Spiritus Domini; an acolyte! Who cares anyway?

hearing mean listening

Reactions to Pope Francis’s decree Spiritus Domini have not been explosive.

Indeed, the reverse is the case: bishops and presbyters around the world have said that it is merely a matter of words. After all, women have been reading for years at the liturgy – so calling them ‘lectors’ is just a needless formality!

Women have been presenting the gifts for just as long, altar servers are less important now than when they had to ‘answer’ the Latin uttered by the presider, and the other few jobs like holding the book or swinging the thurible have been done by women for decades!

So why all the fuss?

It seems that the pope and the people in the Vatican must have little work if they want to now have a rite of installation so that men and women can do these things ‘officially.’

In short, for most people, Spiritus Domini is non-news.

I beg to differ.

Spiritus Domini is news, and the fact of the lukewarm reactions is also news.

Let me deal with the apparent dismissal of Spiritus Domini first.

The fact that we think of liturgical ministries as just ‘the jobs’ that were shared out by servers is a litmus test of how little we have internalised the vision of the liturgy that was put forth in Sacrosanctum Concilium in 1963.

That is a vision of the whole people ministering to one another in differing ways.

We are to be ‘wholly celebrant.’

Likewise, it shows how little the vision of the Church as the holy people of God – as distinct from the officers and ‘other ranks’ model in use before then – found in Lumen Gentium has actually embedded itself in the ways we behave.

I hear many people who say ‘Vatican II has gone too far’; but when I look around I notice how shallow is the realisation of Vatican II in the lives of so many Catholics.

Spiritus Domini is a concrete expression of the change from the inherited mindset to that which was / is envisaged in the Council.

We are not just consumers of a sacred product that is in the keeping of the clergy.

We are a people, a family of sisters and brothers in baptism, who have been given a variety of gifts by the Spirit of the Lord so that we might become more fully the Church.

Or, as Pope Francis put it in the document’s opening words: ‘The Spirit of the Lord Jesus, the perennial source of the Church’s life and mission, distributes to the members of the People of God the gifts that enable each one, in a different way, to contribute to the edification of the Church and to the proclamation of the Gospel.’

Acolyte vs. Altar Server

Now to the main question: how is an ‘acolyte’ different from an ‘altar server’?

The confusion is a deep one for Latin Christians because it is founded in over 1000 years of ignoring the issue.

Once the standard form of Eucharistic celebration in the western churches became that of a priest standing alone at an altar and celebrating in Latin, a major gulf emerged between those who were ‘in attendance’ – but actually had nothing to do in the liturgy as such – and the priest who said the Mass.

The priest was the one who was active, the others were passive.

The priest said the Mass, the congregation listened, watched, and prayed their own prayers.

It mattered little if there was just one person in the building or several hundred or, indeed, several thousand.

However, there had to be at least one person there!

This person – always a male and usually a boy – was needed to serve the priest.

If the priest said ‘Dominus vobiscum’ – we shall pass over the irony that this is a plural: the Lord be with you, even if he said it in a building with only the server present – then someone had to answer: ‘Et cum spiritu tuo.’

Put another way: it took two to tango!

The server was there to serve the priest.

The priest needed this service and it did not matter what was happening with other people who were present.

Indeed, it was assumed that the server probably did not know what the words he uttered meant – so long as they were uttered in response, the law was fulfilled, and the priest could say his Mass.

Least we forget

The important thing was that the priest could offer Mass, and the server was only a practical requirement somewhat in the way that vestments, books, and vessels were needed for the lawful celebration.

But did not the altar servers have a duty to the community?

The simple answer is: no!

On the few occasions each year (before 1903) when communion was given to the congregation, the server held a plate under the chins of the recipients (in some places).

Indeed, since communion for anyone but the priest was an additional element to the standard form of the Mass, it would have been rare that the server even received communion at the Mass he served.

The whole task was to help the priest.

Indeed, in an emergency, the answering could be done by a woman who knelt at the altar rails (but could not go inside ‘the sanctuary’ to bring up and down the cruets or wash the priest’s fingers).

Acolyte serves the whole community

The rite of Vatican II assumes that the community is celebrating with the presbyter presiding: it is an act of the assembled church and now the acolyte is there to help and serve the whole community.

The acolyte is one ministry in a church of mutual service.

It is not a job but a form of service that builds up the whole people of God – and this is its dignity and why it needs to be taken seriously and needs to be instituted.

The altar server served the priest in the priest’s work before God.

The acolyte serves the community in the whole community’s work before God.

The world of the alter server is that of the two-tier world of cleric / lay; minister / ministered; master / servant – a one-way transaction.

The world of the acolyte is that of a community, equal in dignity, serving one another, all are ministers and ministered to – and a sharing of energy and skill rather than a transaction.

In the first case, all that was needed was a voice that could recite Latin by rote.

Today, we have one Christian serving her / his sisters and brothers in a common work which they, collectively, see as the centre and summit of their lives as Christians.

One was a task which just had to be got through so that the priest said Mass.

The other is a celebration that affirms who we are as people who serve each other in different ways.

So what is the importance of Spiritus Domini?

  • We are undoing a 1000-year old clericalist liturgy.
  • We are affirming the dignity of our baptism which has made us a priestly people.
  • We are learning that we must all be servants of one another at the liturgy.
  • We are moving from seeing actions in our worship as ‘things needing doing’ to assisting we one another as disciples.
  • We are embedding – after more than half a century – the vision of the Second Vatican Council.

In a nutshell

  • We are not changing our rubrics, we are changing our mind-sets.
  • We are not changing technical names, we are changing our theology and our practice.

 

  • Thomas O’Loughlin is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton, emeritus professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK) and director of the Centre of Applied Theology, UK.
  • He is an organising contributor to the online conversation Flashes of Insight and his latest book is Eating Together, Becoming One: Taking Up Pope Francis’s Call to Theologians.

 

 

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