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Physician, Heal Thyself

by Christopher A. Ferrara

One of the greatest problems in the Church today is the loss of priestly identity due to the growing profusion of lay "ministries" in the Mass. Thanks to the liturgical "reforms" which followed Vatican II, lay men and lay women distribute the Body and Blood of Christ with their unconsecrated hands, read the Scriptures to the congregation, and even conduct Eucharistic "services" in the absence of a priest. And, in perhaps the greatest confusion of roles, young girls now serve the priest at the altar of God, giving rise to the false perception that women could someday assume the role of the priest himself.

Of course, every one of these innovations has been approved by the Vatican, even though they would have horrified any Pope before 1960. Now, once again, the Vatican issues a document in an effort to correct a situation the Vatican’s own policies have engendered. Zenit.org reported on August 29, 2001 that Cardinal Sodano has published a letter he sent to an Italian liturgical congress. In the letter Sodano speaks of "The need to avoid both the ‘clericalization’ of the laity and the ‘secularization’ of priests." But the Zenit report and the original Italian text of the letter demonstrate that the attempted cure only perpetuates the disease.

First of all, the Sodano letter states that "thanks to the work of the Second Vatican Council, ‘the laity have a clearer awareness of their vocation,’ which has led to their more ‘active participation in the liturgy.’" So, according to Sodano, it was not until Vatican II – nearly two thousand years after the Ascension of Our Lord – that the Church finally gave the laity a "clearer awareness" of their vocation and allowed them a truly "active" participation in the Mass. That’s an implicit indictment of the entire pre-conciliar history of the Church.

At the same time, says Sodano, "the magisterium has also emphasized the importance of ‘safeguarding and defending the very identity of priests.’" All well and good. But has it not occurred to the Vatican bureaucracy that the proliferation of unprecedented lay "ministries" is the very reason the identity of the priest now needs to be defended? Apparently not. The very title of Sodano’s letter is: "The Laity in the Liturgy: What Is Their Ministry?" In other words, the letter perpetuates the notion that lay people have "ministries" during Holy Mass, and the further notion that the Church is engaged in a more or less continuous process of searching out the nature of these "ministries." There is no question that these newly discovered lay "ministries" will continue.

Thus, for example, Sodano states that where a priest is unavailable, the laity in a given parish should "meet in assembly around the Word of God under the guidance of an authorized lay minister." But before Vatican II – that is, for the first 1,962 years of Church history – such authorized "lay ministries" did not exist, and it was unthinkable that a layman or laywoman could conduct "an assembly around the word of God" in a Catholic parish.

Sodano goes on to warn that "There must be no confusion between the royal priesthood of believers and the ministerial priesthood." But the very notion of two "priesthoods", the lay priesthood and the "ministerial" priesthood, is at the very heart of the confusion. Indeed, while decrying the confusion between the lay and the "ministerial" priesthood, Sodano adds to the confusion by referring to lay ministers: "[T]he participants in the Liturgical Week [should] study further the theological, liturgical, juridical and pastoral implications proper to the ministries entrusted to the laity."

Is it not obvious that the first step toward eliminating the confusion between the priesthood of the laity and the "ministerial" priesthood is to cease calling lay people priests and ministers and to return to the classic distinction between laity and priests? The next step would be to abolish all the previously unheard-of lay "ministries" of the "royal priesthood of the laity" which, in the post-conciliar era, have diminished the role of the priest, reducing him (at least in appearance) to a mere presider over a group of "ministers" who swarm all over the sanctuary during Holy Mass. Once the pestiferous swarms of lay "ministers" are banished from our parishes, will not the priesthood begin to regain its attractive mystery? Can we not then expect to see the number of vocations begin to rise to the levels that were seen before lay people discovered their liturgical "ministries"?

Surely it is no coincidence that today the only orders of priests which are turning away prospective candidates for the priesthood for lack of space are those which adhere to the traditional Latin liturgy, in which there are no lay "ministries" but rather an adherence to the traditional liturgical role of the laity: to unite spiritually with the priest, in reverent silence, as he offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Surely it is no coincidence that there are few or no vocations throughout the rest of the Church, where ordination leads to a priesthood surrounded by a perpetual plague of lay "ministers."

So, to the members of the Vatican apparatus who have presided over the current confusion in liturgical roles between the "priesthood of the laity" and "the ministerial priesthood," this member of the laity, speaking from the trenches of the liturgical disaster area which is North America, must say with all due respect: Physician, heal thyself.