do it, just about whether laypeople should as a general practice.

It seems to me that there is quite an important difference between servers acting as acolytes and appropriately vested to do so, and laypeople in lay clothes, male or female, standing up to do the readings instead of a vested lector.

And in principle at least, it is arguable that the Church could change the law and allow women to be lectors (indeed the synod on Scripture suggested it be looked at).

Nonetheless, everyone with a traditional mindset will baulk at it for exactly the same reason that we dislike the idea of female servers.

And those of a more progressive bent will prefer lay readers for exactly the same reason!

It all goes back to the question of the proper distinction between ministers and the laity when it comes to the liturgy...

A Canberra Observer said...

I just wrote a long comment which Blogger lost because of wanting my mobile phone number in order to post. NOT happy.

My main points were:
Innocent III - re readings at the altar in the EF (ie traditionally) - the normative form of Mass was solemn not low or Missa cantata - priest, deacon & subdeacon not just priest. The deacon and subdeacon sang the Gospel and epistle away from the altar. For other 'lessons' (eg at vigils or in the Divine office) other lectors could read (actually sing but that's another story).

Re lay readers and the GIRM. Well if the GIRM says 'ministerial' we should do ministerial, not make believe. Paul VI abolished the minor orders but the ministries of lector and acolyte remain. Reserved to men alone (as opposed to the disasterous and hermeneutic of rupture decision allowed by John Paul II to concede service at the altar to women). Of course that would open a HUGE can of worms wouldn't it.

Definitely not in line with the Australian "everyone has to have a bat" approach to 'ministries' - 'music ministry', 'welcoming ministry', 'reading ministry', 'special minster of communion' etc

(and off topic but the classic 'lay chaplains' - I am sure they do good pastoral support, and perhaps one can more easily make the grave necessity argument for them to act as EXTRAORDINARY ministers of the Eucharist but I want my chaplain to be able to shrive me if I am possibly dying in hospital)

Kate said...

In fairness ot Blessed Pope John Paul II, he did actually make the distinction between minsters and laity very clearly indeed, with lots of warnings on the laity attempting to usurp the title!

Consider para 23 of Chriti Fideles Laici:

"When necessity and expediency in the Church require it, the Pastors, according to established norms from universal law, can entrust to the lay faithful certain offices and roles that are connected to their pastoral ministry but do not require the character of Orders. The Code of Canon Law states: " When the necessity of the Church warrants it and when ministers are lacking, lay persons, even if they are not lectors or acolytes, can also supply for certain of their offices, namely, to exercise the ministry of the word, to preside over liturgical prayers, to confer Baptism, and to distribute Holy Communion in accord with the prescriptions of the law"(69). However, the exercise of such tasks does not make Pastors of the lay faithful: in fact, a person is not a minister simply in performing a task, but through sacramental ordination. Only the Sacrament of Orders gives the ordained minister a particular participation in the office of Christ, the Shepherd and Head, and in his Eternal Priesthood(70). The task exercised in virtue of supply takes its legitimacy formally and immediately from the official deputation given by the Pastors, as well as from its concrete exercise under the guidance of ecclesiastical authority.."

A Canberra Observer said...

re the quote from Christi fideles laici, forgive me but the internal cross referencing between all these NEW [policy] documents - the New Code of Canon Law, the New Mass and its GIRM, and Vatican II sometimes seems almost Escher-like.

(And I have read the whole quote an deleted some of my from the hip text ! - it is strong in the direction of the tradition of the Church, just that perhaps, unfortunately these interpretive documents remain dead letters)

A Canberra Observer said...


Blessed or not, I still consider the decision to admit females to service at the altar one of the most disastrous of his pontificate. And really for many of the reasons you cite in your original post - erosion of the sacerdotal character of that action - even young male servers have the natural potential to become priests.

Innocent III said...

Canberra Observer

I grew up in a poor one priest parish where there was only ever Father and a couple of servers so the readings were of necessity done by the priest. I suspect this would be closer to parish experience today than the solemn masses you refer to.

I do agree though that Ministers should be responsible for these roles (lectors/acolytes). In my parish I succeeded in restricting the role of the EHMC to the actual administration of the Chalice (before I came the EHMCs use to retrieve the Blessed Sacrament from the Tabernacle and do the post communion ablutions). Not ideal but better than previous practice.

I still believe however that the priest should resume his position at the altar throughout the liturgy as a visible sign of the unity of liturgical action. (I would also restore the veiled chalice and paten to the altar instead of on the credence).

As I said above however no-one shoulod be in the sanctary except for the sacred ministers. Lay people coming and going in the sanctuary is invariably distracting.

PS. Can anyone remember having a gospel procession? I used to love them.(sigh)

A Canberra Observer said...

Innocent III - I use the term normative, not normal, to say what was most frequent but how it was intended to be. No disrespect to one priest parishes or the low Mass.

John Nolan said...

If you go to the music section of the ICEL website you will find tones for all three readings. It is clear, then, that the ideal (set out in Musicam Sacram 1967, the musical blueprint for the reformed liturgy) is for a fully sung Mass to be normative even when in the vernacular. In fact, more of the mass is sung in the OF than in the EF.

It follows therefore that not only should the deacon, or in his absence the priest, sing the Gospel, but the other reading(s) should likewise be sung. Lectors or those substituting for them need to be able to chant if they are to properly carry out their function.

An instituted lector or a man substituting for him could wear cassock and cotta. I do have an objection to women assuming clerical dress, but there is no reason why a woman should not wear a plain alb; it is the baptismal garment of all Christians.

A Canberra Observer said...

oops - bad editing on my part:

"I use the term normative, not normal, to say NOT what was most frequent ..."