Lay Led Liturgy


In recent weeks I have written about celebrating liturgy with a layperson as leader. The concept of lay led worship evokes a range of reactions in people, from those who want to use it at every opportunity to others who fear it as alien to traditional Catholic practice. Some may even view it as ‘breaking Church law’ or as ‘lay people taking over’.
The fact that liturgy in the absence of a priest is a reality and a necessity in many parts of the world has been acknowledged by the Vatican. In 1988 it issued the document Directory for Sunday Worship in the Absence of a Priest “to guide and to prescribe what should be done when real circumstances require the decision to have Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest” (Introduction). Such celebrations are arranged so that “the weekly gathering of the faithful can be continued and the Christian tradition regarding Sunday preserved” (#6).
The document consists of three chapters dealing with Sunday and its observance, the conditions for holding Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest, and the form of lay-led celebrations.

The Directory gives to conferences of bishops the responsibility of determining its norms in greater detail and adapting them to the conditions and culture of their people (#7). Recently, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, through its National Liturgical Commission, issued the Pastoral Handbook for the Dioceses of Australia which includes the Vatican Directory, Directives on Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest for Australia, and practical resources for catechesis and celebrations.

The Directory gives to diocesan bishops the responsibility of deciding the circumstances under which Sunday assemblies without the Eucharist may be held and to set out general and particular norms for such celebrations (#24). Several dioceses in Australia have issued their own guidelines, including Brisbane where the document ‘Guidelines for Lay Leaders of Liturgy’ was promulgated at the end of 2001.

If a parish’s assessment of its liturgical/pastoral needs indicates that lay people will be required to lead liturgy during the week, or on Sundays, or for funerals, there needs to be a prayerful discernment of those who would best lead the community’s worship in the absence of a priest or deacon. Care is required to ensure that the ministry does not become one person’s exclusive domain. On the other hand, parishes do not need a large number of people for this ministry.

The qualities needed by lay leaders of liturgy include an understanding of leadership as service, a sense of both private and communal prayer, the ability to communicate with clergy and parishioners alike, and a pastoral sensitivity to the needs of others.

Lay leaders require skills in presiding at public worship and in public speaking. They need to have a sound knowledge of the rites, structures and symbols of liturgy and a sound theological, scriptural and ecclesial background.
A parish will need to establish a process for finding those people amongst its members who have the qualities and skills named above. It will then need to provide those discerned as suitable lay leaders liturgy with the formation and resources that they will need to perform their ministry well.


Elizabeth Harrington