ASK FATHER: Why can lay people read at Mass?

From a reader…


My family goes to EF Masses on Sundays most of the time, but Novus Ordo once
a month.

My 3-year-old son asked me a question which I have no answer. He asked, “Why is the reading done by people but not the priest?” He asked this because in usus antiquior, the readings must be done by the priest, the assisting sub-deacon, or the clergy in choir. Reading done by laity is a complete novelty for my 3-year-old.

I know it is allowed in the Novus Ordo, but I really could not answer “why” it is allowed. Is there any good reason other than “The spirit of Vatican II allowed active participation”?

Fr. Z responds: Even a 3 year old can see it.


In the early Church, there were many liturgical offices, all performed by men in the clerical state. Porters stood guard over the doors of the church, lest non-Christians sneak in. Acolytes attended the major ministers, brought the bread and wine to be consecrated to the priest, and handled the books. Lectors read the lessons and epistles. Cantors or psalmists chanted the psalms. Eventually, by the Middle Ages, a “cursus honorum” had developed with clear steps leading from one office to the next. Young men in the clerical state would be ordained as porters, then, if they showed some competence, they would be ordained as lectors, then acolytes, then exorcists, and ultimately, if they were deemed worthy, they entered into major orders as subdeacons, deacons, and then priests.

The work of one of the minor clerics could always be done by someone in a higher order, since they had been already ordained to that lesser order. Gradually, especially in parish settings, the only one actually ordained was the parish priest. Especially after the invention of seminaries in the 16th centuries, those who were progressing through the minor orders were seldom to be found outside of seminaries and religious houses. Starting by way of exception, men, and eventually boys were permitted to assist the priest after the manner of ordained acolytes, even though they weren’t clerics and, strictly speaking, should not have been allowed to enter into the sanctuary. This exception became the norms in most places. Similarly, the choir, which once would have been composed entirely of clerical chanters, became primarily and often exclusively composed of laymen and even women.

At the time of the Second Vatican Council, some of the Fathers, imbued with the romantic vision of the liturgical movement, hoped to restore the ancient situation with manifold ministers, each performing his specific ministry within the holy Mass. Yet, rather than restore the ancient clerical nature of these ministries, the Council Fathers and their successors in the Vatican, used the contemporary practice of lay people serving in those roles once reserved to ordained acolytes and cantors as a model, and instituted the notion of laymen performing the role anciently reserved to the ordained lector. By the early 1970’s, Pope Paul VI entirely eliminated the vestiges of the ancient ladder of minor orders and the subdiaconate and, in their place, established two new ministries, acolyte and lector, with these ministries being open to laymen. An exception was given by Pope Paul, that these ministries could be fulfilled even by those not formally commissioned to them, and it did not take long in most places for that exception to become the norm.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. excalibur says:

    I find this very surprising about who could be an exorcist at that time.

    … then exorcists, and ultimately, if they were deemed worthy, they entered into major orders as subdeacons, deacons, and then priests.

    PS Father, what happened to the preview post button?

    [The button’s default position is in the frontal lobe. What happened to proofreading before posting?   o{]:¬)   ]

  2. cengime says:

    The St Peter who is mentioned alongside St Marcellinus in the Roman Canon and celebrated together with him on June 2 was an exorcist in minor orders.

  3. bigtex says:

    “Porters stood guard over the doors of the church, lest non-Christians sneak in.”

    Now we have Protestant-like lay ushers at the door welcoming everyone and their dog like its a tent revival come to Jaaaysuuus meeting.

  4. yatzer says:

    A bit slow on the uptake I suppose, but it finally came to my attention that the exception seems almost always to become the norm. And the people who push the “exception” have the expectation this will happen.

  5. HighMass says:

    I have always wondered why a lay person reads both readings and when a deacon is sitting next to the Priest?

  6. teomatteo says:

    “Why can a lay child read at Holy Mass?”
    Yup, 11am sunday mass and the small stool comes out and a third/fourth grader stands up on it to the joy of the crowd and he proceeds to struggle into St. Paul’s letter. He couldn’t do it so the priest came over and ‘relieved’ him- but never finished the reading. No missalettes. Applause of course. Tough that.

  7. The GIRM (and I read it years ago, so I’m not making things up) gives specific preference to a layman to proclaim the readings before the Gospel. Even in the traditional form, it is not uncommon for a tonsured cleric in choir to read the Epistle at a Missa Cantata. Happened at my parish all the time.

    That being said, I wish those readings (and darn near everything else) were chanted at a Sung Mass, that readers were vested and in the sanctuary (which is where clerics or their proxies are typically stationed) and most of all, that readers were licensed by the local bishop, as they are in the Episcopal Church. That way I wouldn’t have to listen to someone armed only with good intentions, and who had little or no idea what they were reading.

    I also wouldn’t mind too much if the function were limited to men, along with everything else within the sanctuary.

  8. Suburbanbanshee says:

    The point of porters was to keep catechumens and non-Christians from staying in church (or sneaking in) during the Eucharistic parts of Mass, as well as to keep stuff safe when Masses were not in session. They did handle some of the usher stuff too, like helping if people collapsed, etc.

    But the old Jewish Levite thing about guarding and tending the Temple – that was what porters did.

  9. Ellen says:

    I used to be a reader and I’m a pretty good one I think. The idea of readers being licensed by the local bishop is a good one. We have some decent readers but some are not good at all. One didn’t know the difference between Barnabas and Barabbas and another reads so slowly and with such (fake) emotion it is a chore to listen to him.

  10. bobbird says:

    Not sure this answer could, in fact, be easily understood by a three year old. Perhaps the parent’s response was, in its essence, best for the child: “The Spirit of Vatican II.” When my own children asked these questions in the 80s and 90s, I told them, “The Church is filled with misguided priests and nuns who are disobedient and think they know better than the Church. They have changed and bent rules.”

  11. ClavesCoelorum says:

    From what I know, the justification for laypeople doing the readings (and other things) is that these offices are traced from Baptism and the common priesthood it gives to Christians, and not from the Sacrament of Holy Orders whence the minor orders derived their raison d’être. I believe Paul VI. referenced this and the Council’s general emphasis on Baptism (ecumenism, etc.).

  12. Red A Surcami says:

    My favorite of this nature is the elderly lady lector who proclaimed “Let us prostate ourselves before the Lord!”

  13. Uxixu says:

    Biggest irony of Ministeria Quaedam is that it was the same situation as before, except without all the tradition going back to the catacombs.

    While it may have been the case that the exorcists and lectors so useful in the ancient catechumenate were no longer needed after the conversion of the pagan Empire, with the demise of Christendom, they’re needed more than ever.

    Contra Paul VI, Trent Session XXIII, Ch XVII was quite clear that the Minor Orders may NOT be derided by the heretics as useless… and advocated their renewal in the parish, collegiate, and cathedral churches. Their role will always need doing and I’ve long thought the problem is not altar girls in the sanctuary as much a symptom of a larger issue: every parish should have acolytes: they should be rearing young men… Pope St. Siricius in 385 wrote minimum age to be an acolyte was twenty and had a five year interstice to acolyte (lowered to 4 by Pope Zosimus). The old Catholic encyclopedia noted that the wish of Trent was never quite fulfilled, reminding this that the neglect of the minor orders was cyclical. Important that Paul VI didn’t abolish the minor orders as their existence is under anathema (though not the precise enumeration) and himself stated that ” up to now were called minor orders are henceforth to be called ministries” making it a semantic change.

  14. Ben Kenobi says:

    Maybe kill two birds with one stone? Restore the minor orders and give men something to do at mass.

  15. Geoffrey says:

    The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says:

    “By tradition, the function of proclaiming the readings is ministerial, not presidential. The readings, therefore, should be proclaimed by a lector, and the Gospel by a deacon or, in his absence, a priest other than the celebrant. If, however, a deacon or another priest is not present, the priest celebrant himself should read the Gospel. Further, if another suitable lector is also not present, then the priest celebrant should also proclaim the other readings” (n. 59).

    “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 Prayer of the Faithful and, in the absence of a psalmist, proclaim the Psalm between the readings. In the Eucharistic Celebration, the lector has his own proper office (cf. nos. 194-198), which he must exercise personally” (n. 99).

    “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” (n. 101).

    Everyone seems to long for the “good old days” of the minor orders, but these were restricted to seminarians, if not by law, then certainly by practice. Even today, the majority of solemn high Masses in the Extraordinary Form have three priests, with two serving in the capacity of deacon and subdeacon. Surely even before Vatican II, Mother Church did not intend this as the norm.

    Blessed Paul VI had the intention of “restoring” the permanent acolytate and lectorate (as well as the diaconate) by reforming these two minor orders into “instituted ministries”. It would seem that he wanted to clearly distinguish that the word “ordinatio” and “ordo” should apply to the Sacrament of Holy Orders and its three degrees (“consecratio” in regards to bishops is another topic), hence the adoption of the word “institutio”. (N.B. “Clergy” would also now refer to only those in Holy Orders.)

    For better or for worse, Holy Mother Church now has ordained ministers and instituted ministers; the first receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and the latter receive a sacramental. Because of the lack of permanent instituted ministers, nos. 100-101 of GIRM has become the norm. This was not the intention of Bl Paul VI then, nor is it the intention of the Church today.

    Imagine what the Ordinary Form could look like with properly instituted lectors and acolytes fulfilling their proper duties: vested in either albs or cassock and surplice as they carry out what could be considered their “vocation within their Vocation”; no women in the sanctuary, no extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion (other than properly instituted acolytes), etc.

    Somehow, someway, the ball was dropped; the vast majority of instituted ministers are seminarians, and laymen and women are “commissioned” ministers. This is the norm, and it was never intended to be.

  16. Uxixu says:

    Note at the USCCB General Assembly (I believe this last November), there were hundreds of bishops… and there was a still a woman the ambo for at least one of the readings. The way it is in most OF parishes is exactly the way they want it.

    It’s precisely because women cannot be instituted that most bishops do not use them since the GIRM would obligate instituted lectors to have precedence over substitutes (and the women currently doing it don’t). When bishops visit for Confirmations, they should also be instituting Lectors and Acolytes. Way to fix that would be for bishops to require their parish priests to periodically bring forward candidates for lector, acolyte, and diaconate or formally explain in writing why they don’t have any. The way to do that would for the liturgical books to require the presence of acolytes and deacons to have music or some such.

    The EF saw the similar lower common denominator with the allowance of the Missa Cantata without a deacon – the old Caermionale Episcoporum forbids the use of incense without a deacon – instead of ordering a proliferation of subdeacons and deacons outside of seminary for Solemn Mass, the Missa Cantata was a concession that is now far more common and Low Mass for routine use with Solemn Mass reserved for the greatests feasts means the Ferial tones are almost never heard in the TLM today outside of the traditional seminaries (FSSP, ICRSS, SSPX).

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  18. luciavento says:

    Are seminarians ever commissioned (ordained?) as acolytes and lectors today? One would think they would want the extra blessings that go with the commissioning ceremony (I am not of sure what is the correct wording) on their journey to the priesthood.

    [All seminarians are made lectors and acolytes.]

  19. HeatherPA says:

    The exceptional seems to always become the norm, and when it is tried to be restored to an exceptional status by a good priest, someone whines to the Bishop and the priest is slapped down.
    At least that has been my observation.

  20. Bunky says:

    My late father, who loved Vatican II, had actually seen the Pope’s demonstration of the New Mass back then. At the time, he said, priests had a question as to who, precisely, would be allowed to exercise the newly-designated lay ministries. (It seems that wasn’t entirely clear at the time). So some Jesuits, naturally, hatched a plan. They had arranged for a nun to do one of the readings! The Pope said nothing during or after the mass chastizing the priests who planned this, the female reader, or female lay readers in general. My late father told me, “sometimes, it’s what the Pope doesn’t say that speaks volumes”. So there we are. I was the lector at my father’s funeral mass, which I think he would have been in favor of, if he had had a choice in the matter. It is my humble opinion that they instituted the lay ministries to avoid having to pay a bunch of non-priest clerics. It has the additional benefit of a priest being able to spontaneously ask for a volunteer from the audience, or for people who could never qualify as “clerics” (whatever that may mean and even they seem to have not been too sure down at the Vatican) to participate. However, this may be a slippery slope. I was once standby exorcist at a baptismal exorcism when the alternative would have been for the priest to have gone out on the street and hoped to get someone from there. The two priests at a combined parish had been booked for a wedding rehearsal and a baptism at the same time, and I was only able to solve the double-booking problem because the parish had two churches. I had a question, besides “gee, what could possibly go wrong with this?” That was, “is a girl exorcist legit?” The priestly reply: “It didn’t say the cleric had to be a man!” So, since the defunct minor order of exorcist is not commonly practiced as a lay ministry (I haven’t seen any parish bulletin items telling interested laypeople to report to a training seminar for it in the church basement, unlike for Eucharistic minister, etc.), I might be a “vagabond cleric” according to the Council of Trent. If that is the case, how do I go about collecting the back salary I have been owed since the 1980s? And do exorcists get danger pay? Apparently, ordinary laypeople _can_ do it, but unless in extraordinary circumstances, (in my case the priest declared a state of emergency) _may_ not:

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