The Reaffirmation of the Distinction
between Non-Ordained Laity and
the Ordained Priesthood


Recently the Holy Father ordered a set of instructions clarifying and reaffirming the sacred ministry of the priesthood promulgated. This document was worked on by many important offices in the Vatican, such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for the Clergy, the Pontifical Council for the Laity, and others. It was specifically addressed to diocesan bishops because of the confusion and abuses which have developed, such as allowing members of the laity to perform functions which are specifically reserved to bishops, priests, and deacons.

The instructions recognize the active role of the faithful in the mission of the Church, for example, their participation in the Liturgy, teaching in catechesis, and their association with groups and movements which contribute to the spiritual mission of the Church. However, these activities together with the laity's work in the secular world are to be considered as "complementary activity" to the "more restricted area" of the ordained clergy. One must be "mindful of the boundaries established by the nature of the sacraments and of the diversity of charisms and ecclesiastical functions."

The next section explains the theological principles distinguishing the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood. "Jesus Christ, the Eternal High Priest, wished that His one and indivisible priesthood be transmitted to His Church." Through Baptism we are "reborn and consecrated as a spiritual temple and a holy priesthood." Nevertheless, there is an essential difference between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood, although "each in its own proper way shares in the One priesthood of Christ." Just as the members of our body have different functions to perform — the arms, legs, etc. — so also do the members of the Church, the Body of Christ. The priest has received from Christ a "particular gift" to serve the People of God in carrying out their task of a common priesthood, which itself is the "unfolding of baptismal grace" in each individual and the life of faith, hope, and charity which each is called to lead. Of course, all Christians must be ready to help one another to grow spiritually, but the priesthood possesses the "sacred power for the service of the faithful."

The sacred ministry of the priesthood is rooted in the Apostolic Succession, which is why we profess our belief in the Apostolic Church when we pray the Creed — priests are conferred with the "responsibility of acting in the person of Christ." The priest has the authority to proclaim the Gospel, administer the sacraments and carrying out the "pastoral direction of the faithful," thus fulfilling his threefold role of teaching, sanctifying, and governing.

No community can confer upon itself the Apostolic mission which Christ gave the Church. Only through the Apostolic succession of the hierarchal authority is Christ's mission of teaching and governing passed on. "Thus the ordained priesthood is absolutely irreplaceable."

The final section consists of practical provisions for reaffirming the doctrine of the ministerial priesthood. The term "ministry" has become clouded, in part because some of the functions of the priest which "do not require the character of Orders" have been assigned to the laity, e.g. extraordinary minister. However, in the context of the offices and functions traditionally reserved to priests, "ministry" requires sacred ordination. The non-ordained laity may not take on titles such as "pastor," "chaplain," "coordinator," or "moderator," which would confuse the role of a bishop or priest with the laity.

Furthermore, the Code of Canon Law prescribes the instances when the non-ordained faithful are allowed to preach, which is only on rare occasion and according to the direction of the Conference of Bishops. "The homily .... during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, must be reserved to the sacred minister, Priest or Deacon..." Since this is not just a matter of discipline, but goes to the heart of the teaching and sanctifying function of the ordained minister, even the local ordinary has no authority to contradict this norm.

The non-ordained faithful have many opportunities to assist the priest in his parish ministry, but the office of pastor can only be filled by a priest, even when there is a shortage of clergy. The role of non-ordained faithful in parish councils is of an advisory nature, and the parish priest has ultimate authority in a parish council.

At Mass, neither deacon nor non-ordained members of the faithful may engage in gestures or actions which are reserved to the celebrant.
It is a grave abuse for any member of the non-ordained faithful to 'quasi-preside' at the Mass while leaving only that minimal participation to the priest which is necessary to secure validity.
The celebrant must make a clear distinction in the liturgical ceremonials proper to himself from those duties performed by the laity.

The extraordinary minister may assist in distributing Holy Communion when there is no ordained minister available, when the celebrant is unable to distribute Holy Communion, or when there are a large number of faithful at Mass. This function, however, is "supplementary and extraordinary," and such individuals should be instructed on the eucharistic doctrine, as well as the reverence to be shown. Extraordinary ministers are to receive Holy Communion with the faithful and not together with the celebrant. They should only be called upon when the celebrant is unable to distribute Holy Communion in a reasonable amount of time.

The lay faithful who assist the priest in his ministry should be "of sound doctrine and exemplary moral life." Those with bad reputations or those in an irregular family situation should not be selected. The laity who do participate should receive proper formation, and any courses they take should be limited to their specific duties "in environments other than that of the Seminary, as this is reserved solely for those preparing for the priesthood."

In conclusion, the Holy Father points out that "the particular gift of each of the Church's members must be wisely and carefully acknowledged ... without confusing roles, functions, or theological and canonical status." These instructions are meant to affirm the legitimate assistance of the laity while reinforcing the "integrity of the pastoral ministry of priest."

We must be "obedient to the will of Christ" Who came on this earth to serve and has passed on His sacred gift of service to His ordained ministers who in turn guide the faithful to serve one another.

Reprinted from the SERVIAM Newsletter DECEMBER 1997

"If a man is ashamed of Me and My doctrine,
the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in glory.