Publication: Pastoral Music
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 78644
ISSN: 03636569
Journal code: PSMS

Tens of thousands of lay ecclesial ministers serve the Church in the United States, engaged in public, daily, official ministry to parishes and institutions. Yet, unlike the rituals provided for ministers of the three sacramental orders, there is no liturgical rite of entry into ministry for them. Such a rite would make clear the relationship between the lay ecclesial minister and the bishop and would affirm this ministry as being official and as being undertaken in the name of the Church. Thus, this rite should be celebrated at a diocesan level, by the ordinary, and should include some of the symbols, rituals, and language employed by other liturgical rites of initiation into ministry. As the conversation about formation, certification, and authorization of lay ecclesial ministers continues, the churches of the United States should now do their part by considering how ritually to mark the entry of these lay people into official ecclesial ministry.

A Sacramental Community Recognizes Its Leaders

Since baptism is the foundation for all ministry in the Church, why, then, is ritual recognition beyond the sacramental celebration of baptism necessary for leaders at all? In Thomas O'Meara's book, Theology of Ministry, he offers a succinct argument for ritual rites of entry into ministry:

People and actions prepare a Christian to enter ministry in the church. For public, full-time ministry especially, but also for other part-time or assisting ministers, symbols, words, people, and movement come together in the constellation of public commissioning, a moment that is both climax and beginning, both charism and source of further charism. A new theology of ministry cannot tumministry into laity nor eliminate ordination liturgies as excessively cultic. Just the opposite is needed. The social and animal facets of our human nature call for sacramental liturgy."1

O'Meara affirms the importance of recognizing leaders in a ritual Church. Edward Hahnenberg offers an understanding of ordination as both recognition of ministers by the community and repositioning of the baptized to a new relationship of service within the community.2 Particularly Hahnenberg's first concept, but even his second one, requires ritual activity. Simply put: The ancient principle of lex orandi, lex credendi demands that we celebrate what we believe (or, depending on how you interpret the ancient principle, that we believe in what we celebrate). Such rites would help affirm lay ecclesial ministry as distinct and valuable to the Church. Such rites could celebrate the diversity of ministries - both lay and ordained - present in the Church today.

Models of Rites of Initiation into Lay Ecclesial Ministry

What, then, should such a rite of initiation into lay ecclesial ministry look like? Several existing rites may serve as potential starting points. The rite of ordination of deacons and rites of institution of readers and acolytes seem appropriate theological comparisons to a proposed rite for installing lay ecclesial ministers.

Ordination of Deacons. While the three rites of sacramental ordination have a similar structure and common elements, each rite brings out the character of the particular order, and one can derive a theology of that ministry from the rite. Let us consider some of these elements as found in the rite of the ordination of deacons - ministers ordained not to the priesthood (like bishops and presbyters) but rather to ministry.

First, the candidates promise to discharge their office in humility and charity, in assisting the bishop and priests, to proclaim the "mystery of faith with a clear conscience" and to proclaim the faith in word and action, to pray, to shape their lives "according to the example of Christ, whose body and blood (they) will give to the people," and to be obedient to the bishop or religious superior.3 Note the connection to the bishop, not to the pastor of the parish in which the deacon will minister immediately. During the promise of obedience, each candidate places his joined hands within the hands of the bishop, an ancient gesture hearkening back to the days of feudalism, when a vassal pledged fidelity to a particular lord.4

The prayer of ordination of deacons begins with a Trinitarian invocation, followed by an anamnesis recalling the sons of Levi and the seven men of good repute from the Acts of the Apostles. It also includes an epiclesis, asking for the sevenfold grace of the Spirit to strengthen the deacons, and the intercessions which follow ask that the deacons imitate Christ in the exercise of their ministry.

Finally, each rite of ordination includes a rite of handing over sacred objects. In the case of the deacon, the ordinand is presented with the Book of the Gospels as a sign of his duty to preach the Gospel in word (as catechist or proclaimer in liturgy), sacrament in his service at the altar), and in deed (in his works of charity).

Institution of Readers and Acolytes. Another existing ritual that might prove helpful in crafting a rite for installing lay ecclesial ministers is the rite of institution of readers and acolytes. Pope Paul VI, in his 1972 apostolic letter Ministeria quaedam, abolished the various "minor orders" (such as porter, catechist, exorcist, and subdeacon) that had existed up to that point and established that there are three "orders" and two lay liturgical ministries: reader and acolyte.

The rites for the institution of acolytes and readers are certainly simpler than those of an ordination liturgy. The bishop is normally the celebrant. Although the candidates are called forth, as in the ordination liturgies, there are no promises made by these candidates. A simple prayer-not "consecratory" in nature and without a laying-on of hands-asks for God's blessing upon the candidates. It does not have the Trinitarian framework of the ordination prayers, and since it is not properly "sacramental," it does not actually confer the office in the way that the prayer of ordination with the imposition of hands confers sacramental grace upon the ordinand. The act of institution occurs in the presentation of a Bible to the reader or a vessel with bread or wine to the acolyte.

Significant among the differences between ordination and institution is the order of the ritual: Both the ordination and institution rites include a spoken prayer and the giving of an object. However, Hahnenberg points out, in the institution rite the giving of the symbols is the focus of the rite rather than the prayer. The ordination rite reflects an emphasis on the Holy Spirit and makes the ordination prayer with its ritual action the focus of the ritual.5

Characteristics of a Rite of Installation of Lay Ecclesial Ministers

Having examined, then, the rites of ordination of deacons and institution of readers and acolytes, we can ask what a rite for the installation of lay ecdesial ministers should look like. What should it say about the ministers? What should it say about the Church?

First, it seems most appropriate that the rite be celebrated by the diocesan bishop, preferably in the cathedral. Co-Workers states: "A public ceremony or Liturgy for the conferral of an office emphasizes the relationship of the diocesan bishop with the lay ecdesial minister and the community to be served."6 It would be good for the pastors who will work with the new lay ecclesial ministers to be present, concelebrating the Mass if the rite takes place in the context of Eucharist. However, the rite should make clear that the lay ecdesial minister is being initiated into the ministry of the entire local Church, not just that of one parish or institution.

Notably absent from the rites of both ordination and institution of readers and acolytes is any renewal of baptismal promises. With baptism as the foundation for all ministry - and for lay ecclesial ministry in particular - the absence of such a formula might seem conspicuous. If a renewal of baptismal promises were to be induded in a rite of installation of lay ecclesial ministers, who would be renewing: the candidates for ministry or the entire assembly? While it would distinguish the ministers for the purposes of this ritual to have them renew alone, it could hint at a new kind of clericalism among lay ecclesial ministers.

There should be some spoken prayer of blessing or commissioning of the lay ecclesial ministers. It would be preferable that it follow the general structure of the prayers of ordination in anamnesis (beginning with thanksgiving), invocation (if not epiclesis), and intercession. One potential area of controversy would be the inclusion of prayer to the Holy Spirit - an element of the ordination prayer not found in the prayer for institution of readers and acolytes. On one hand, reserving prayer to the Holy Spirit as proper to the rites of ordination would help differentiate between the three sacramental orders and lay ecclesial ministers. On the other hand, prayer to the Holy Spirit in the blessing of lay ecclesial ministers would help avoid what J. Kevin Coyle calls a "conferral" model of ministry; such a paradigm is suggestive of the Spirit being transmitted from the conferring minister to the candidate, in an unbroken chain of succession from Christ to the present-day minister. In fact, Co-Workers reaffirms Lumen Gentium's assertion that "the further call of some persons to lay ecclesial ministry adds a special grace by which the Holy Spirit 'makes them fit and ready to undertake various tasks and offices for the renewal and building up of the church.'"7 Coyle proposes prayer to the Holy Spirit not in a "conferral" model as described above but rather in what he calls a "recognition" model, in which it is acknowledged that the Spirit is already at work in the person being recognized, and the prayer to the Holy Spirit affirms this.8

Perhaps the candidates for lay ecclesial ministry would offer some symbolic gesture of obedience to the bishop, if they do not make an actual promise of obedience to him. This would parallel the rites of ordination and again make clear the connection of the lay ecclesial minister and the bishop. The gesture of joined hands is a possibility, or national episcopal conferences could choose other gestures more appropriate in the cultural context.

It would seem prudent to include the giving of some object as part of the rite, to parallel the other rites of initiation into ministry that we have examined here. However, since lay ecdesial ministers are responsible for leadership in so many different areas of ministry, there is not one obvious symbol for this ritual. Perhaps, if classifications of ministries were to be standardized, there could be the presentation of a symbol that pertains to the ministry (e.g., a catechism to the director of religious education, a psalter to the pastoral musician, and so on). Or, if nothing else, a presentation of the Book of the Gospels could be symbolic of the lay ecclesial minister's duty (like the deacon) to proclaim the Gospel in word and action.

Important for Ministers and Church

Because lay ecclesial ministers are engaged in official, public, and daily leadership of ministry in the Church, it is important both for the ministers and for the Church that they be recognized and affirmed in a liturgical rite as they begin their ministry. As the bishops of the United States continue to grapple with the specifics of forming, certifying, and authorizing lay ecclesial ministers, it will be important to consider such liturgical rites of installation.


1. Thomas O'Meara, Theology of Ministry, completely revised edition (Mawah, New Jersey; Paulist Press, 1999), 215.

2. Edward P. Hahnenberg, Ministries: A Relational Approach (Chestnut Ridge, New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2003), 195.

3. "Rite of Ordination of Deacons" in The Rites of the Catholic Church, Volume Two, second ed. (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1980), 11-12.

4. Susan K. Wood, Sacramental Orders (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 152. This ritual is also part of the ordination of presbyters, but is mentioned here in that it may be useful in a rite for lay ecclesial ministers.

5. Hahnenberg, 190.

6. Co-Workers, 59.

7. Co-Workers, 25, citing Lumen Gentium, 12.

8. J. Kevin Coyle, "The Laying on of Hands as Conferral of the Spirit: Some Problems and a Possible Solution," Studia Patristica 18 (1989), 339-353, quoted in Hahnenberg, 195, 198.

Author affiliation:

Mr. Jeremy Helmes is the pastoral assodate for liturgy and music at St. Maximilian Kolbe Church in Liberty Township in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Ohio.

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