With new ministry of catechist, Pope Francis widens role for lay Catholics

The latest motu proprio signals a continued, albeit timid, effort to answer a growing demand for agency from rank-and-file Catholics.

Faithful listen to Pope Francis deliver his message during the Regina Caeli noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, May 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — In a measure aimed at promoting the work of lay people in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis instituted a new ministry of catechists on Tuesday (May 11), open to lay Catholics, men and women to serve the church by transmitting the faith. 

While the role of catechist is already recognized in the Catholic Church, largely as teachers in missionary contexts, Tuesday’s document, known as a motu proprio, answers demands from lay Catholics for a bigger voice in the church in the wake of decades of scandals and increasing clerical control.

The motu proprio, as Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella, who heads the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, put it, is “a step further” for lay Catholics. 

“With the institution of this ministry of Catechist, Pope Francis further promotes the formation and engagement of the laity,” the archbishop said.

Fisichella told reporters at the press conference where the motu proprio was presented that local bishops will have the final say on who can become catechists, noting that catechists may be especially useful in regions where clergy is scarce.

Having a vocation to fulfill this role is also a prerequisite, Fisichella explained, since “ministries are not conferred for personal gratification, but for service to be rendered to the local church.”

He added, “It is obvious that not everyone who is a catechist today will have access to the ministry of catechist.”

Just what the new ministers will do, or who will qualify, was not made immediately clear. In the document, Francis said that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments will publish “in the near future” a liturgical rite for the ministry, to be adopted by bishops “in accordance with their own local traditions.”

It will be up to the national conferences of bishops to decide “the necessary process of formation and the normative criteria for admission to this ministry,” the pope wrote.

While directed at Catholics today, the motu proprio couches the new ministry in church tradition, starting with its title, “Antiquum Ministerium” (Ancient Ministry). “From the beginning,” the pope wrote, “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.” 

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Combined with Francis’ motu proprio “Spiritus Domini,” published in January, which recognized the ministries of lector and acolyte for laypersons, this latest document signals a continued, albeit timid, effort by the pope and the Vatican to answer the growing demand for agency voiced by Catholic faithful.

“There is no doubt that the institution of this ministry, together with those already existing of Acolyte and Lector, will make it possible to have a laity that is better prepared in the transmission of the faith,” the pope said.

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