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Liturgy Q-and-A: Ministries of Lector and Acolyte

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Liturgy Q-and-A: Ministries of Lector and Acolyte

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university. 

Q: I’m a seminarian, and I am interested in the liturgy of lector and acolyte minor orders. Can you please help with me with a short introduction for this liturgy? The objective is to give people some information on what the minor order is about and its significance. — L.L., Mumbai, India

A: I might be too late to help this particular seminarian, as it is likely that he has already received these ministries. However, the information may benefit others.

The lay ministries (they are no longer called minor orders) of lector and acolyte were established by Pope Paul VI in 1973 with the apostolic letter “Ministeria Quaedam. They are to be given to all candidates for orders. These ministries are also open to male laity not aspiring to sacred orders, but in reality few dioceses have made effective use of this possibility.

In order to confer them, the following conditions should be met:

“8. The following are requirements for admission to the ministries:

“a) the presentation of a petition that has been freely made out and signed by the aspirant to the Ordinary (the bishop and, in clerical institutes, the major superior) who has the right to accept the petition;

“b) a suitable age and special qualities to be determined by the conference of bishops;

“c) a firm will to give faithful service to God and the Christian people.

“9. The ministries are conferred by the Ordinary (the bishop and, in clerical institutes, the major superior) through the liturgical rite De institutione lectoris and De institutione acolythi as revised by the Apostolic See.

“10. An interval, determined by the Holy See or the conferences of bishops, shall be observed between the conferring of the ministries of reader and acolyte whenever more than one ministry is conferred on the same person.

“11. Unless they have already done so, candidates for ordination as deacons and priests are to receive the ministries of reader and acolyte and are to exercise them for a suitable time, in order to be better disposed for the future service of the word and of the altar. Dispensation from receiving these ministries on the part of such candidates is reserved to the Holy See. 

“12. The conferring of ministries does not bring with it the right to support or remuneration from the Church.

“13. The rite of institution of readers and acolytes will soon be published by the competent department of the Roman Curia.

The essential norms of this document were later incorporated into canons 230 and 1035 of the Code of Canon Law.

“Canon 230 §1. Lay men who possess the age and qualifications established by decree of the conference of bishops can be admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte.

“Nevertheless, the conferral of these ministries does not grant them the right to obtain support or remuneration from the Church.

A man can thus be instituted lector without necessarily aspiring to become an acolyte, but it does not appear that one may become an acolyte without passing through lectorate. For many practical reasons these ministries are almost exclusively conferred upon candidates for the priesthood and diaconate.

Canon 1035 says the following:

“§1. Before anyone is promoted to the permanent or transitional diaconate, he is required to have received the ministries of lector and acolyte and to have exercised them for a suitable period of time. 

Ҥ2. There is to be an interval of at least six months between the conferral of the ministry of acolyte and the diaconate.

With respect to the functions of the ministry the General Introduction to the Roman Missal has this to say: 

“C. The duties of the acolyte

“187. The duties that the acolyte may carry out are of various kinds and several may coincide. Hence, it is desirable that these duties be suitably distributed among several acolytes. If, however, only one acolyte is present, he should perform the more important duties while the rest are to be distributed among several ministers.

“The Introductory Rites

“188. In the procession to the altar, the acolyte may carry the cross, walking between two ministers with lighted candles. Upon reaching the altar, the acolyte places the cross upright near the altar so that it may serve as the altar cross; otherwise, he puts it in a worthy place. Then he takes his place in the sanctuary.

“189. Through the entire celebration, the acolyte is to approach the priest or the deacon, whenever necessary, in order to present the book to them and to assist them in any other way required. Thus it is appropriate, insofar as possible, that the acolyte occupy a place from which he can conveniently carry out his ministry either at the chair or at the altar. 

“The Liturgy of the Eucharist

“190. If no deacon is present, after the Prayer of the Faithful is concluded and while the priest remains at the chair, the acolyte places the corporal, the purificator, the chalice, the pall, and the Missal on the altar. Then, if necessary, the acolyte assists the priest in receiving the gifts of the people and, if appropriate, brings the bread and wine to the altar and hands them to the priest. If incense is used, the acolyte presents the thurible to the priest and assists him while he incenses the gifts, the cross, and the altar. Then the acolyte incenses the priest and the people. 

“191. A duly instituted acolyte, as an extraordinary minister, may, if necessary, assist the priest in giving Communion to the people. If Communion is given under both kinds, when no deacon is present, the acolyte administers the chalice to the communicants or holds the chalice if Communion is given by intinction.

“192. Likewise, when the distribution of Communion is completed, a duly instituted acolyte helps the priest or deacon to purify and arrange the sacred vessels. When no deacon is present, a duly instituted acolyte carries the sacred vessels to the credence table and there purifies, wipes, and arranges them in the usual way.

“193. After the celebration of Mass, the acolyte and other ministers return in procession to the sacristy, together with the deacon and the priest in the same way and order in which they entered.

“D. The duties of the lector

“Introductory Rites

“194. In coming to the altar, when no deacon is present, the lector, wearing approved attire, may carry the Book of the Gospels, which is to be slightly elevated. In that case, the lector walks in front of the priest but otherwise along with the other ministers.

“195. Upon reaching the altar, the lector makes a profound bow with the others. If he is carrying the Book of the Gospels, he approaches the altar and places the Book of the Gospels upon it. Then the lector takes his own place in the sanctuary with the other ministers.

“The Liturgy of the Word 

“196. The lector reads from the ambo the readings that precede the Gospel. If there is no psalmist, the lector may also proclaim the responsorial Psalm after the first reading. 

“197. When no deacon is present, the lector, after the introduction by the priest, may announce from the ambo the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful.

“198. If there is no singing at the Entrance or at Communion and the antiphons in the Missal are not recited by the faithful, the lector may read them at the appropriate time (cf. above, nos. 48, 87).

Perhaps the best presentation of these ministries comes from the discourse that the bishop delivers before conferring the ministry that is found in the rite itself.

Before conferring the ministry of lector: 

“Dear sons in Christ: Through his Son, who became man for us, God the Father has revealed the mystery of salvation and brought it to fulfillment. Jesus Christ made all things known to us and then entrusted his Church with the mission of preaching the Gospel to the whole world. 

“As readers and bearers of God’s word, you will assist in this mission, and so take on a special office within the Christian community; you will be given a responsibility in the service of the faith, which is rooted in the word of God. You will proclaim that word in the liturgical assembly, instruct children and adults in the faith and prepare them to receive the sacraments worthily. You will bring the message of salvation to those who have not yet received it. Thus with your help men and women will come to know God our Father and his Son Jesus Christ, whom he sent, and so be able to reach eternal life. 

“In proclaiming God’s word to others, accept it yourselves in obedience to the Holy Spirit. Meditate on it constantly, so that each day you will have a deeper love of the Scriptures, and in all you say and do show forth to the world our Savior, Jesus Christ. 

Before conferring the ministry of acolyte:

“Dear sons in Christ, as people chosen for the ministry of acolyte, you will have a special role in the Church’s ministry. The summit and source of the Church’s life is the eucharist, which builds up the Christian community and makes it grow. It is your responsibility to assist priests and deacons in carrying out their ministry, and as special ministers to give holy communion to the faithful at the liturgy and to the sick. Because you are specially called to this ministry, you should strive to live more fully by the Lord’s sacrifice and to be molded more perfectly in its likeness. You should seek to understand the deep spiritual meaning of what you do, so that you may offer yourselves daily to God as spiritual sacrifices acceptable to him through Jesus Christ.

“In performing your ministry bear in mind that, as you share the one bread with your brothers and sisters, so you form one body with them. Show a sincere love for Christ’s Mystical Body, God’s holy people, and especially for the weak and the sick. Be obedient to the commandment which the Lord gave to his apostles at the Last Supper: ‘Love one another as I also have loved you.’

* * *

Follow-up: On Transubstantiation

Several readers wrote regarding the question of transubstantiation (see April 19). One, a qualified philosopher, wrote to explain how the doctrine of transubstantiation can fit into Aristotelian philosophy. Although, as I said in the original article, it is not necessary to adopt this system, I believe that his explanation will help clarify some doubts expressed by other readers based on the difficulty that many have today with respect to terms such as substance and accidents which have changed over time and which can cause confusion. To wit: 

“Although I concede that the use of the word substance in transubstantiation precedes the introduction of Aristotle’s works to Western Europe, I do not think there is anything that impedes our understanding the term in the Aristotelian sense. 

“For Aristotle, ‘substance’ (or ‘ousia’ in his original Greek) answers the question ‘What is it?’ In fact, sometimes in his corpus, he simply uses the interrogative ‘What is it?’ as if it were a noun (‘ho ti estí’). He goes on to specify that substance is, using his celebrated expression, ‘to ti en einai,’ or roughly, ‘what something is simply because it exists’ (i.e., not regarding what it does or what properties it has).

“Hence both ‘bread’ and ‘wine’ easily qualify as substances in the Aristotelian sense, as do the two natures of our Lord. (The human nature qualifies univocally; the divine nature, analogically.) Bread and wine, for instance, both exhibit what is called ‘substantial unity’: in other words, neither one can be reduced, conceptually speaking, to its constituent parts. Or said in a different way, you cannot mix gluten and starch, and call it ‘bread’; it has to be ground from wheat (or some other grain), moistened and baked, and the result of the baking is qualitatively different from the components that were mixed. Similarly, wine does not reduces to the tartaric, malic, and citric acids, tannins, glycerine and alcohol (among other compounds) that make it up.

“Keep in mind that Aristotle was not trying to invent a new meaning for the word ‘ousia,’ (the Scholastic ‘substance’ or ‘essence’), but rather sought to express the common-sense meaning in a philosophical rigorous way. In any case, St. Thomas Aquinas clearly feels that the Aristotelian ‘substance’ can be used to understand transubstantiation (e.g., in S.Th. III, q. 75, a. 4, end of the responsum).

“So, to answer the reader’s question in this light, I would say that gluten is not strictly speaking a ‘substance’ of the bread (such an idea is quite foreign to Aristotle’s notion of substance); it is, rather a component (in technical terms, an ‘integral part’) of that substance. It is one of the constituent elements, out of which the properties of the bread emerge—especially its ‘qualities’: its color, shape, taste, smell, mass, chemical properties, and so forth.

“In fact, with Aquinas, we can go a step further: Aquinas specifies that, in a material substance (i.e., not angels, and not the spiritual part of man), the rest of the accidents (quality, place, duration, and so forth) all have the quantity (the physical dimensions) as their ‘subject’ or substrate. For instance, color (a quality) does not make sense unless it is ‘located’ somewhere on the colored thing. At least conceptually, the substance first has to have a physical dimensions, then a shape, and only then a color, resistance, taste, smell, and so forth. The physical dimensions (‘quantity’), therefore, serve as the ‘support’ for all the rest of the physical properties.

“Applying this model (which I think is very much valid), while taking into account our modern scientific understanding, it follows that the chemical composition of a substance is actually one of its accidental forms (albeit one not conceived of by Aristotle or Aquinas, who obviously knew nothing about chemistry, quantum mechanics, etc.); hence, it is not at all a problem to say that that the Eucharist is constituted chemically by gluten and starch (and whatever other compounds are found in bread). 

“If, say, someone were to take iodine tincture and drop it on a consecrated host (which I hope no one will ever do), the tincture would turn black or dark blue (as it reacts with the starch), just as it would if the host were not consecrated.

“I suspect that the reader is actually thinking of the term ‘substance,’ not in Aristotle’s sense, but in the modern, physical and chemical sense—which is generally synonymous with the chemical components or ‘matter’ that make physical objects up. But Aristotle’s concept is quite different from that, and closer to the common-sense idea of ‘whole thing’ or ‘whole object.’

“In short, then, for an Aristotelian, gluten, when it is a component of a bone fide substance such as bread, would actually be one of the accidental forms (i.e., an accident) of that substance, contributing to its chemical properties, which are also accidents. A similar thing can be said of the alcohol in wine.

This explanation should clarify some points regarding the concepts of substance and accidents, although it must be admitted that the terms, especially that of accident, are easily taken out of context and considered as something random and unimportant. The above explanation refers above all to the status of the bread and wine before consecration. After the consecration nothing of the bread and wine remains. Here, however, we are before a miracle. One reader, quoting Ludwig Ott, correctly says that God as first cause can “preserve the accidents of bread and wine in their real being after the cessation of the substance of the bread and wine. This would normally be impossible from a philosophical point of view but we are before a great mystery.

One reader suggested a biblical approach because these terms are difficult. Scripture can certainly enlighten us although sometimes the correct interpretation of the texts can be a conundrum as well. There are good reasons why the magisterium has often recurred to non-biblical expressions to explain the faith even though the faith is always rooted in Revelation.

Finally, a correspondent asked: “If Jesus’ true body and true blood are in the host that we consume at the time of holy Eucharist, I still do not quite understand Pope Benedict and Pope Francis insisting that those who believe in the true presence of Jesus body and blood in the host that they consume are not cannibals. Of course, I believe this, but could you please explain this more clearly?

This was the mistake made by those present in Capernaum (John 6:61) and the early Christians were accused of practicing this aberration.

Actually a biblical approach would probably be the best way to understand this particular point, but the theme is too vast for me to engage here. With the Scripture we could understand the background underlying expressions such as “the bread from heaven, “the paschal lamb, and “blood of the covenant in relation to the Eucharist. It would also mean delving into books such as Revelation with its liturgical images. For example, in Jewish belief, the essential aspect of eating the Passover supper was participation in the sacrifice which renewed the covenant by performing a memorial service.

In an analogous way Catholics believe that we do not receive a dead lamb as our holy food but the gift of the living risen Christ who offers himself to us. Cannibalism implies death, the Eucharist is life. Christ can become our food under the signs that he has chosen to give himself so that we can participate in his sacrifice. In receiving his Passover we receive his life and in doing so renew the definitive and eternal covenant that makes us the new people of God.

I am aware that this answer is approximate, but I hope it might serve at least to waylay applying the idea of cannibalism to the Eucharist. 

* * *

Readers may send questions to [email protected]/* */. Please put the word “Liturgy in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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