A paper presented to the Catholic Lectors Association of Nigeria, Awka Diocese (CLANAD) at the Maiden Diocesan Seminar, 29 May 2021, at Archbishop A. K. Obiefuna Retreat, Pastoral, and Conference Centre, Okpuno
By Rev. Fr. Michael Muonwe
It is with great pleasure that I announce to you my delight standing before you this day to reflect on the place and significance of lectors in the Church. May I sincerely express my regards to the Catholic Bishop of Awka Diocese, Most Rev. Paulinus C. Ezeokafor, for his fatherly relationship and care for the lectors in Awka Diocese as shown in his approval of this seminar and presence today.
The liturgical sensitivity of the diocese is second to none, thanks to the efforts of His Lordship. I thank the chaplain of Awka Diocesan Lectors, Rev. Fr. Polycarp Okoye, whose pioneering doggedness has shaped the diocesan lectors to a desirable shape, hence this maiden edition of the diocesan seminar.
I also applaud the pioneer diocesan president, Mrs. Jacqueline James Obiakor and her officers for their vision concerning this association. Dear lectors, know that the church loves you and that your office is a dignified and indispensable one in the church. Keep focused and never lose sight of the goal, which is salus animarum (salvation of souls).
When the chaplain asked me to be a guest speaker in this seminar, I did not hesitate, even for a second, to give the request a nod. What are my reasons? First, he is one of the young priests in the diocese who is very hardworking and has a lot of prospects for the development of the diocese. So, for him to have found this seminar worth convoking, I thought, he must have done the background work and seen the possibility of it happening and the ways to make it yield abundant fruit in the hearts and minds of the diocesan lectors. Second, I am particularly interested in the way the word of God is proclaimed in the church during liturgy, and appreciate good readings whenever I hear them. Therefore, I would ordinarily want to be part of any programme that will promote better understanding of the demands of biblical texts proclaimed at worship and how to do them better for active and fruitful participation of the faithful.
Within the larger theme of the seminar, which is The Lectors’ Ministry: A Divine Mandate, the chaplain wanted me to reflect on the subtheme, Who Is a Lector?: An Enquiry into the Identity of Lectors in the Church. I reframed this topic to read, The Place and Significance of the Ministry of Lectors in the Church in order to place the identity and ministry of lectors within a larger ecclesiastical context and liturgical function. In order to understand who a lector is, his or her function, the place and significance of the ministry of lectors in the church, a full understanding of the word of God and its place within the liturgy should also be discussed. These are undertaken in this paper.
Who Is a Lector?
A lector is the minister who proclaims the word of God (apart from the Gospels specifically reserved for a deacon or a priest in the absence of a deacon) at mass and other liturgical ceremonies. A lector can be called a reader or a minister of the word. Apart from proclaiming the word of God, a lector may also lead the faithful in the Psalm when there is no cantor present or in the Prayers of the Faithful in the absence of a deacon The General Instruction of Roman Missal (GIRM), 99).
The word, lector, can be used either in the lose sense or in the strict sense. In the lose sense of the word, any lay minister who, in the absence of an instituted lector or for some other pastoral reason, is assigned to take the readings at mass automatically becomes a lector for that mass. The General Instruction of Roman Missal (GIRM, par. 101) notes, “In the absence of an instituted lector, other lay people may be deputed to proclaim the readings from Sacred Scripture” (cf. can. 230 #3). Strictly speaking, however, a lector is a minster who is specifically instituted to take the scriptural readings (apart from the Gospel) at mass and other liturgical celebrations. In this sense, the ministry assumes a stable character. Once instituted, a person becomes a lector, even when he is not reading in a mass which he or she attends. It is understood in this second sense that should it be the norm in all parishes, even though at funerals and weddings, other lay persons not so instituted can function as lectors for those specific celebrations, after which they cease to be one.
Before January 2021, the offices of the acolyte and the lector were technically reserved for males. Can. 230 par 1 says, “Lay men whose age and talents meet the requirements prescribed by decree of the Bishop’s Conference, can be given the stable ministry of lector and of acolyte”. However, in line with par 2 of the same canon, the diocesan bishop is at liberty to utilize the services of women as lectors on temporary basis, according to his own discretion. It is based on this opening in the code that many women have been serving in these capacities in our dioceses. It was only on 10 January 2021 that Pope Francis, with the apostolic letter, motu proprio, Spiritus Domini, changed this section of the canon law to officially allow women function in a stable manner as acolytes and lectors in the church. Pope Francis notes that these ministries are based on the common priesthood of the faithful which all Christians enjoy by virtue of their Baptism, and should therefore be available for both men and women.
Ministry of Lector and the Sacrament of Orders
Before Paul VI’s motu proprio, Minsteria Quadam, of 15 August 1972, the office of the lector was one of the minor orders received by candidates before their diaconate ordination. Others include acolyte, exorcist, and doorkeeper. Before the reception of these minor orders, the candidates received tonsure which 1917 Code of Canon Law specifies should only be received by theologians (can. ) preparing for the priesthood. This means that one becomes a lector only if he had the intention of becoming a priest and has reached a specified stage in his seminary training. With Minsteria Quadam, however, Pope Paul VI renamed the minor orders ministries. The offices of lector and acolyte are still retained today for the universal church. Besides, as 1983 code states, the office of the lector is now available to the laity, whether or not they are undergoing training for the priesthood.
In the Ministeria Quaedam, Paul VI provides the following requirements for admission into the ministry of lector: (1) a letter of request written and signed by intending candidate and addressed to the local ordinary who has the right to accept the request; (2) a suitable age and qualities to be specified by the episcopal conference; (3) a strong determination to offer faithful service to God and the Christian people (Paul VI, Ministeria quaedam VIII).
Lector as Proclaimer of the Word of God
The task of proclaiming the readings from the Sacred Scripture, with the exception of the Gospel, is the chief function of a lector during the liturgy (cf. GIRM, par. 59, 99). In other words, the lector brings the word of God to the people through proclamation, which is distinct from an ordinary act of reading. This proclamation is a form of service to the church, and should be done from the ambo. This proclamation character of lector’s work brings out the respect the Church gives to the word of God and the need for lectors to take their function very seriously.
The word of God occupies a special place in the church’s liturgy, because Christ is present in his word, and whenever the Sacred Scripture is read in the Church, it is God himself who speaks to his people through it (Vatican II, Sacrosanctum concilium, no. 7). When we realise that it is God himself who speaks, it will make us humble enough to dim our personality so that it does not block God’s presence with his people and that his words may arouse the needed faith in the congregation that listens to it, for faith, St. Paul reminds us, comes through hearing (Rom 10:17). It is God’s word and not ours. This is usually reaffirmed at the end of the readings with the expression, “The word of the Lord,” to which the people respond, “Thanks be to God,” showing their appreciation to God for making his word available to them in the sacred liturgy. Pope John Paul II, in his Post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum caritatis (2007, no. 45) maintains that in the liturgy, it is the word made flesh (Jn 1:14) that is proclaimed and it is him that we listen to and should accept. He does not speak to us in the past but in the present, in our midst as we celebrate the liturgy.
A lector must proclaim the word with clarity, confidence, with suitable pace, eye contact, and some bit of silence where necessary. According to the GIRM, “The Liturgy of the Word is to be celebrated in such a way as to favour meditation, and so any kind of haste such as hinders recollection is clearly to be avoided. In the course of it, brief periods of silence are also appropriate, accommodated to the assembled congregation; by means of these, under the action of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God may be grasped by the heart and a response through prayer may be prepared. It may be appropriate to observe such periods of silence, for example, before the Liturgy of the Word itself begins, after the First and Second Reading, and lastly at the conclusion of the Homily” (GIRM, no. 56)
Requirements and Preparations for the Ministry of Lectors
The GIRM (cf. 101) provides two basic requirements for lectors: a) they are to be truly suited to perform this function; b) they should receive careful preparation.
Among those qualities that make one suited for the function of lector include faith, conviction, knowledge of the liturgy and the demands of effective liturgical celebration, as well as humility.
The Corpus Christi Parish, Phoenix, enumerates the requirements for lectors in their parish as follows:
ØBe practicing Catholics, distinguished in their Christian life, faith and morals.
ØMust attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation and rest on those days from unnecessary servile labour.
ØMust confess sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation regularly (monthly if possible!)
ØMust receive Holy Communion regularly (daily Mass when possible).
ØMust observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.
ØMust provide for the material needs of the Church.
ØMust observe the marriage laws of the Church (Be married in the Catholic Church).
ØIf married outside the Catholic Church or if single, no cohabitation or sexual activity. ØMust participate in the Church’s primary mission, which is evangelization.
ØBe at least 16 years old (or selected by catechists for family Masses)
ØHave received the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist
ØDemonstrate a deep reverence for and devotion to holy Scripture
ØPossess the requisite abilities and temperament to carry out their assigned duties
ØParticipate in Practical training of Proclamation and opportunity for practice and critique
ØComplete Safe Environment training annually (https://corpuschristiphx.org/ministry-lectors)
These requirements can as well be applicable for any lector in any parish. They are requirements that meet any standard for such an important ministry in the life of the church.
Because of the centrality of the liturgy in the life of the church, and the word of God in the liturgy, there is need for effective training and preparation for lectors. On no account should anyone be officially admitted into the ministry of lector in the church without undergoing proper training. The General Introduction to the Lectionary (par. 52), as well as Vat. II’s Sacosanctum Concilium emphasize this.
The essential aspects of the training include:
(1) Understanding the nature and structure of the liturgy in general: Here, emphasis should be laid on the meaning of the liturgy as re-enactment of the Calvary event and our participation in it. The person should understand the significance and the connection between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which are two essential parts of the Mass, and which together constitute “one whole act of worship” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 56).
(2) They should learn the significance of their ministry in the church and the essential place it occupies in the liturgy, especially with regard to the word of God.
(3) Adequate appreciation and knowledge of the scripture and its spirituality (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 24). Pope Francis has actually urged all the faithful to get acquainted with the scripture, with the realization that it is not meant for a select few but is the people’s book. The practical reason for having the knowledge of the scripture for a lector is that it is from the scripture that both the daily and Sunday readings are taken. So, to understand fully some of the readings, one needs to be familiar with the whole chapter from where it is taken or even the whole book. One who is acquainted with the scripture may not have problems grasping the meaning of any extract therefrom. He or she will find it easier understanding the contexts of the readings (cf. Handbook for Readers at Mass, p. 8).
(4) Learning to pray with the scripture is very important. By meditating on the biblical text that he or she is about to proclaim in the church, a lector becomes challenged by the word of God and better appreciates it.
(5) The training should incorporate the skills needed for public reading, which include tone, pace, eye contact, proper and clear pronunciation of words, etc. Concerning the pronunciation of texts in the church, the GIRM says, “In texts that are to be pronounced in a loud and clear voice… the voice should correspond to the genre of the text itself, that is, depending upon whether it is a reading, a prayer, an explanatory comment, an acclamation, or a sung text; it should also be suited to the form of celebration and to the solemnity of the gathering. Consideration should also be given to the characteristics of different languages and of the culture of different peoples” (GIRM, no. 38).
(6) Immediate preparations for lectors prior to any liturgical celebration in which they participate include taking time to go through the scriptural text for the day, master it, and learn how to pronounce difficult words therein. There is nothing as embarrassing as taking a reading without proper practice. It muddles up the liturgy and distracts people’s attention at mass. A lector should arrive on time, locate and mark the readings properly in the lectionary, make sure the microphone and the sound system are all working properly.
(7) Spiritual preparation is also needed. A lector should be someone who participates actively in the liturgy of the church and who wants to grow deeper in his or her knowledge of God and his church. Proclamation of the word of God should be seen by him or her as a way of deepening his or her spirituality. That is why training on how to pray scriptural texts is considered crucial.
A Detailed Liturgical Functions of a Lector
The function of the lectors begins from the introductory rites which starts from the procession of the minsters and the priest to the altar. During the procession, the lector should wear his or her appropriate attire, and may carry the Book of the Gospels slightly elevated, in the absence of a deacon. He should walk in front of the priest or alongside other ministers and on reaching the altar, makes a profound bow with other ministers. If he or she is carrying the Book of the Gospels, the lector places it on the altar and takes his or her place with other ministers in the sanctuary (GIRM 194-195).
The Liturgy of the Word
The liturgy of the word comprises the first and second readings, the psalms, the Gospel, the homily, the Credo, and the prayers of the faithful.
(1) It is the function of the lector to take the readings that precede the Gospel. This should be done from the ambo (GIRM, 196). Whenever more than one reading is to be taken, it is better they are assigned to different readers once they are available (GIRM 52).
(2) If no cantor is present, he or she also takes the psalms that follow the first reading (GIRM 196).
(3) If no deacon is present, the lector may also announce the intentions of the prayers of the faithful from the ambo. The introduction and conclusion of the prayer is done by the priest (GIRM 197).
(4) If no singing was done at the entrance or at communion and the entrance and communion antiphons in the Missal are not recited by the faithful, the lector may read them (cf. nos. 48, 87) (198).
The Concluding Rites
At the end of the Mass, the lector does not recede with the Book of the Gospels, even if he or she carried it in the entrance procession. Further, the Lectionary is never carried in procession. The lector may join in the procession at the end of Mass in the same order as in the procession to the altar.
Other functions of the lector as contained in Paul VI’s Ministeria Quaedam include:
(1) May direct the singing and the participation of the faithful.
(2) May instruct and prepare the faithful for the worthy reception of the sacraments
(3) May instruct and prepare the faithful who by a temporary appointment are to read the Scriptures in liturgical celebrations (Ministeria Quaedam V).
The ministry of lector is very important in the church’s liturgy and in the general life of the church. The formation they receive and the work they do make for active participation of the faithful in the mysteries being celebrated in the liturgy. Their practical witness outside the liturgy also help to enliven the faith of the people. It is a position that demands a lot of sacrifices and devotion, holiness of life, and active involvement in the life of the church. As proclaimers of the word of God in the liturgy, they should endeavour to live in accordance with the word they proclaim for their own sanctification, salvation, and the growth of the body of Christ.
Rev Fr Michael Muonwe is a lecturer, Department of Religion and Human Relations, Faculty of Arts, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka and the Assistant Secretary of Ekwulobia Diocesan Presbyterium.