Perhaps Another Minor Ministry

When St. Paul VI dissolved the minor orders for the Latin Church and instituted a ecclesiastical reality called “minor ministries” of acolyte and lector, he wanted laymen only to assume these ministries of the liturgy in a more institutional way by a bishop conferring them within a ritual. It was, for the most part, ignored by dioceses which felt comfortable with keeping extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and reader, and could be given to women. Then, some decades later, St. John Paul II, allowed girls to become servers at the Mass as long as a pastor was willing to have them. Now the barrier of “men only” has been overturned by Pope Francis based on some theological reasons below in this article. Then, he established a new minor ministry for catechists that for centuries kept the faith alive primarily in the missions and somewhat in the Western world as well. I will outline in this article some reasons for this new development. Finally, I will propose that there is a ministry even more important, if not essential, than being a reader or minister of the Eucharist, and that it too should be established as a minor ministry.

What were the Pope’s reasons for these changes?1 First, regarding the invitation of women to the minor ministries of lector and acolyte in his document of January 2021, Francis distinguishes the ordained ministry of the hierarchy from grace-charisms given to the people of God, which had become institutionalized and stable over the centuries, going back to the early Church. As he says,

Over the course of history, with the changing ecclesial, social and cultural situations, the exercise of ministries in the Catholic Church has taken on different forms, while the distinction, not only of degree, between “established” (or “lay”) ministries remains intact) and “ordained” ministries. The former are particular expressions of the priestly and royal condition proper to every baptized person (cf. 1 Pt 2:9).

He further clarifies a certain unity between the ordained and lay ministries, even though distinct:

Ecclesial life is nourished by this mutual reference and is nourished by the fruitful tension of these two poles of the priesthood, ministerial and baptismal, which, despite the distinction, are rooted in the one priesthood of Christ.

He explains that the nature of minor ministries is not simply the result of cultural changes:

Furthermore, the variation in the forms of exercise of non-ordained ministries is not the simple consequence, on the sociological level, of the desire to adapt to the sensitivity or culture of the epochs and places but is determined by the need to allow each local/particular Church, in communion with all the others and having the Church in Rome as the center of unity, to live the liturgical action, the service to the poor and the proclamation of the Gospel in fidelity to the mandate of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the task of the Church’s Pastors to recognize the gifts of each baptized person, to direct them also towards specific ministries, to promote and coordinate them, so that they contribute to the good of the communities and to the mission entrusted to all the disciples.

There are two more key ideas, “reciprocity and coresponsibility” in theological development of doctrine, that is, the ordained and the baptized are mutually ordered to one another. Including women in the minor ministries is reasonable because both sexes receive the same baptismal call and charisms and the minor ministries as such are not shares in the hierarchical ordering of those with Holy Orders. As Francis says:

Offering lay people of both sexes the possibility of accessing the ministry of the Acolyte and of the Lectorate, by virtue of their participation in the baptismal priesthood, will increase the recognition, also through a liturgical act (institution), of the precious contribution that for some time so many lay people, also women, they offer to the life and mission of the Church.

Another argument continues for this change based on evangelical responsibility of both sexes in this area of Church life, not simply men:

The choice of conferring these offices on women too, which entail stability, public recognition and mandate from the bishop, makes the participation of all in the work of evangelization more effective in the Church. “This also ensures that women have a real and effective impact in the organization, in the most important decisions and in the leadership of communities but without stopping to do so with the style of their feminine imprint” (Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Carita Amazonia , no. 103). The “baptismal priesthood” and “community service” thus represent the two pillars on which the institution of ministries is founded.

Second, in May 2021, Pope Francis established a new ministry called the ministry of catechist in the document “Antiquum Ministerium,” or Instituting the Ministry of Catechist. He begins by reminding the reader that charisms are given by God to both sexes. Further, he asserts that catechists of women and men, especially where there was a lack of priests, not only taught catechism to the faithful but even died as martyrs for the faith. Next he writes in paragraph 5, about the importance of the catechist in the life of the Church, without denying the different roles of the ordained and even married couples in teaching the faith to children:

Without prejudice to the Bishop’s mission as the primary catechist in his Diocese, one which he shares with his presbyterate, or to the particular responsibility of parents for the Christian formation of their children (cf. CAC can. 774 §2; CEO can. 618), 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 (cf. CAC can. 225; CEO cans. 401 and 406). 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 (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelic Gaudium, 163–168), and the rise of a globalized culture (cf. Encyclical Letter Fratellil Tutti, 100, 138). This requires genuine interaction with young people, to say nothing of the need for creative methodologies and resources capable of adapting the proclamation of the Gospel to the missionary transformation that the Church has undertaken. Fidelity to the past and responsibility for the present are necessary conditions for the Church to carry out her mission in the world.

So far in both documents, the Holy Father has brought out the notion that both the hierarchical priesthood and charismatic side of the Church are coessential (an idea taught by St. John Paul II). The two charisms (lector and acolyte) are related to the divine worship, the other ordered to educating someone in the faith.

Therefore I would suggest that it would be reasonable that another minor ministry become established in the Church, pertaining to the liturgy, namely, the minister of music, which according to the Second Vatican Council is exceedingly important:

112. The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.

Holy Scripture, indeed, has bestowed praise upon sacred song [42], and the same may be said of the fathers of the Church and of the Roman pontiffs who in recent times, led by St. Pius X, have explained more precisely the ministerial function supplied by sacred music in the service of the Lord.

Therefore, sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites. But the Church approves of all forms of true art having the needed qualities, and admits them into divine worship.

Since the liturgical musician is deeply involved in the ministerial function of the liturgy, it seems fitting that he too become recognized publicly by receiving this minor ministry from the bishop, as was done in the early Middle Ages.2 Just as the three minor ministries require formation before receiving them, even more so sacred musicians would require the same. As it stands now, organists, singers, and those playing other musical instruments for the Mass receive no theological training on their role as liturgical musicians. As a consequence, anyone with natural or trained musical talent can enter this apostolate easily. This has led to musicians being unable to distinguish what it means to play an instrument well musically from being able to lead people in prayerful music, which distinguishes liturgical music from a concert of sorts.

St. Thomas Aquinas has much to say about a liturgical musician’s gifts and deficits in answering the question, “Whether God should be praised with song?” he answers accordingly:

The praise of the voice is necessary in order to arouse man’s devotion towards God. Wherefore whatever is useful in conducing to this result is becomingly adopted in the divine praises. Now it is evident that the human soul is moved in various ways according to various melodies of sound, as the Philosopher state (Polit. viii, 5), and also Boethius (De Musica, prologue). Hence the use of music in the divine praises is a salutary institution, that the souls of the faint-hearted may be the more incited to devotion. Wherefore Augustine says (Confess. x, 33): “I am inclined to approve of the usage of singing in the church, that so by the delight of the ears the faint-hearted may rise to the feeling of devotion”: and he says of himself (Confess. ix, 6): “I wept in Thy hymns and canticles, touched to the quick by the voices of Thy sweet-attuned Church.”3

However, Aquinas is aware that music can derail devotion as well, in two answers to two objections:

ad 2 Jerome does not absolutely condemn singing, but reproves those who sing theatrically in church not in order to arouse devotion, but in order to show off, or to provoke pleasure. Hence Augustine says (Confess. x, 33): “When it befalls me to be more moved by the voice than by the words sung, I confess to have sinned penally, and then had rather not hear the singer.”

ad 5: The soul is distracted from that which is sung by a chant that is employed for the purpose of giving pleasure. But if the singer chant for the sake of devotion, he pays more attention to what he says, both because he lingers more thereon, and because, as Augustine remarks (Confess. x, 33), “each affection of our spirit, according to its variety, has its own appropriate measure in the voice, and singing, by some hidden correspondence wherewith it is stirred.” The same applies to the hearers, for even if some of them understand not what is sung, yet they understand why it is sung, namely, for God’s glory: and this is enough to arouse their devotion.

The word “devotion” in this context does not mean simply sweet feelings of consolation, though they may occur, but he is referring to a virtue called devotion:

Hence devotion is apparently nothing else but the will to give oneself readily to things concerning the service of God. Wherefore it is written (Ex. 35:20,21) that “the multitude of the children of Israel . . . offered first-fruits to the Lord with a most ready and devout mind.” Now it is evident that the will to do readily what concerns the service of God is a special kind of act. Therefore, devotion is a special act of the will.4

It is clear that the musicians for the liturgy have a heavy responsibility to make certain that they inspire prayer and devotion at Mass or any other liturgical action using music whose words are in conformity with the teaching of the Church’s doctrine to be found in the lyrics. Hence, establishing a minor ministry whereby the musician becomes a public witness of and recognition by the Church based on his talent and charism should enable bishops and priests alike to set up training programs that will form musicians on the teleology of their art when it comes to playing and accompanying prayer in the liturgy. As of now, many church choirs and musicians do not understand the importance of what and how they can and should do especially at the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass. While there are many prayerful choirs in the parishes, many more could become even more so, beacons of deep prayer and contemplation at the Mass.

  1. All of these documents can be downloaded from the Vatican Website:
  2. Kenan B. Osborne, O.F.M., Priesthood: A History of the Ordained Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church. (New York: Paulist, 1988). The Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua (late 5th century) gives a ninefold list of orders: “psalmist, porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte, subdeacon, deacon, presbyter, and finally bishop” (Osborne 198). Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636): the same list as the Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua except that porter came before psalmist (Osborne, 198). Gratian’s Decretals (Decreta/Decretum Gratiani) (c. 1150) (Osborne 198, and listed here): the same list as Isidore of Seville: “Porter, psalmist, . . .” General adoption by canonists: E.g., canonists in the thirteenth century held for the above-named 9 orders, in the order “psalmist, porter, . . .” (Ott, Le sacrement de l’ordre, 197). The psalmist here = receiving the tonsure (Ott, Le sacrement de l’ordre, 197).
  3. ST II–II, 91, 2.
  4. ST II–II 82, 1 ad 2 & ad 5.
Rev. Basil Cole, OP About Rev. Basil Cole, OP

Fr. Basil Cole, OP, is Ordinary Professor of Moral, Spiritual, and Dogmatic Theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. He has authored Music and Morals (Alba House, 1993) and co-authored with Paul Connor, OP, Christian Totality: Theology of Consecrated Life (St. Paul’s Editions, in Bombay, India 1990; revised in 1997, Alba House). He has written for The Priest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Reason and Faith, and Angelicum. He has also been a long-time collaborator for Germain Grisez’s four-volume series of moral theology, The Way of the Lord Jesus.


  1. Avatar William White says:

    As a member of a small Latin schola cantorum and a sometime cantor at English Masses, I am well aware of the temptation to sing for myself, to sing for the approval of the people, rather than for God. Since formal investiture in a minor ministry of sacred music would, as Fr. Cole states, entail “training programs that will form musicians on the teleology of their art,” such a formal ministry would surely lead to better, more reverent, less dramatic singing and playing and would be, for that reason alone, worthwhile.

  2. Thank you Fr Cole for your thoughts on the minor orders/ ministries. I have two considerations:
    1. The minor order/ ministry of Lector/Reader traditionally includes both catechesis and liturgical music in its responsibility. Both Catechist and Music Minister would seem redundant, if Lectors actually did what they are intended to do,

    2. The lowest of the Minor Orders, Porter, was, and remains, a humble foundation for all other ministries. The essential work of door keeper, janitor, custodian, bell ringer, bottle washer, sacristan, servant, … could easily be re-instituted with great profit to the Church. It would also be a permanent reminder to seminarians and priests that their higher grades of service is always rooted in the lowliest acts of service, where they began.