Today, the text of the new Rite of Institution of Catechists was posted today (in Italian) on the Vatican website. Beginning January 1, 2022, members of the laity—both men and women—will be eligible to be admitted to this stable ministry. This is the third lay ministry, following the opening of the ministries of lector and acolyte to women, regarding which Pope Francis changed canon law this year. Unlike the other two ministries, which were reformed, the establishment of the instituted ministry of Catechist is new in the Church.
While lay catechists have served the Church faithfully for centuries, Pope Francis believed it would benefit the Church to formally recognize this important work through on official, stable role. In his motu proprio Antiquum ministerium, released in January, Pope Francis explained this vital role:
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).
Pope Francis also explains in general terms who would be admitted to this “stable ministry,” which he described as “vocational”:
This ministry has a definite vocational aspect, as evidenced by the Rite of Institution, and consequently calls for due discernment on the part of the Bishop. It is in fact a stable form of service rendered to the local Church in accordance with pastoral needs identified by the local Ordinary, yet one carried out as a work of the laity, as demanded by the very nature of the ministry. 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. (8)
A letter by Archbishop Arthur Roche accompanying the new Editio Typica of the rite, goes into more detail about the who is eligible for the ministry. Quoting from Antiquum ministerium, he says “The ministry of Catechist is a ‘stable form of service rendered to the local Church in accordance with pastoral needs identified by the local Ordinary, yet one carried out as a work of the laity, as demanded by the very nature of the ministry’” (I, 1). It also re-emphasizes what is meant when the ministry is described as stable:
The “stability” of the ministry of Catechist is analogous to that of the other instituted ministries. This definition of stability, as well as expressing the fact that it is a “stable” ministry in the Church, also affirms that lay people who have the age and qualifications determined by decree of the Episcopal Conference, can be admitted in a stable manner (like Lectors and Acolytes)into the ministry of Catechist. This takes place through the rite of institution which is therefore not to be repeated. The exercise of the ministry, however, can and must be regulated by the individual Episcopal Conferences in terms of duration, content and modalities, in accordance with pastoral needs. (I, 3)
He goes further, spelling out who should not be admitted to the ministry. These include seminarians and candidates for the Diaconate; men and women religious (unless they are active in those roles in parishes or coordinate catechetical ministry); those who are working in the exclusive context of an ecclesial movement; and Catholic religion teachers in schools (unless they carry out other ecclesiastical functions for the parish or diocese).
This section seems a bit confusing at first, but my impression is that it seems to be saying that people shouldn’t be instituted into this ministry simply for being a religious sister or brother, or just because they are a religion teacher in a school. If a religious sister (for example) is the director of religious education at a parish, or if a lay Catholic school teacher also coordinates adult catechesis in a diocese, they could be instituted in the ministry of Catechist based upon their work in those roles. Furthermore, it is not necessary to be formally instituted in the ministry to carry out the role.
In the letter, Archbishop Roche explains that many of the details, ultimately, will be left up to the individual episcopal conferences. Vatican News summarizes:
It is the task of the individual Bishops’ Conferences to clarify the profile, role, and the most coherent forms for the exercise of the ministry of catechists. The Conferences are also called to define suitable formation programmes for candidates, and to prepare their communities to understand the meaning of this ministry.
Archbishop Roche notes that canon law provides for the possibility of entrusting to a lay person “a share in the exercise of pastoral care in a parish,” but says it is necessary “to form the community so that it does not see the Catechist as a substitute for the Priest or Deacon, but as a member of the lay faithful who lives their baptism in fruitful collaboration and shared responsibility with the ordained ministers, so that their pastoral care may reach everyone.”
Meanwhile, we still await guidelines on the other two lay ministries that were recently opened up to women: acolyte and lector. In these cases, since the ministries already existed, it was not necessary to create new Rites of Installation out of whole cloth. Unlike catechists, who have a New Directory for Catechesis published in 2020, these ministries would have to be reimagined from their current form, which was typically reserved to men in formation for the priesthood and diaconate, and it is likely that more extensive instructions for how these ministries will be exercised will have to be written.
Image: Archbishop Arthur Roche and Pope Francis. Vatican News.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.