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Unity of the Church's Mission Involves Diversity of Ministries

by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger


The sixth in a series of Reflections on the Instruction regarding the collaboration of the lay faithful in the ministry of priests.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano



Publisher & Date

Vatican, April 29, 1998

Reflections on the Instruction regarding the collaboration of the lay faithful in the ministry of priests—6

Unity of the Church’s Mission Involves Diversity of Ministries

by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

In this short paper I would like to limit myself to outlining a few fundamental features, of a mainly disciplinary and pastoral character, concerning the principles and doctrinal points on which this Instruction is based, while taking into consideration the problems and facts as seen in everyday Church life.

I. However, it seems important to say at the outset that the essential doctrinal and pastoral answers to all these matters can already be found, keeping to the most recent papal documents, in John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici and in Pastores dabo vobis. The timeliness and urgent need of this Instruction is explained in the light of the situation occurring in specific and widespread ecclesial circles, which demands special insistence on the faithful application of the principles and norms contained in the teachings of the Magisterium and the Church's universal legislation in the concrete life of the particular Churches.

Considering the current situation in certain ecclesial areas, specifically North-Central Europe and also, in a different way, North America and Australia, and noting the risk that abuses in the lay faithful's participation in the sacred ministry of the ordained could also spread to other ecclesiastical regions, it seemed most timely and urgent to define clearly the various forms of assistance open to the lay faithful in the exercise of the priestly ministry.

This appears extremely important in order to avoid, on the one hand, an undervaluing of the ordained ministry and a falling into a "Protestantization" of the concepts of ministry and even of the Church herself, and, on the other, the risk of a "clericalization" of the laity.

II. The Instruction clarifies matters from both the doctrinal and the disciplinary standpoints, and while it condemns abuses and deviations in certain current practices, it shows the right way to a full appreciation of the lay vocation and mission of the faithful in the Church.

1. At least in some parts of the Western world, a progressive relativization of the priestly ministry is occurring. This is caused partly by a loss of the sense of the sacrament of Holy Orders, and by the growth of a type of parallel ministry among so-called "pastoral assistants or workers" who are addressed by the same titles as priests: pastors, ministers, and who, when exercising a leadership role in the community, wear liturgical vestments at celebrations and cannot be easily distinguished from priests. The clericalization of lay people who exercise this pastoral profession is a risk, as it makes the essential difference between the common and the ministerial priesthood invisible and almost incomprehensible. At the same time, a member of the lay faithful who, over a long period of time or over a lifetime, actually exercises the pastoral duties proper to a priest, with the exception of celebrating Mass and sacramental confession, is in fact no longer a true lay person and has lost his true identity in the life and mission of the Church. In fact, the tasks and functions of a "supplementary service" have frequently become tasks and functions belonging to a new type of "ministry" which overlaps that of priests.

2. It is therefore clear that the Instruction is not a limitation on the authentic and genuine promotion of lay participation in the evangelical and ecclesial apostolate, which, on the contrary, is strengthened and encouraged in the right direction consistent with Catholic ecclesiology. However —following what was said in the text of Christifideles laici—it intends to rebut and prevent "the tendency towards a 'clericalization' of the lay faithful, and the risk of creating, in reality, an ecclesial structure of parallel service to that founded on the sacrament of Orders" (Christifideles laici, n. 23, §6).

The doctrinal principle at the root of these concerns is the twofold affirmation of the unity of the Church's mission, in which all the baptized participate, and the essential difference of the ministry of pastors, rooted in the sacrament of Orders, with respect to the other ministries, offices and ecclesial functions that are rooted in the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.

III. The Instruction clearly distinguishes three types of tasks and services by which the lay faithful participate in the one mission of the Church:

1) tasks and services concerning the apostolate of the laity, that is, their specific way of making Christ present in temporal and civil structures;

2) tasks and services in the Church's various organizational structures which are entrusted to the laity by competent ecclesiastical authority;

3) tasks and services proper to sacred ministers but which are temporarily exercised in specific, serious circumstances, in practice because of the (it is hoped, temporary) shortage of priests and deacons, by lay persons who have received the juridical faculty or mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority. In this case, it is a question of the supplementary tasks mentioned above which do not intrinsically depend on the character of Sacred Orders.

The Instruction recognizes that in recent years the co-responsibility and participation of the faithful has increased in the realm of evangelization and catechesis, and in the conduct of liturgical celebrations. However, there is a desire to correct those tendencies that imply a relaxation of the observance of the canonical laws and norms and a doctrinal confusion which in fact suggests that the tasks of the laity and of priests are at more or less an equal level. This gives rise to a "functionalistic" conception of the ministry, which sees the ministry of "pastor" as a function and not as an ontological sacramental reality: "The exercise of such [temporary] tasks does not make Pastors of the lay faithful; in fact, a person is not a minister simply in performing a task, but through sacramental ordination" (Christifideles laici, n. 23, §3).

In addition, it is understood that the principles and norms recalled by the Instruction require that lay faithful who collaborate in the pastoral service of the ordained ministry received an adequate and coherent theological and pastoral formation. Precisely to avoid a functionalistic, pragmatic and utilitarian conception of ministry in the Church, it is essential to emphasize clearly the doctrine on the nature of the ministerial priesthood and on the unity and diversity of ministerial tasks in the service of building up the Body of Christ. The particular Churches and, in particular, their Bishops and priests, must take responsibility for giving their lay collaborators a careful doctrinal formation so that they can carry out these specific services with a profound "sensus Ecclesiae". At the same time they must feel the need to promote a vocations apostolate for the increase and growth of candidates for the ministerial priesthood.!!

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