A lector (reader) in the West is a clerk having the second of the four minor orders. In all Eastern Churches also, readers are ordained to a minor order preparatory to the diaconate. The primary reason for a special class of readers was the need of some persons sufficiently educated to be able to read the books in church, for the Christians continued the Jewish practice of reading the Sacred Books publicly. The first mention of a Christian liturgical reader is by Justin Martyr (d. about 165) in I Apol., lxvii, 3, 4. The homily known as "II Clem. ad Corinthios" also contains a reference to a lector, anaginoskon (xix, 1). The position of reader was honourable and dignified. It involved a higher standard of education than that of most offices. Although Justin says that the bishop preached the sermon, it appears that the reader himself often went on to expound what he had read. As the idea obtained that a special blessing and dedication should be given to everyone who performs an office for the Church, the reader too was instituted by prayers and some ceremony. Readers were blessed and set apart, as were the fossores who dug graves, the notarii who kept registers, and widows. All the group of rituals that depend on the "Apostolic Constitutions" contain the rite of ordaining readers. "Apost. Const.", vii, xxii, tells the bishop to ordain a reader by laying on his hand and saying a prayer, which is given. The derived documents however forbid an imposition of hands. ("Epitome Const. Ap.", xiii; Funk, "Didascalia", Paderborn, 1905, II, p. 82; see also the "Egyptian Church Order", V, ib., p. 105).
During the first centuries all the lessons in the liturgy, including the Epistle and Gospel, were read by the lector. Cornelius I (251-53) in a letter to Fabius of Antioch mentions that the Church of Rome has forty-two acolytes and fifty-two exorcists, readers and doorkeepers. (Denzinger, "Enchiridion", n. 45). In the fourth century in Africa the Church of Cirta had four priests, three deacons, four subdeacons, and seven readers. The account of the persecution ("Gesta apud Zenophilum" printed in the appendix to Optatus of Mileve in the Vienna edition of "Corp. Script. eccl. lat.", XXVI, 185-97) describes how the readers kept the sacred books which the magistrate demanded to be given up (p. 187). An old set of Western canons, ascribed (wrongly) to a supposed Council of Carthage in 398, but really of the sixth century, gives forms for all ordinations. Canon 8 is about our subject: "When a reader is ordained let the bishop speak about him (faciat de illo verbum) to the people, pointing out his faith and life and skill. After this, while the people look on, let him give him the book from which he is to read, saying to him: Receive this and be the spokesman (relator) of the word of God and you shall have, if you do your work faithfully and usefully, a part with those who have administered the word of God" (Denzinger, op. cit., n. 156). But gradually the lectorate lost all importance. The deacon obtained the office of reading the Gospel; in the West the Epistle became the privilege of the subdeacon. In the Eastern Churches this and other lessons are still supposed to be read by a lector, but everywhere his office (as all minor orders) may be supplied by a layman. The lector is still mentioned twice in the Roman Missal. In the rubrics at the beginning it is said that if Mass be sung without deacon and subdeacon a lector wearing a surplice may sing the Epistle in the usual place; but at the end he does not kiss the celebrant's hand (Ritus celebr. Missam", vi, 8). On Good Friday the morning service begins with a prophecy read by a lector at the place where the Epistle is usually read (first rubric on Good Friday).
Everywhere the order of reader has become merely a stepping-stone to major orders, and a memory of early days. In the Roman Rite in is the second minor order (Ostiarius, Lector, Exorcista, Acolythus). The minor orders are conferred during Mass after the first Lesson; but they may be given apart from Mass, on Sundays or doubles, in the morning. The lectorate involves no obligation of celibacy or of any other kind. The Byzantine Office will be found in the "Euchologion" (Euchologion to mega, Venetian 8th edition, 1898, pp. 186-87). The Armenians (Gregorian and Uniate) have adopted the Roman system of four minor orders exactly. Their rite of ordaining a reader also consists essentially in handing to him the book of the Epistles.
WIELAND, Die Genetische Entwickelung der sog. Ordines minores in den 3 ersten Jahrhunderten in Römische Quartalschrift, Suppl. no 7 (Rome, 1892); HARNACK, Über den Ursprung des Lectorats u. der anderen niederen Weihen in Texte u. Untersuchungen, II, 5.
APA citation. (1910). Lector. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09111a.htm
MLA citation. "Lector." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09111a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Thomas J. Bress.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is feedback732 at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.