Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Lay Readers and Liturgical Politics

Ugh. I've been having to sit through some awful readings at daily Mass and it's got me thinking...do we really need lay readers?

In the Old Rite, at a Low Mass with no deacon and subdeacon, the priest simply did the readings himself. In the New Mass, on the other hand, though the Gospel is still reserved for a cleric (deacon or priest), it seems some lay person has to come up and do the readings for some reason, in their lay clothes (they don't even have one of the vested servers do it), and often it's a woman.


Of course, this goes against the traditional understanding that only clerics were "public pray-ers" strictly speaking, and that even if lay substitutes had to be used, they were substitutes for clerics. Clerics preformed liturgy because only they were appointed as public liturgical actors, as it were.

Of course, there used to be many more clerics. Even up until after Trent, married men could be in the Minor Orders at least, which encompassed a lot of the "ministries" we see lay people doing today during Mass. They had real Porters instead of ushers, real Lectors instead of readers, real Acolytes instead of altar servers.

Catholic Encyclopedia explains:
Clerics in minor orders enjoy all ecclesiastical privileges. They may be nominated to all benefices not major, but must receive within a year the major orders necessary for certain benefices. On the other hand, they are not bound to celibacy, and may lawfully marry. Marriage, however, causes them at once to forfeit every benefice. Formerly it did not exclude them from the ranks of the clergy, and they retained all clerical privileges, provided they contracted only one marriage and that with a virgin, and wore clerical costume and the tonsure (c.unic., "de cler. conjug." in VI); they might even be appointed to the service of a church by the bishop (Conc. Trid., Sess. XXIII, c. vi). This earlier discipline, however, is no longer in accordance with modern custom and law. A minor cleric who marries is regarded as having forfeited his clerical privileges.
Gradually, and I think unfortunately, this "bridge" between the higher clergy and the laity came to collapse under the logic of mandatory celibacy and the clergy-as-a-caste-apart seminary model, and they were reduced to mere rites of passage within seminary.

But even Trent imagined that there could be married clerics in minor orders serving the liturgy in parishes. And even after that practice was ended, it was certainly always the case that the men chosen (though they came to always be single men) were not bound by celibacy until major orders, and could always leave to marry at any time (they just lost the clerical state when they did).

Under the Novus Ordo, though, I think all of this liturgical logic has been lost. Instead, even when it's just for one reading and the responsorial psalm at daily Mass...the priest almost never does the reading. Some lay person seemingly has to come up into the sanctuary, in their lay clothes, possibly even a woman, and read it.

The insistence usually seems to come from some idea that if the priest just appropriated the role for himself, then he would be limiting the opportunities for "participation" on the part of the people. And at Sunday Masses especially (with readers, altar servers, EMHC's, having lay people bring up the gifts at the Offertory, etc) they seem to act like the liturgy is some sort of audience-participation game-show where getting as many people involved as possible is ideal. The priest just doing the readings himself would be "exclusivist" or something like that...

But, of course, 98% of the congregation is still not involved "actively" like that. They can't be. There's only going to be one reader, a few servers, a couple people carrying up the gifts, a handful of EMHC's. So in some ways it is just as "exclusive" as ever; it's just exclusive to a privileged group of goody-two-shoes volunteers, a self-selected group, rather than to just clerics.

The justification given, then, is usually that the lay participants in the sanctuary "represent" the rest of us, and that we will feel like we are participating through them, that we will identify with them.

Of course, this is ironically indicative of an extremely entrenched clericalism. Because it implies that we in the pews couldn't possibly identify with the priest. Oh no, he couldn't possibly adequately represent the congregation in the sanctuary, so we need to have some plebeian tribune up there to represent "our" interests, to be the laity's proxy in the liturgy.

But of course, that's all "clergy" are in the end. That's what priests are: simply members of the church appointed to act as the representative of the congregation before God in the sanctuary, just as Christ was the mediator between God and Man. This idea that lay people need to see another lay person in the sanctuary to identify with in their participation, instead of identifying in participation with the priest himself, stems from an essentialization of the clergy as objectively different than the laity in caste, rather than as being defined precisely as simply the community's representative in the sanctuary.

And even when the priest is taking the role of the Other during liturgy (ie, in persona christi)...the Eastern churches, at least, then use the deacon as the symbolic mediator between him and the congregation (like the Church is between us and Christ), as the congregation's proxy or point of identification. Not some random unvested lay person (and certainly not a woman) waltzing up there and inserting the profane and secular into the sacred.


Of course, this sort of essentialization and thus class-conflict also happened to monarchies after absolutism. Whereas medievally the monarch was the conceived of as the embodiment of the nation, of all the people, the head of the body politic, later there was an alienation between the ruler and the governed, and so an additional Prime Minister was required to "really" represent the citizenry in a populist sense, "against" the interests of the king or whatever, as if they were opposed or in conflict.

But, of course, eventually the Prime Minister himself just essentially becomes the new ruler (just one drawn from the new ruling class: the ascendant middle class). And so then someday, the new lower class will start thinking you need yet another figure (drawn from their class) to act as tribune for them.


So I wouldn't be surprised if someday we see the idea develop that the elite of lay liturgical-volunteers have developed into a new ecclesiastical ruling class in the parish (allied at last with the marginalized old clergy), and are thus "resented" by the "real" congregation who will then need to, again, have appointed a "real representative" of themselves in the sanctuary. And this process would continue ad infinitum in constant revolution!

This sort of caste division based on liturgical role is not a healthy political dynamic for the Church, yet it's existed as the determining factor structuring the Church's institutional organization for a long time (going back to Constantine probably). And in the Novus Ordo we are seeing the final outcome of it: with the priest reduced increasingly to a monarchical figurehead cast as opposed to "the people" while a cabal of bourgeois lay volunteers take more and more of the roles "for us" and develop into simply a new liturgical ruling class.

9 comments:

Robert said...

Would it be possible for a parish priest to preform the institutions for the minor orders on those lay men who want it? I know in the Rituale Romanum it says that blessings and consecrations that are reserved to bishops and preformed without permission by priests are valid but illicit. Since these positions are sacramentals, couldn't a priest do them illicitly or even get a dispensation from his bishop to do them?

A Sinner said...

There were definitely dispensations in the past for simple priests to preform Minor Orders. Though the men were supposed to be canonically fit for them, of course.

But they got rid of the Minor Orders outside traditional societies (and in terms of canonical status).

The modern "instituted ministries" are no longer clerical (again, they threw out the whole logic of what a "cleric" really meant, which was originally based on liturgical function) and I'm not sure what pre-requisites there are for them to occur.

I think in most dioceses there may have to be some training program (which, for some incomprehensible reason, may be more intense than the one required just for lay readers and servers!) and the bishop may have to approve the man.

And, also, I think you'd see extreme reluctance to do this, as it would limit women's roles in liturgy. There is also a gender politics here. The lay reader woman...also provides someone for the women in the pew to "identify with" and feel like "they" (as a group) are "participating" in liturgy, etc...even though, as I said, 99% of them are not in fact.

Agostino Taumaturgo said...

In the eight years I've been a priest (today's my anniversary), I must say I'm happy I don't have to deal with any of that crap.

But, interestingly enough, your post reminded me of a phenomenon that seemed to have happened a few years ago, where we saw articles from NO priests who celebrated the '62 Missal, and who found themselves deeply moved by it (I even found Fr. Z's post about a liberal priest who went this route to be interesting, albeit loaded with spin). Me personally, I just wasn't able to understand a word they were saying, because they were coming like converts to something I've always had; I figure other Trad clergy were saying the same thing.

But - and this is where your post comes in - it's real easy not to understand what these priests are saying if you don't have a connection or understanding of what goes on at the average Novus Ordo. Your post reminded me of that, and made it easier to grasp what these other priests were talking about.

So now I can't help but wonder: if a Trad priest reconciles to Rome and starts saying the Novus Ordo the way it's usually said, what will it do to his priestly spirituality?

Michael D said...

Hmm, I don't know if I would describe medieval monarchs as "the embodiment of the nation"; the concept of the nation didn't really come into existence until the modern age. The idea that the Crown is the embodiment of the nation I believe is an advent of modernity.

Medieval aristocratic rulers thought of themselves as kindred with other from the ruling class, moreso than their subjects.

A Sinner said...

I don't know, the Head of the Body Politic model is what I was taught in one of my Medieval classes.

Obviously, in practice, rulers often come to be elitist. But in terms of the symbolism, the King was in some ways the "peoples" mediator before God in terms of temporal authority in the same way a priest (bishop, pope) is in terms of spiritual authority.

He was (supposed to be, at least) father of the people, not some outsider inherently different from them. I think peasants were still expected to identify more with THEIR king than with other peasants from another kingdom.

Michael D said...

That's true, the peasants were supposed to identify with their king, but I was mostly talking about the lords and other nobles.

A Sinner said...

Well, that's just my point. This new elite of Lay Liturgical Ministers is supposed to a populist move, but the logic of that really will inevitably make them just a new elite, a new caste-apart, that the congregation will then, again, have trouble identifying with, and there'll be an endless multiplication of roles. Rather, the clerical-lay opposition of identity needs to be simply deconstructed.

Mark of the Vineyard said...

I went to a Mass once where when the time for the readings came the priest sat down and said "Whoever wants to come read, read." I was left not a little bewildered by that attitude. Obviously a woman came up to read.
I´m really not much in favour of lay lectors. THough it's not a valid argument perhaps, it just doesn't feel right. I recall at the Paschal Vigil Mass at the cathedral I hadn't even begun to warm my seat when a seminarian (whom I believe I've seen with the FFI on a previous occasion) came up to me and just said "You're going to read the third reading. Start practicing." As I walked up the stairs to the pulpit I couldn't help but feeling very, very unworthy of the task at hand.

Agostino Taumaturgo said...

"As I walked up the stairs to the pulpit I couldn't help but feeling very, very unworthy of the task at hand."

Mark, this is very well-put. Not a one of us is worthy of the task at hand, whether laic or cleric. I also find the priest's laissez-faire attitude offensive on account of that fact. Ditto for the seminarian who picked you out of the crowd.