VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has instituted a lay ministry of catechist along with a rite of institution in response to an “urgent need today to bring the Gospel to the contemporary world.”
Making the announcement today in an apostolic letter issued motu proprio, Antiquum ministerium, the Pope said “recognition should be given to those lay men and women who feel called by virtue of their baptism to cooperate in the work of catechesis.”
Stressing the ancient importance of the catechist in the history of the Church, he said their role is “all the more urgently needed today as a result of our increasing awareness of the need for evangelization in the contemporary world and the rise of a globalized culture.”
“This requires genuine interaction with young people, to say nothing of the need for creative methodologies and resources capable of adapting the proclamation of the Gospel to the missionary transformation that the Church has undertaken,” the Pope added. “Fidelity to the past and responsibility for the present are necessary conditions for the Church to carry out her mission in the world.”
The Holy Father said the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments will soon publish a liturgical rite for the conferment of the ministry of catechist by a bishop, and he invited episcopal conferences “to render the ministry effective” by preparing formation and norms necessary for admittance to the ministry, and the most appropriate forms for carrying out catechesis in conformity with the apostolic letter.
Bishops, he said, must make “every effort” to comply with the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council to “shepherd the faithful and at the same time acknowledge their ministries and charisms so that all in their separate ways, but of one mind, may cooperate in the common task.”
“May the discernment of the gifts that the Holy Spirit never fails to grant to the Church sustain their efforts to make the lay ministry of Catechist effective for the growth of their communities,” he wrote.
Much of the apostolic letter, which came after lengthy preparation and consultation with bishops’ conferences around the world, recounts the history of catechists in the Church, the different kinds of spiritual gifts and service each baptized person offers, as described by St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, and how “the history of evangelization over the past two millennia clearly shows the effectiveness of the mission of catechists.”
The Pope praised the “countless lay men and women” including a long line of blessed and saints who, over the centuries, “directly took part in the spread of the Gospel through catechetical instruction,” some dying as martyrs on account of their witness. He noted how, beginning with the Second Vatican Council, “the Church has come to a renewed appreciation of the importance of lay involvement in the work of evangelization.”
Pope Francis made a point of paying tribute to St. Paul VI for his 1972 apostolic letter Ministeria quaedam which, he said, “showed great foresight” by adapting the ministries of lector and acolyte in the Ordinary Form of the Latin rite due to “changed historical circumstances” (prior to that they were “minor orders”), but also “encouraging bishops’ conferences to promote other ministries, including the catechist.”
Quoting from Ad Gentes, the Second Vatican Council’s decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, the Pope also underlined the need for catechists as there are “so few clerics to evangelize such great multitudes,” making the role of catechists “of the highest importance.”
Eastern rite churches, which have different rules for catechists and minor orders, will be able to “adopt what is established here for their respective Churches sui iuris, in accordance with their particular law,” the Pope said.
“Antiquum ministerium signals an important innovation and, at the same time, fulfils a desire of Paul VI,” Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization told a Vatican press conference on Tuesday.
Noting that it follows the publication of a new Directory for Catechesis that the dicastery published last year, the Italian prelate said it constituted “a further step forward” in the renewal of catechesis and its role in the New Evangelization.
He stressed that to be a catechist is a vocation, an “unquestionably secular” lay apostolate, aimed at making the Church “present and faithful to those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth.”
Archbishop Fisichella also underscored that baptized men and women are not “substitutes for priests or consecrated persons,” and that the ministry of catechist is “reserved for those who meet the requirements stated in the motu proprio.”
It is a “stable form of service,” he said, which is carried out according to the pastoral needs identified by the local bishop, while episcopal conferences have the duty of “finding the most coherent forms” of implementing any ministry of lay catechist in accordance with their local traditions. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is an “ideal tool and in which every catechist should become a true expert,” he also added.
Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, delegate for catechesis at the Pontifical Council, told reporters that the apostolic letter aims to “strengthen the profile of the catechist in the Church” not by making it derive from the Church’s hierarchical ministry but by “orienting it towards the hierarchy.”
He said this can be seen in three aspects of the document: that the ministry is “opposed to a clericalization of the laity and a laicization of the clergy;” that the ministry of the catechist is “carried out in a community spirituality and in a spirituality of prayer;” and that the ministry of the catechist is a “service acquired through specific and solid formation.”
“The Holy Father emphasizes [in the apostolic letter] that the catechist should not primarily assume liturgical or pastoral tasks or responsibilities for other ministries, but that he himself, in his witness, is a teacher and mystagogue, a companion and pedagogue of his own vocation and talent, evangelically understood,” he said.
Bishop Tebartz-van Elst added that by instituting the ministry of lay catechist, it shows the “growing importance of qualified lay service for the building up of the Body of Christ.”
Answering questions from reporters, Archbishop Fisichella stressed that the apostolic letter does not take anything away from the ministry of priests and bishops.
“As the Directory for Catechesis says, the bishop is the first catechist and the priests together with him are enabled to catechesis,” he said. He added that laity who feel they have a vocation or are directly called by their bishop or priest to render this service to the Christian community, “have to do it in a way that’s in accord with their baptismal vocation and exercise it in a characteristically ‘lay’ way.”
Asked if this development might pave the way for a women catechist to give a homily at Mass, Archbishop Fisichella said: “I think not because it’s not the task of the catechist minister. The catechist minister doesn’t have primarily a liturgical responsibility. This has to be stressed strongly, because otherwise the ministry of lector and acolyte is lessened.”
He also said the vocation of being a lay catechist is a “stable ministry,” that it corresponds to a vocation and so involves a lifelong commitment.
Pope Francis signed the apostolic letter on May 10, the feast of St. John of Avila (1499-1569), a Doctor of the Church, renowned as a subtle theologian and great catechist, according to Archbishop Fisichella.
“In 1554 he wrote Christian Doctrine, a catechism divided into four parts, in a language so simple and accessible to all that it could be sung like a jingle and committed to memory like a nursery rhyme for every circumstance of life,” he said.
“The choice of this date is not accidental,” he added, “because it encourages catechists to seek inspiration in the testimony of a saint who made his catechetical apostolate fruitful through prayer, the study of theology and the simple communication of the faith.”
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