Pope Francis formalizes 'lay ministry' of catechist, allows bishops' conferences to define role

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On Tuesday, Pope Francis issued a new motu proprio instituting the formal “lay ministry of catechist.” The apostolic letter, which was announced in advance last week, makes universal a role previously established in canon law for missionary areas and allows local bishops’ conferences to define the scope of the ministry.

The letter, titled Antiquum ministerium, was issued on April 11, and dated and signed the previous day. In it, Francis said that the Church cannot forget “the countless lay men and women who directly took part in the spread of the Gospel through catechetical instruction,” whom he called “men and women of deep faith, authentic witnesses of holiness, who in some cases were also founders of Churches and eventually died as martyrs.”

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The new document stresses the missionary character of the whole Church and quotes the Vatican Council II decree on the Church’s missionary activity Ad gentes, saying “In our days, when there are so few clerics to evangelize such great multitudes and to carry out the pastoral ministry, the role of catechists is of the highest importance.”

“In our own day too,” wrote Francis, “many competent and dedicated catechists are community leaders in various parts of the world and carry out a mission invaluable for the transmission and growth of the faith.” 

While acknowledging that the diocesan bishop is the chief catechist of his diocese, and parents the primary catechists of their children, Francis said that “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.”

“This presence 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.”

Quoting his own 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Francis said that “it is the task of pastors [priests] to support [lay people] in this process and to enrich the life of the Christian community through the recognition of lay ministries capable of contributing to the transformation of society through the ‘penetration of Christian values into the social, political and economic sectors.’”

The letter establishes the ministry of lay catechist throughout the universal Church, both in the Latin Church and Eastern Churches, and says that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments will produce a liturgical rite for the formal institution of catechists.

The role of catechist as previously defined in canon law and other Church documents linked the ministry to specific work in missionary territory where the Church is not yet institutionally established. While the new motu proprio does not abrogate the existing provisions of the law, it does broaden the scope of the ministry to apply to every diocese in the Church.

Francis wrote in the motu proprio that “the reception of a lay ministry such as that of catechist will emphasize even more the missionary commitment proper to every baptized person, a commitment that must however be carried out in a fully ‘secular’ manner, avoiding any form of clericalization.”

The new law still recognizes the role of catechist as primarily instructive: 

“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.” 

However, the pope’s letter leaves the final scope and function of the ministry largely in the hands of the diocesan bishop and local bishops’ conferences.

“This ministry has a definite vocational aspect, as evidenced by the Rite of Institution [to be issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship], 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.”

Although the Code of Canon Law states that catechists are to be formed in “dedicated schools or, when that isn’t possible, under the direct supervision of a missionary,” Francis’ new letter provides only that they “receive suitable biblical, theological, pastoral and pedagogical formation to be competent communicators of the truth of the faith and they should have some prior experience of catechesis.” Where this formation is to be received is not specified.

While the motu proprio establishes the ministry of lay catechist for use in every diocese in the Church, Pope Francis delegated considerable discretion to the local ecclesiastical hierarchy to determine what role the ministry will play, and what formation catechists will receive. 

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Local bishops’ conferences are specifically delegated to determine “the necessary process of formation and the normative criteria for admission to this ministry” and charged with “devising the most appropriate forms for the service which these men and women will be called to exercise.”

An enhanced recognition of the work and role of lay people in some areas of Church life was discussed during the 2019 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, and the 2020 document Querida Amazonia, both of which made special mention of the role catechists play leading Christian communities in areas without a priest. 

In parts of the world where the role of catechist is well established, catechists perform more functions than just instruction in the faith. In missionary communities, where months may pass between visits by an available priest, catechists lead liturgies, perform baptisms, witness marriages, preside at funerals, and otherwise take charge of pastoral initiatives and organizing parish functions. The provisions of Antiquum ministerium appear to open the possibility for local bishops conferences to create similar roles for lay catechists in dioceses in other parts of the world. 

“It is essential that [catechists] be faithful co-workers with priests and deacons, prepared to exercise their ministry wherever it may prove necessary, and motivated by true apostolic enthusiasm,” concluded Pope Francis.