By Bob Sullivan
The ministries of acolyte and lector were once part of the diaconate, the process through which a man received Holy Orders.
These ministries included porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte. They were called “minor orders” as opposed to the “major orders” of subdiaconate, diaconate, and priest. Various changes had been made to the deaconate process over the centuries, most recently in 1973 by St. Paul VI. He changed them because some of the duties in some of the ministries had become obsolete. St. Paul VI’s changes removed the ministries of acolyte and lector from the diaconate, which made them suitable for the laity. St. Paul VI made the ministries available only to men, in deference to the ancient tradition of the Church.
In order to serve as an acolyte or lector in the Diocese of Lincoln, the man must be a “practicing Catholic.” There are other requirements, but for purposes of this column, I’ll focus on what it means to be a “practicing Catholic.”
In order to truly be a “practicing Catholic,” one must, at an absolute minimum, keep the five precepts of the Church. The five precepts are discussed in paragraph 2041 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: We must attend Mass on all Sundays and holy days of obligation, confess our sins at least once a year, receive Holy Communion at least once during the Easter season, observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence and provide for the material needs of the Church, according to our abilities.
Implied within the five precepts is the presumption that you accept the Church’s teachings as true and that you strive to observe the Ten commandments. However, you can’t just check these things off of a list and presume you are saved. Christ said: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.1
The precepts do not assure eternal salvation, they simply set forth the minimum behavior of a “practicing Catholic” and assist in the formation of a life which leads to faithful discipleship.
Accepting the Church’s teachings includes the theological teachings as well as the moral teachings of the Church. Therefore, one cannot advocate for abortion and remain a “practicing Catholic” any more than he can deny that the Eucharist is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ and claim to be a faithful Catholic.
Nor can a “practicing Catholic” embezzle from his employer, live an active homosexual lifestyle, promote the ordination of women, worship false gods, openly support same-sex “marriage,” promote euthanasia, or be a member of an organization which actively plots to destroy the Church.
All of these things, and other persistence in grave sin, renders one a lapsed or dissident Catholic. Without repentance and the sacrament of reconciliation, the person cannot be considered a “practicing Catholic.”
This may bring up a few questions:
Can’t a person just go to confession once a year in order to receive the Eucharist during the Easter season, then go back to their disordered lifestyle or beliefs?
No. If a person goes to confession without sorrow for their sins or without the intention of changing their belief or behavior, the confession would be invalid, and the person would come out of the confessional with all the sins with which he entered, plus a new mortal sin of sacrilege added on.2
Does a divorce render a man unable to serve as an acolyte or lector?
Not in many cases. However, it can if there are aggravating circumstances such as infidelity, abuse, abandonment, etc… on the part of the husband. Additionally, if a man were to divorce his wife and then enter into a second marriage without receiving an annulment of his first marriage, it would render him unable to serve in a ministry, as well as keeping him from receiving the Eucharist.
Does an acolyte or lector need to be holier than other lay Catholics?
No. An acolyte or lector is not required to be sinless, extra holy, or a saint. However, no Catholic can be unrepentant or in open defiance of the teachings of the Church regarding faith and morals and be considered a faithful or “practicing Catholic.”
While no one expects anyone to be sinless at all times, it is a different matter to be openly unrepentant or habitually sinful. These are serious considerations for all Catholics, but it is even more serious for ministers because of their visibility during Mass.
All Catholics, including acolytes and lectors, must take intentional steps, on a continuing basis, to grow deeper in faith and thereby live a life of intentional discipleship. However, this is even more important with clergy as well as Catholics in more visible roles within the Church because hypocrisy is a faith-killer. The Church needs to avoid the scandal which often results when any Catholic speaks or behaves in a sinful way, or a way which shows open dissent with any teachings or disciplines of the Church.
Because of the embrace of moral relativism and the decline of Christianity in the U.S.A., it is essential to avoid hypocrisy and scandal by members of the Body of Christ. There has to be a clear distinction between the Church’s teachings and the culture’s practices in a time like this. Unfaithful Catholics provide others no reason to belong to the Church. As a result, people are divided from Christ. The unfaithfulness of some Christians is one of the main reasons why fewer and fewer people are practicing their faith today.
The precepts assist in leading to a prayer life, continued growth in knowledge about the Catholic faith, and intentional discipleship. Through discipleship, we attract others to Christ and the Church, instead of serving as sources of division.
1. Matthew 16:24