4 Ways Lay People Can Be Part Of The Catholic Mass

by Evangelization, Mass

Lay Liturgical Ministries in the Ordinary Form of the Latin Rite, there are a few lay liturgical ministries that are worth examining in detail. There has been a great deal of confusion in the past decades about some of these ministries. This article will not likely dispense that confusion, but I hope we get a bit closer to understanding the heart of the Church. The four ministries I want to examine are: ushers, readers, altar servers, and extraordinary ministers of holy communion. 

What are Hospitality Ministers/Ushers?

Prior to the reforms of Pope Paul VI, one of the minor orders before becoming a deacon was the role of Porter, or doorkeeper. It was less of a spiritual role and more of a practical one. The Porter would open the door of the church before Mass and lock the church after Mass. In one document, at the end of the fourth century, we hear that deacons and subdeacons would guard the doors of the church during Mass. Rather, the doorkeeper exercised his duties before and after liturgy. 

Along with the doorkeeper, there were those who were chosen to greet people as they entered or exited the church and to help with the collection at the offertory. These ushers have become a mainstay in the Catholic Church.

In fact, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal speaks of “Those who take up the collection in the church (GIRM, 105.c)” as those who “exercise a liturgical function.” In other words, the collection itself is a liturgical action. We are offering, to the best of our means, for the temporal needs of the Church and of the poor when we tithe. Therefore, those who facilitate in this collection are participating directly in a liturgical function.

Helpful Attitudes of a Catholic Hospitality Minister

It is helpful for hospitality ministers and ushers to look their best. Wearing the right attire sets the visible sign that you are someone willing to assist and answer questions before and after Mass. This ministry is also the first line of effort in helping all who enter to feel welcome. Make sure to smile, be joyful, and be on the lookout for new members of the community. During distribution of Holy Communion, look for those who may need assistance in getting up to the altar rail or having a minister of Holy Communion come to him or her. At the end of Mass, be kind as people exit, tell them how glad you are that they were there, and tell them that you look forward to seeing them next Sunday. Also, be on the lookout for those who look like they may have questions.

What are Readers?

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says, “In the absence of an instituted lector, other laypersons may be commissioned to proclaim the readings from Sacred Scripture. They should be truly suited to perform this function and should receive careful preparation, so that the faithful by listening to the readings from the sacred texts may develop in their hearts a warm and living love for Sacred Scripture (GIRM, 101).”

The Reader is performing the liturgical function of proclaiming the written Word of God at Mass, during the Liturgy of the Word. The Word of God is Jesus Christ and it is He who speaks through Sacred Scripture. It is He who speaks through the human faculties of the Lector or Reader. 

Helpful Attitudes of a Reader

The most important thing to keep in mind is that the word that the Reader speaks is not merely literature and it is not their own word. Therefore, the Reader would do well to meditate on the reality that, in the Mass, Jesus Christ our one High Priest is using them as a willing instrument to enlighten minds, move hearts, and transform souls. If we get nervous about this responsibility, we need only remember that God does not call the equipped, He equips the called. If we are willing and we do our part to speak slowly, project, and practice beforehand, the Holy Spirit will do the rest. Practicing the reading at home and arriving early for Mass is important. 

What are Altar Servers?

“In the absence of an instituted acolyte, lay ministers may be deputed to serve at the altar and assist the priest and the deacon; they may carry the cross, the candles, the thurible, the bread, the wine, and the water, and they may also be deputed to distribute Holy Communion as extraordinary ministers (GIRM, 100).”

As with the instituted lector, the instituted acolyte is the second remaining minor order before becoming a deacon. Often times, altar servers are not instituted acolytes, but they fulfill many of the same responsibilities. They carry things in the procession, they bring the book to the Priest or Deacon as needed, and they sit in the sanctuary during the Holy Mass. Altar servers help bring the Priest what he needs when he needs it. The altar server also occasionally will use incense in a thurible. 

At larger liturgies, especially at a cathedral, it is desirable also to have an M.C. or Master of Ceremonies. They are similar to the “queen” on the chess board; they can move around as needed in the nave or the sanctuary and they help ensure that the liturgy is flowing as it should and that the altar servers are fulfilling their duties well. 

Often times, altar servers will wear a cassock and a surplice, which is the attire of a priest or a seminarian. This is to show the historical reality that the ministry of altar server is meant to be an apprenticeship for the priesthood. This is the reason that traditionally only boys served as altar servers. Pope John Paul II changed this age-old discipline in the Latin Church by allowing for girls to serve at the altar, with the permission of the local bishop, when there is a legitimate pastoral reason. These pastoral reasons must be in line with Catholic tradition and ought not to diminish the importance of groups of altar boys for the development of priestly vocations. 

As the Congregation for Divine Worship wrote in 1994: “It will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue.”

Helpful Attitudes of an Altar Server

An altar server is highly visible. They set the tone, in many ways, during Mass and help set an air of reverence and solemnity. In the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite, the altar servers have many formulas and responses to learn in Latin. In the Ordinary Form, though it is not expressly mandated, the altar server should seek to fully, consciously, and actively participate in the liturgy, including in externally voicing the responses and taking part in chanting the ordinary parts of the Mass. 

The altar server must also seek to continually learn more and more about the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. They should know not only what to do, but why that action is done, or why a specific sacred object is used.

What are Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion?

There are only two Eucharistic Ministers in the Catholic Church: bishops and priests. Only bishops and priests can transubstantiate the Eucharist. They are literally ministering the Eucharist and offering the Holy Mass by their consecrated hands. 

Next, we can add deacons to the list. Deacons, priests, and bishops are Ordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. By virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, at all three levels of that one sacrament, an ordained man can distribute Holy Communion ordinarily (which means by nature of their position and their orders). 

The next level is an extra-ordinary minister of Holy Communion. The Church has taught that this belongs first to the formally instituted acolyte (formerly a “minor order” of the Church). Then, according to diocese policy and only case of necessity, other lay persons can be appointed on a temporary basis as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.

The Church teaches, “If there is usually present a sufficient number of sacred ministers for the distribution of Holy Communion, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion may not be appointed (IRS, 157).” 

In fact, “the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only… when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged. This, however, is to be understood in such a way that a brief prolongation, considering the circumstances and culture of the place, is not at all a sufficient reason (IRS, 158).” 

This can all be read about in the Church’s document, “Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum,” particularly paragraphs 154 – 160. So, why am I bringing this up? Well, if you are reading what I wrote, then it should be clear, without any controversy, that most parishes (at least in the United States) do not follow the mind of the Church on extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.

Helpful Attitudes of an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion

We have to remember that when the priest is asking us to assist him in distributing Holy Communion, we are stepping out of our lane and into his. We are not ordinary ministers of Holy Communion. In fact, it is ideal if only those who have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders distribute Holy Communion. 

In my opinion, the best disposition of one who is an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion is to understand that they are not properly-speaking an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. What I mean is that someone serves temporarily as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion in a very limited way and for a very limited time. Regardless of how many times they may serve in this capacity, they themselves are not properly-speaking any type of minister of Holy Communion. This is not to put anyone down. Rather it is to emphasize the proper role of an ordained minister.

If you routinely attend an Ordinary Form liturgy where it is possible that a priest may request that you distribute Holy Communion on Sunday, then you should dress in a way that diminishes yourself as much as possible. Often, this is just a matter of dressing in accord with the dignity of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This is simply because you would not want a communicant to be distracted by you or something you are wearing when you are distributing our Lord in the Eucharist. 

A Prayer Before Mass For All Liturgical Ministries

For all liturgical ministries, or for anyone before Mass, I would recommend the following prayer by St. Thomas Aquinas:

Almighty and ever-living God, I approach the sacrament of Your only-begotten Son Our Lord Jesus Christ, I come sick to the doctor of life, unclean to the fountain of mercy, blind to the radiance of eternal light, and poor and needy to the Lord of heaven and earth. Lord, in your great generosity, heal my sickness, wash away my defilement, enlighten my blindness, enrich my poverty, and clothe my nakedness. May I receive the bread of angels, the King of kings and Lord of lords, with humble reverence, with the purity and faith, the repentance and love, and the determined purpose that will help to bring me to salvation. May I receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood, and its reality and power.

Kind God, may I receive the Body of Your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, born from the womb of the Virgin Mary, and so be received into His mystical body and numbered among His members.

Loving Father, as on my earthly pilgrimage I now receive Your beloved Son under the veil of a sacrament, may I one day see him face to face in glory, who lives and reigns with You for ever.


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