Can and do lay people exercise authentic ministry in the Catholic Church? Years ago, the answer to this seemed to be a no-brainer. In some quarters, and in recent years, a certain retrenchment has attempted to swing the Church back to an understanding that ordained clergy properly minister, and lay people volunteer, assist, or support clerical ministry. While there are some aspects of lay ministry that should be examined carefully, you will rightly assume I think total retrenchment is pretty much a crock, to use a theological term.
Ministry is service, as elucidated by the Lord in John 13. The bishops have elsewhere defined ministry rooted in the initiation sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist) and as service “within the Communion of the Church (that) serves the mission of Christ in the Spirit.” We have a multivalent definition that alludes to the sacraments, the Trinity, and the salvific mission of Christ. That pretty much covers liturgy.
I think there are some clergy who perform acts without the sacrifice and posture of service Jesus mandated. I also think many lay people exercise genuine ministry beyond the structure and duties of Holy Orders. The USCCB document Sing to the Lord would seem to concur. The bishops aren’t timid about referring to lay people as ministers in context of the proclamation of the Word, the distribution of Communion, and especially in chapter II, part E in the numbered sections 28 through 47. These sections describe in more detail the ministries of choir, psalmist, cantor, instrumentalists, and music director.
My talk last month at the Loras College Liturgical Music Conference focused on the role of the choir, so I’ll offer my challenges and affirmations to the ministry of the choir (SttL 28-33). Consider it a checklist of sorts to see if your choir is performing music, or is engaged in an authentic ministry. On the surface, sometimes these things look the same, and also there are some choirs in which side by side, people are engaging in two entirely different activities, some ministry and others something else.
1. Does the choir minimize the musical participation of the faithful? (SttL 28)
2. Does the choir commit to rehearsals and to an established schedule of liturgies? (SttL 28)
3. Is the choir capable of singing in dialogue with the assembly? (SttL 29)
4. When the choir sings alone, do they express the faith of the assembly, the faith of the culture and period from which they draw their music, and afaith in harmony with the other liturgical texts of the liturgy? (SttL 30)
5. When not exercising its role, does the choir participate as part of the liturgical assembly, expressive of the faith of a worshipping group? (SttL 31-32)
The ultimate benchmark of ministry is not only service, as the bishops describe in SttL 32, but also sacrifice as Christ’s example shows. Among the choirs I’ve known, sung with, directed, or worked with over the years:
1. One group sang five funerals in four days. Three times in five years I directed them.
2. A handful of choir members, after singing Christmas Midnight or Easter Vigil, returned to bolster another group the following morning. That’s happened in more than one parish.
3. I’ve known people who lacked talent of other groups but their commitment to prayer and rehearsal was evident to the assembly who knew “something” was missing when a more skilled, but less spiritual group provided music.
4. I’ve had many groups who have a long practice of kneeling and sitting when they are “attending” parts of the liturgy as the assembly.
5. At rehearsals , some groups pray the texts of anthems, new pieces, and even congregational songs they know well.
If I were to assess whether a choir served as a ministry in a faith community I would offer these observations, questions, and challenges. Ministry is not determined by one’s ordained state, but by the degree one absorbs the example of Christ and his mission. Perhaps readers have other standards to offer?