by Stefano Lodigiani
Vatican City (Agenzia Fides) - Although the figure of the catechist appears already after the First Vatican Council (1870), with the emergence of a great catechetical movement, the driving impulse for the establishment of ministries entrusted to the laity (including, in order of time, that of the catechist is for now the last one) comes from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), with its profound reflection on the reality of the Church ("All men are called to form the people of God", Lumen gentium 2; "The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature", Ad Gentes 2) and on the role that the laity have in it.
The image of the Church that emerged from the Council is profoundly marked by ministeriality, that is, by the articulation into 'ministries', services that are permanently provided for the community and are not reserved for a few members, but are varied and widely distributed. The faithful are called to participate actively in the life and mission of the Church, in the richness and diversity of the gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit. In addition to the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood, the general priesthood of the faithful is rediscovered and valued, according to the first letter of Peter (1 Peter 2:9).
With the Apostolic Letter "Ministeria quaedam" of August 15, 1972, Pope Paul VI set out, in the spirit of the Council, to reorganise what had hitherto been called 'minor orders': functions or ministries of very ancient origin, called 'minor' in that they were conferred without the sacrament of order but had ended up being reserved almost exclusively to those preparing for the priesthood. This is explained at the beginning of the Apostolic Letter: "From the earliest times certain ministries were instituted by the Church to duly worship to God and to render service to God's people as needed. With them offices of a liturgical and charitable nature have been entrusted to the faithful, so that they might exercise them according to the various circumstances. The conferment of these offices often took place by means of a special rite, with which the faithful, having received the blessing of God, were elevated to a special class or rank to fulfill a specific ecclesiastical function".
Paul VI established that what until then had been called minor orders should in future be called "ministries". These ministries can also be entrusted to lay people, so that they are no longer considered reserved for candidates for the Sacrament of Holy Orders. With the abolition of some of the old "minor orders", two ministries were maintained throughout the Latin Church, adapted to current needs: that of Lector and that of what is known as Acolyte. The Lector, responsible for the office of proclaiming the Word of God in the liturgical assembly, the Acolyte for taking care of the altar service. The Apostolic Letter "Ministeria quaedam" recalls that "according to the venerable tradition of the Church, the offices Lector and Acolyte, is reserved for men" (n.7). The ministries are conferred by the local Ordinary or by the major superior in religious institutes, with a specific liturgical rite.
In the Letter to the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dated January 10, 2021, Pope Francis recalls: "In some cases a ministry has its origin in a specific sacrament, the Sacred Order: it pertains to the “ordained” ministries, of the bishop, the priest, the deacon. In other cases the ministry is entrusted, with a liturgical act of the bishop, to a person who has received Baptism and Confirmation and in whom specific charisms are recognized, after an appropriate journey of preparation: we then speak of “instituted” ministries. Many other ecclesial services or offices are in fact exercised by many members of the community, for the good of the Church, often for a long period and with great efficacy, without the expectation of a particular rite for the bestowal of the role".
In the same Letter, the Bishop of Rome underlines that, in the line of renewal indicated by the Second Vatican Council, "one feels ever greater today the urgency to rediscover the co-responsibility of all the baptized in the Church, and particularly the mission of the laity". The Final Document of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region (October 6-27, 2019), pointed to the need to find "new paths for ecclesial ministeriality", "not only for the Church in the Amazon region, but for the whole Church, in the diversity of situations… It is the Church of baptized men and women that we must consolidate, promoting ministeriality and especially the awareness of baptismal dignity" (n. 95). After explaining the reasons why these ministries were previously reserved for men, Pope Francis expressly states that "not only men but also women can be used as Lectors or Acolytes".
A few months later, on May 10, 2021, the Apostolic Letter "Antiquum ministerium" was published, officially establishing the lay ministry of the catechist in the Church. "From the beginning, the Christian community was characterized by many different forms of ministry carried out by men and women who, obedient to the working of the Holy Spirit, devoted their lives to the building up of the Church" (n.2).
"The history of evangelization over the past two millennia clearly shows the effectiveness of the mission of catechists" (n.3). "It is fitting that those called to the instituted ministry of Catechist be men and women of deep faith and human maturity, active participants in the life of the Christian community, capable of welcoming others, being generous and living a life of fraternal communion. They should also receive suitable biblical, theological, pastoral and pedagogical formation to be competent communicators of the truth of the faith and they should have some prior experience of catechesis" (n.8). (Agenzia Fides, 13/5/2023)