I have noticed that some parishes refer to lay persons reading Scripture in the Mass as “Readers” will others refer to them as “Lectors.” What is a lector and whom does the Church permit to be a lector?
This is a good question regarding ministries of the Church, acknowledging that there have been some distinctions in how the Church uses these terms in the past that is not as clear in our day and therefore can lead to some confusion. Likewise, the reality of “who” is a reader or a lector also has significance.
On one level, it is noteworthy that the words lector and reader that are now often used interchangeably were not originally used in this way. Prior to 1973, there were several minor orders that were conferred upon men in formation for ordination that have now been suppressed, including such minor orders as porter, cantor, and subdeacon. Among the minor orders were two that were retained: “lector” and acolyte, though these are now called “ministries” and not minor orders. As a formal ministry, the ministry of lector is meant to be conferred on men who are preparing to become deacons and priests and it is received as part of their preparation for ordination. However, the confusion begins in that this ministry can also be called “reader.” In this formalized ministry, the men who receive it from the bishop do so in a special institution ceremony wherein the bishop prays over them and blesses them in the “ministry of reader,” that they might “meditate constantly on [The Scripture],” and “faithfully proclaim it.” The ministry is then conferred by way of the bishop placing the Bible in the hands of the recipient, commissioning them in the ministry with the words “Take this book of holy Scripture and be faithful in handing on the word of God, so that it may grow strong in the hearts of his people,” to which the newly instituted reader says “Amen.” By way of this formally instituted ministry, the lector/reader is appointed to read the Scriptures at the liturgy (except for the Gospel), while also reading the intercessions if there is no deacon. However, he is also entrusted with the task of preparing others of the faithful who may be asked to read “on a temporary basis” when no instituted reader is available.
Given the above description, it is important to be clear that lay people (both men and women) who read at Mass can legitimately do so in the absence of an “instituted reader” – and in fact such a lay person ought to do so ahead of the priest reading the readings himself. Clearly such a reality is what is found in almost all parish Masses everywhere (as few men who are formally instituted readers are found in parishes – especially as most of the men who receive this institution are in seminary formation for priesthood or men who are preparing for diaconate). Therefore, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in paragraph 99 acknowledges within the description of the ministry of reader (though our new translation calls him “lector” in this paragraph and refers later, in paragraphs 194-198 as “reader,” – and thus the interchangeability of the words in this case) that when an instituted reader is not available, members of the laity carry out this function. Thus, provided that the
individuals who proclaim the readings are rightly trained and prepared, a member of the laity does legitimately carry out this ministry when no instituted lector is available – which I repeat is most of the time.
Thus, that both words get used is perhaps to be interpreted that they are seen as interchangeable. However, I would (of my own observations) think it is better that we use the word “reader” for lay people who are not formally instituted, reserving the word “lector” for the more formally instituted ministry – thus giving distinction.