Pope Francis's New Vision for Catechists

On May 11, 2021, Pope Francis issued a motu proprio entitled Antiquum Ministerium to establish the lay ministry of catechist. Though the phrase “motu proprio” is commonly-used as shorthand for this type of document, it actually refers to the way in which the Pope issues it—he does so by his own initiative, not in response to questions or petitions. Such documents are typically legislative acts in which the Pope establishes or changes Church law.

One might think, for instance, of the motu proprio Spiritus Domini Pope Francis issued in January that changed canon law so that both men and women could be instituted as lectors and acolytes, or of the document issued by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Summorum Pontificum, which broadened the circumstances in which the Roman Missal promulgated by Pius V and revised by John XXIII (sometimes referred to as the “Latin Mass”) could be used. Such acts of legislation supersede the decisions made by Vatican departments and local ordinaries and usually state when they intend to do so.

But why establish a ministry of catechist? Are there not many men and women who already labor in parishes and schools to hand on the faith to others? First, we should recall that the Pope’s vision extends beyond our own country and especially includes places such as South America, where, in his document Querida Amazonia that followed the 2019 Synod of Bishops, Francis recalled the “strong and generous women who, undoubtedly called and prompted by the Holy Spirit, baptized, catechized, prayed and acted as missionaries” (§99). Indeed, canon law envisions catechists as laypeople that collaborate with the teaching office of their priests and bishops (Can. 776) and as significant aids in missionary work (Can. 785§1), which in certain areas includes lay preaching, teaching, and leading liturgical worship.

Second, while men and women often do undertake the ministries of lector and acolyte (or more commonly, altar server) during Mass, few are actually instituted by liturgical rite. The history of such officially instituted ministries traces back to the “minor orders,” those of subdeacon, acolyte, lector, exorcist, and porter.[1] One finds various references to these orders in documents from the Early Church and beyond but with little systematization, along with periodic rising and waning prominence. They are distinguished from the major orders of bishop, priest, and deacon.

Eventually, the minor orders became steppingstones to clerical ordination. Today both priests and deacons are first instituted as lectors, then acolytes, with the requirement that they enact both ministries for a time before their ordination. In 1972, via the motu proprio Ministeria Quedam, Pope Paul VI abolished the minor orders and the subdiaconate, reserving two of the roles as “ministries” that could be taken up by laity, namely acolyte and lector. Ultimately, then, Pope Francis’ document adds to these two the ministry of catechist, a ministry a man or woman would hold stably (not temporarily) and receive by liturgical rite. Francis’s document explains that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments will release the text of the rite soon.

Aside from this main purpose, the document also garners other theological considerations. Biblically, it traces the ministry of catechesis to the writings of Paul and Luke. The latter writes his gospel to Theophilus, that he might be assured of the teachings he has already received. Interestingly, the opening reference to Paul comes from the notoriously difficult to interpret listing of “spiritual gifts” (charismatōn), “services” (diakoniōn), and “workings” (energēmatōn) in 1 Corinthians 12 (a discussion furthered in chapters 13 and 14). The extent to which these three are meant to be synonymous or distinct is a matter of debate, though clearly the role of apostle, listed in verse 28, is something Paul (at times) reserves for the Twelve and himself (e.g., 1 Cor 15:7-9).

Of special import is the question of whether the spiritual gifts listed in the chapter can be held habitually, which is to say, in a manner by which a person can use them at will. Aquinas, for instance, held that prophecy is not habitual but tongues is, though this was because he interpreted the latter as the ability to speak foreign languages, a form of knowledge which could be held by a human being by his or her own natural powers. Regardless, the gifts are produced and distributed as “the Spirit wills” (1 Cor 12:11), and Francis’ motu proprio, along with a recent CDF document, envisions them as received by Christians with at least some sort of stability.[2]

In paragraphs 3 and 4, Francis recalls with gratitude the efforts of catechists, ordained and lay, in furthering the Church’s mission. He mentions lay men and women who “in some cases were also founders of Churches and eventually died as martyrs.” Though he does not give specific examples, one might think of the Korean martyrs who first encountered the Gospel through books from China and then spread the faith through efforts largely led by laypeople.[3] When speaking of the founding of Churches, some might find Francis’s use of the phrase “plantation Ecclesiae” peculiar. This idea of Church planting, a phrase more common to mission work and often used by evangelicals, is actually found in Vatican II’s Ad Gentes (§6). The conciliar decree lauds the work of missionary catechists, especially “when there are so few clerics to preach the Gospel to such great numbers and to exercise the pastoral ministry” (§17).

Those familiar with the Church’s catechetical documents may find Francis’s reference to the bishop as the “primary catechist” (§5) confusing, since the 1997 General Directory for Catechesis speaks of parents as the “primary educators” (§226). Today it is common in the United States to speak of the bishop as the “chief catechist,” the one who holds the greatest responsibility for overseeing catechesis in his diocese, and parents as the “primary catechists,” those who are both chronologically first in teaching and, as sociological study suggests, have the greatest impact on handing on the faith to their children.

The new 2020 Directory for Catechesis handles the issue by describing the bishop as the “one primarily responsible for catechesis in the diocese” and the one who “has the principal function . . . of promoting catechesis and providing the different forms of catechesis necessary for the faithful” (§114). Parents, on the other hand, “with their example of daily life, have the most effective capacity to transmit the beauty of the Christian faith to their children” and should avoid the “mentality of delegation that is so common” in which formation is reserved for “specialists in religious education” (§124). In Antiquum Ministerium the ministry of the lay catechist is situated in these bounds.

Paragraph 5 shifts attention from the earlier biblical discussion of the spiritual gift of catechesis given to some to that of a universal call given at baptism. Noting the renewed need for evangelization in an increasingly globalized world, it then paves the way for paragraph 6’s mention of the lay apostolate, one in which all laypersons are called to engage in temporal affairs, ordering them to the will of God. Following this, however, the document returns to the idea of a unique call of the catechist as “one specific form of service among others in the Christian community.”

This tension between grounding the ministry in baptism versus a unique call issued by the Spirit can be resolved by recognizing, as Paul does, that all spiritual gifts are grounded in the participation in Christ’s Body that occurs through baptism. After all, the overall purpose of 1 Corinthians 12 is to remind the Christians at Corinth that they are united in the one Body through the sacrament, and now as Christ’s members, are given the ability to do his work (teachings, prophecy, healing, etc.) through the power of the Spirit. Different members will have differing gifts and roles within the Body, but, as Paul says in the next chapter, all are held together by the bond of charity, without which the gifts would fail to build up the Church.

Two other points are of note in paragraph 6. First, it uses the stages of the catechumenate to frame the ministry of catechesis. Surprisingly missing is the stage of pre-evangelization, the tilling of the soil without which the seed of the kerygma cannot take hold and grow lasting roots. Catechetical scholars have been emphasizing the importance of this proto-stage since the second half of the twentieth century. Second, the paragraph not only describes the ministry of catechesis but the characteristics of the catechist. He or she is to be “a witness to the faith, a teacher and mystagogue, a companion and pedagogue.” Etymologically, a mystagogue is one who leads others into the mysteries of God. Ironically, this “leading into” is associated with the post-initiation teaching that draws meaning “out of” the experience of the sacraments.

Perhaps it is best to say that the more one discovers the meaning of the sacramentum, the more deeply one enters into the mysterion. Companionship is closely related to “accompaniment,” a watchword in Francis’s pontificate. A catechist must not only proclaim and teach but walk alongside the catechized. The witness of a holy life is likewise essential to this fruitfulness of this approach. Finally, pedagogy, while typically thought of as teaching methodology, has a more ancient theological context in the paideia of ancient Roman and Greek society. In the Church’s usage in catechetical contexts, it less concerns classroom methods and more points to the idea of forming the person to become a participant in the community through the inculcation of virtue and communal practices. Extracting the heart of both points from this paragraph, we once again discover kerygma and mystagogy as the two poles of Francis’s vision for catechesis, a vision he put forth as early as Evangelii Gaudium (§163-168).

Paragraph 7 offers further reflections on why the establishment of the catechetical ministry extends previous magisterial teaching, especially that of Paul VI. While the pontiff had emphasized the universal validity of the roles of acolyte and lector in Ministeria Quaedam, he also suggested that episcopal conferences could establish other ministries for their respective territories. Then, in Evangelli Nuntiandi, a document Francis has claimed to be a favorite, Paul VI similarly recommended ministries such as that of the catechist as important non-ordained forms of serving the people of God. On this note of cooperation and collaboration between the lay and ordained, Francis emphasizes that the establishment of the ministry should not be conceived as a movement to further the clericalization of the laity but as an outgrowth of the mission of the layperson called to bring the Gospel to the “secular” realm.

The catechetical ministry is, therefore, distinct from acolyte and lector in that it primarily takes on an extra-liturgical function, which coincides more fittingly with the lay vocation while of course not denying the validity of the other ministries when practiced by laypeople. Additionally, this caution against clericalization suggests Francis’s continued willingness to adhere to the Church’s reservation of ordained ministry solely to males, though not because he harbors a veiled chauvinism or antiquated views of the sexes.

Rather, as his response to the discussions about deaconesses in the Amazonian synod suggests, Francis sees the fight for women’s ordination as a possible devaluation of the lay state and the contributions of women to the Church and the world. In other words, actions which conceive of the clerical state as “higher or better,” and thus worth striving for, misunderstand an ecclesiology that appropriately values a communion of different vocations contributing to the Church’s life in complementary ways.[4]

Paragraph 8 serves as the last section before the more properly legislative paragraphs, and it offers a spiritual and ecclesial perspective on the ministry of the catechist. The ministry has, Francis explains, a “definite vocational aspect,” calling for “due discernment on the part of the Bishop.” This continues a thread found in paragraph 5 that speaks of the ministry as a “calling.” As such, any person seeking to be instituted as a catechist must do so only because he or she has heard the voice of the Lord beckoning and because the ecclesial community has discerned the requisite gifts necessary to answer the call fruitfully. Thus, dioceses and parishes should eschew a “warm body” selection of catechists. Additionally, instituted catechists are to receive “suitable biblical, theological, pastoral, and pedagogical formation,” an instruction that would seem to encourage collaboration between dioceses and their seminaries or local Catholic institutions of higher education.

A final note on paragraph 8 deserves further reflection. Antiquum Minsiterium decidedly ties the catechetical ministry to the bishop—in particular his discernment of candidates and of the needs of the local community—and not to the catechist’s parish. An instituted catechist must therefore be “prepared to exercise their ministry wherever it may prove necessary and motivated by true apostolic enthusiasm.” Such an instruction is more easily envisioned in areas with few priests, where the bishop could presumably send instituted catechists to take on leadership roles for various communities.

But how might this instruction be received in places like the United States? Certainly, some bishops will opt for the institution of catechists for their own respective parishes, but might this also be an opportunity to exercise creativity when it can serve the local Church’s needs? I have in mind, for instance, the many dioceses where more affluent parishes can afford full-time lay ministers, while the poorer parishes struggle to pay minimal part-time staff, if they have any staff at all, a sure detriment to their ministries and mission. Perhaps bishops could institute catechists and even teams of catechists that could then be sent to various parishes, schools, and other places of formation throughout the community, so that all places can experience the fruitfulness of those with the charism of teaching and the requisite theological and pastoral formation?

The final paragraphs of Antiquum Ministerium leave it to episcopal conferences, synods of Oriental Churches, and Assemblies of Hierarchs to determine the norms for formation and admission to the ministry. In accord with the dictum lex orandi lex credendi, the Rite of Institution should provide even more theological insights into this “new” ministry that has roots as old as the New Testament.

[1] By the twelfth century, subdeacon was recognized as a major order.

[2] See the CDF’s Iuevenescit Ecclesia. https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20160516_iuvenescit-ecclesia_en.html

[3] See John Paul II’s homily at their canonization. http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1984/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19840506_martiri-coreani.html

[4] See, for instance, Amoris Laetitia 159.

Featured Image: Government of El Salvador, Audience with the El Slavadoran delegation: Source: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC0 1.0.


Brian Pedraza

Brian Pedraza is Associate Professor of Theology at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, in Baton Rouge, LA, and is the author of Catechesis for the New Evangelization: Vatican II, John Paul II, and the Unity of Revelation and Experience.

Read more by Brian Pedraza