The Art of Celebration IX: Ministers to the Liturgy of the Word

The first amongst ministers of the Word are surely the members of the congregation, all of them. For it is they whom all other ministers serve, so that they congregation nourished by the living word of Scripture, should go out to live in communion with the living Word, Jesus himself, and share in his mission of bringing the Gospel to the world and the world to the Gospel and to God.

But in ministering the word to the faithful, at Mass, the Church envisages a rich array of ministers with particular liturgical responsibilities.

Before the Liturgy is celebrated the Introduction to the Missal notes task related to the Sacristan, those who are charged with preparing the Liturgy for celebration, and those who need to prepare themselves for their role during the celebration including the Priest, Deacon, readers, psalmist, cantor, choir and – where one is in place – a commentator.

…it is necessary for the Deacon, the readers, the psalmist, the cantor, the commentator, and the choir to know properly before the celebration the texts that concern each and that are to be used and it is necessary that nothing be in any sense improvised. For harmonious ordering and carrying out of the rites will greatly help in disposing the faithful for participation in the Eucharist.

General Instruction of the Roman Missal (hereafter GIRM) 352. Emphasis added.

The Church does not envisage anything like people just turning up and getting on with it – ministers’ service of the faithful is too important for that.

That list of hoped for ministers provided at GIRM 98ff (and provided below) reminds of just how many ministers should (?) be involved in ministering the Liturgy of the Word. A few notes in recognition of this:

  • The mere demands of choreography suggest that there are many ‘natural’ opportunities for silence after proclamation and as one minister succeeds another in doing what is necessary.
  • Not only one but two particular ministers of song are listed – the cantor and the psalmist, plus a group of singers and organist and other musicians. The Liturgy of the Word is not intended to be spoken only, but elements of it are expected to be sung.
  • Servers or acolytes who will carry candles and thurible etc at the proclamation of the Gospel.
  • GIRM distinguishes between the instituted ministry of lector and the role of others who may be deputed to proclaim the readings from Sacred Scripture, and between the instituted ministry of acolyte and other servers. For a variety of reasons Bishops have rarely instituted people to exercise these instituted lay ministries of lector and acolyte (apart from those men who are required to be instituted before proceeding to ordination to the Diaconate). That is intended to change now that the Holy See has instructed that this ministry should be open to women as well as men. Response to this instruction from the Bishops of England and Wales is still awaited.


95.             In the celebration of Mass the faithful form a holy people, a people of God’s own possession and a royal priesthood, so that they may give thanks to God and offer the unblemished sacrificial Victim not only by means of the hands of the Priest but also together with him and so that they may learn to offer their very selves. They should, moreover, take care to show this by their deep religious sense and their charity toward brothers and sisters who participate with them in the same celebration.

      They are consequently to avoid any appearance of singularity or division, keeping in mind that they have only one Father in heaven and that hence are all brothers or sisters one to the other.

96.             Moreover, they are to form one body, whether in hearing the Word of God, or in taking part in the prayers and in the singing, or above all by the common offering of the Sacrifice and by participating together at the Lord’s table. This unity is beautifully apparent from the gestures and bodily postures observed together by the faithful.

97.             The faithful, moreover, should not refuse to serve the People of God in gladness whenever they are asked to perform some particular service or function in the celebration.


The Ministry of the Instituted Acolyte and Lector

98.             The acolyte is instituted for service at the altar and to assist the Priest and Deacon. It is his place principally to prepare the altar and the sacred vessels and, if necessary, to distribute the Eucharist to the faithful as an extraordinary minister.

      In the ministry of the altar, the acolyte has his own proper functions (cf. nos. 187-193), which he must carry out in person.

99.             The lector is instituted to proclaim the readings from Sacred Scripture, with the exception of the Gospel. He may also announce the intentions for the Universal Prayer and, in the absence of a psalmist, recite the Psalm between the readings.

      In the celebration of the Eucharist, the lector has his own proper function (cf. nos. 194-198), which he himself must carry out.

Other Functions

100.           In the absence of an instituted acolyte, there may be deputed lay ministers to serve at the altar and assist the Priest and the Deacon; these carry the cross, the candles, the thurible, the bread, the wine, and the water, or who are even deputed to distribute Holy Communion as extraordinary ministers.

101.           In the absence of an instituted lector, other lay people may be deputed to proclaim the readings from Sacred Scripture, people who are truly suited to carrying out this function and carefully prepared, so that by their hearing the readings from the sacred texts the faithful may conceive in their hearts a sweet and living affection for Sacred Scripture.

102.           It is the psalmist’s place to sing the Psalm or other biblical canticle to be found between the readings. To carry out this function correctly, it is necessary for the psalmist to be accomplished in the art of singing Psalms and have a facility in public speaking and elocution.

103.           Among the faithful, the schola cantorum or choir exercises its own liturgical function, its place being to take care that the parts proper to it, in keeping with the different genres of chant, are properly carried out and to foster the active participation of the faithful by means of the singing. What is said about the schola cantorum also applies, with due regard for the relevant norms, to other musicians, and especially the organist.

104.           It is fitting that there be a cantor or a choir director to direct and support the people’s singing. Indeed, when there is no choir, it is up to the cantor to direct the different chants, with the people taking the part proper to them.

105.           A liturgical function is also exercised by:

      a) The sacristan, who diligently arranges the liturgical books, the vestments and other things that are necessary for the celebration of Mass.

      b) The commentator, who, if appropriate, provides the faithful briefly with explanations and exhortations so as to direct their attention to the celebration and ensure that they are better disposed for understanding it. The commentator’s remarks should be thoroughly prepared and notable for their restraint. In performing this function the commentator stands in a suitable place within sight of the faithful, but not at the ambo.

      c) Those who take up the collections in the church.

      d) Those who, in some regions, welcome the faithful at the church doors, seat them appropriately, and marshal them in processions.

GIRM 95-105

Reflection questions

  • In your community do you see this range of ministers involved? If not, why do you think that is?
  • To whom are the responsibilities delegated? And what follows from that?
  • What do you expect of readers/lectors? How are they helped to give of their best?

A log with links to previous postings in this series is kept here.


~ Excerpts from the English translation and chants of The Roman Missal © 2010, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation. All rights reserved.
Commentary: (c) 2021, Allen Morris
Photograph: (c) 2017, Allen Morris. Convent chapel Daughters of Charity convent, Bethany.

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