This coming Sunday, January 17, Bishop Darwin Andino will institute me as an acolyte in a special rite during Sunday Mass in Dulce Nombre. This is part of the road toward the diaconate.
The Second Vatican Council opened the way to the diaconate as a permanent order, open to married, as well as single, men.
In the course of the reform of the liturgy, the Pope reformed the rites and the steps toward priesthood and the diaconate.
Before the 1970s, candidates for the priesthood received the tonsure, four minor orders (porter, exorcist, lector, acolyte) and three major orders (subdeacon, deacon, priest). Only after all these orders could one be ordained a bishop. The process had, in some ways, the sense of a “cursus honorum,” a course or ladder of honors – with the higher order seen as more important and honorable. It had all the trappings of a top down ecclesiology.
In 1972, this was changed and the orders of porter, exorcist, and subdeacon were left aside. Only the ministries of lector and acolyte were retained and classified as ministries – which are also open to men who are not going to be ordained deacons or priests. The lector is called to service of the Word and the acolyte to service of the altar, assisting the deacon and priest. But a person is not ordained to these ministries, but instituted in them. As Pope Paul VI wrote in Ministeria Quaedam:
It is in accordance with the reality itself and with the contemporary outlook that the above mentioned ministries should no longer be called minor orders; their conferral will not be called ordination, but institution. Only those who have received the diaconate, however, will be clerics in the true sense and will be so regarded. This arrangement will bring out more clearly the distinction between clergy and laity, between what is proper and reserved to the clergy and what can be entrusted to the laity. This will also bring out more clearly that mutuality by which "the universal priesthood of believers and the ministerial or hierarchic priesthood, though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, are nonetheless interrelated: each of these in its own special way is a sharing in the one priesthood of Christ." [Lumen Gentium, 10]
What is important is that even the diaconate and the priesthood are not seen as something above the lay members of the church. The ministerial priesthood is to be seen in the framework of the priesthood that all Christians receive at their baptism.
But why the ministries of lector and acolyte?
In the instruction, Pope Paul VI noted
It is especially fitting that the ministries of reader and acolyte should be entrusted to those who, as candidates for sacred orders, desire to devote themselves to God and to the Church in a special way. …Both by study and by gradual exercise of the ministry of the word and of the altar, candidates for sacred orders should through intimate contact understand and reflect upon the double aspect of the priestly office… In this way, candidates are to approach holy orders fully aware of their vocation, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, constant in prayer, and aware of the needs of the faithful.
What strikes me is that these two ministries (no longer orders) are meant to help those who are to be ordained more “fully aware of their vocation.”
“Fervent in spirit” – We, as all the people of God, are called to open our spirits to the Spirit of God so that the fire of God’s love may burn in our hearts. Those who minister at the Word and the altar – whether commissioned, instituted, or ordained – are called to let that fire burn in their hearts, purifying them and making them signs of God, burning bushes and pillars of fire. God wants people with passion.
“Serving the Lord” – We are all called to put the Lord at the center of our lives, putting aside the gods of power, money, and pleasure, recognizing that there is one Lord and that all must be seen and used in light of the Lord who comes in poverty, in service, in tender love. God’s wants people who are servants.
“Constant in prayer” – We are called to “pray always,” to make our lives a prayer, so that every part of our life – from kneeling in church to bending over the kitchen sink, from changing a baby’s diaper to sexual love – a prayer, a way of praising God and proclaiming his love. God wants people who are constantly in contact with Him.
“Aware of the needs of the faithful” – We, especially those called to ministry and to ordination, need to read the signs of the times, to hear the cry of God’s people, to open ourselves to encounter all of God’s people, especially those at the margin. God wants people who see and respond to the other person, especially those in need.
The instituted ministers and the ordained deacons, priests, and bishops are thus called to be signs of God in the midst of God’s People, not over them but rather below them, kneeling before God and before people – sharing God’s Word and the Body of Christ, as servants who are not adverse to washing the feet (and washing dishes).
This is the first in a series of blog posts on the ministry of acolytes, in preparation for my institution in the ministry on Sunday, January 17, 2016.