ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
29. Servers, lectors, commentators, and members of the choir also exercise a genuine liturgical function. They ought, therefore, to discharge their office with the sincere piety and decorum demanded by so exalted a ministry and rightly expected of them by God's people.
Consequently, they must all be deeply imbued with the spirit of the liturgy, each in his own measure, and they must be trained to perform their functions in a correct and orderly manner.
While this directive from SC—54 years old at this writing—might seem like stating the obvious, it is important to remember the context in which it appears, the age of the Mass of Pope Pius V, not the Mass of Pope Paul VI in which most contemporary adult Catholics were born and raised. While the Tridentine Latin Mass provided for multiple ministries, all of them were formalized under the aegis of the Sacrament of Orders, all were restricted to males, and all required formal installation by a bishop. Prior to the Vatican II reforms, the Church recognized seven “orders” to the priesthood: Porter, Reader, Exorcist, Acolyte, Sub-deacon, Deacon, and Priest. The first four were collectively termed “Minor Orders” and the last three “Major Orders.”
A young man entering a major seminary in the 1950’s would be received into these ranks successively in his formative years, along with and beginning with tonsure, the ritual of the cutting of one’s hair upon entrance into the clerical state. Some of the minor orders, by the twentieth century, were more symbolic than practical. Porters were the official guardians of the place of worship; in medieval times, this order included responsibility for the ritual ringing of the bells calling people to the Mass or to recitation of the Angelus. [Any Buffalo readers? The little rock and roll station WNIA in Cheektowaga played the recitation of the Angelus at 6 AM, Noon, and 6 PM, the customary universal times.] While an order of exorcism was conferred upon seminarians, permission for its use was not normally extended to a priest in his lifetime.
The minor orders of lector and acolyte have survived, though in revised form, in today’s reformed instructions. A lector prior to 1970 was conferred the power to read the Scripture at Mass and other rites, though not the Gospel, which was and still remains the provenance of a deacon. Recall, though, that the pre-Vatican II Mass was entirely in Latin and there was no formal “proclamation” of readings as we have today. The order of acolyte involved service at the altar during Mass, which in some circumstances could include the distribution of Holy Communion. In the United States and elsewhere, the order of acolyte morphed into the role assumed by vested young boys, our “altar boys.”
In 1972 Pope Paul VI revised the ranks of orders and renamed them “ministries.” He suppressed tonsure, porter, exorcist, and sub deacon. Today the formalized ministries of worship are acolyte and lector, and of the Sacrament of Orders, deacon, presbyter/priest, and bishop. Men in major seminaries are installed as lectors and acolytes on their progression to major orders.
Two other factors to keep in mind are the revision of the Missal itself in 1970 and the Council’s principle of lay involvement in worship wherever possible. For example, the “new Mass” features proclamation of the Scripture in the vernacular, and there are more Scripture readings in the Mass than before. The reformed rite allows for communion under both species for the laity, necessitating a larger number to distribute communion. The introduction of the laity into positions of ministry within the Mass is something we have grown accustomed to over the past 50 years, but in Church law the lay person who proclaims the first reading or distributes the Eucharist is a stand-in for a duly commissioned male, one formally designated by the bishop to undertake this ministry.
Some of you may remember the fuss created several decades ago at the introduction of “altar girls.” Opposition took several forms, but the main cause of disagreement seemed to be that in wearing altar servers’ garb, the girls were standing in as surrogates for male candidates for the priesthood, and in doing so represented the first subtle step toward women priests. A few bishops in the U.S. have a males-only policy about their young servers, their argument being that serving Mass encourages young men to consider a priestly vocation.
As it reads, however, para. 29 seems intended as a directive to the laity, since the inclusion of “choirs” and “commentators” brings into play clearly non-clerical liturgical functions. The paragraph states that they “exercise a legitimate liturgical function,” thus diminishing the attitude that they serve only as stand-ins for clerically installed males, and that they are personages of leadership whose piety and decorum is to be seen and imitated by all the faithful.
The document goes on to say that those exercising these ministries should be directed in personal spiritual development, educated in the full understanding of liturgy, and trained in their respective rubric. My own diocese, as probably most others, offers regular training for those new to the ministry. Candidates for these public ministries should be carefully vetted as living an exemplary Catholic life; they are not recruited and installed simply because “we need more people.” In the case of lectors, a skill set of public presentation is a sine qua non. All liturgical ministers should be drawn into the practice of praying the liturgical hours of the Church, such as morning prayer and evening prayer, and common spiritual resources made available on a regular basis such as Bible study, retreats, etc.
There are some liturgical ministries where training is chronically deficient. Liturgical music is a case in point. It seems to me that music directors are often hired on the grounds of their own musical expertise and enthusiasm— “get ‘em to sing.” Few music directors seem familiar with the principles of liturgical music as laid out in Church documents and academic liturgical institutions of higher learning. Consequently, in much of this country we have developed an unfortunate adherence to the “four hymn sandwich” model, as liturgists joke. Actually, the Missal calls for antiphonal singing of assigned Psalms which, aside from the responsorial psalm, we rarely do. Choirs exist to enhance congregational singing, not as entertaining entities unto themselves for our applause and adulation.
You might be confused by the inclusion of the ministry of “commentator.” I researched this rather exhaustively, and I found three definitions: (1) in the days of introduction to the new liturgy of Pope Paul VI, a trained layman introduced the changes and what the congregation was to do; the position is now obsolete; (2) in certain liturgies, such as Holy Week, a commentator may assist with instructions on such matters as how to venerate the cross on Good Friday, though many sources say that such directive should come from the celebrant; (3) a commentator reads those portions of the Mass which are non-biblical, such as the Prayer of the Faithful and the announcements. I am not familiar with this interpretation, though I found this link to Assumption Parish in Granger, Iowa, to be quite interesting. In my home parish, the lector for the second reading also reads the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful; this is what I usually see on the road as well.