Most Catholics, who grew up seeing women at the altar reading from the Bible and serving at Mass, wondered what was improved when Pope Francis changed canon law this month, purportedly to allow women to participate in such services.
Although women have been taking care of these ministries at local bishops’ discretion, they were barred from being instituted as lectors or acolytes because church law did not allow it. These minor orders were reserved only for men until now, touted as preparation for priestly ordination.
On Jan. 11, the pope changed one word in Canon 230. The law originally said: “Laymen who have the age and skills, determined by decree by the Episcopal Conference, can be permanently employed, through the established liturgical rite, for the ministries of readers and acolytes; however, this conferment does not give them the right to sustenance or remuneration by the Church.” Pope Francis changed the opening word, making it “laypeople” to include women.
Pope Francis is pushing the Church to be more open to women, but slowly and carefully. These orders had been part of the all-male priesthood in the Catholic Church since the Council of Trent in the 16th century. Women began to take part in these “minor orders,” albeit without being instituted in a public ceremony, only after the Second Vatican Council.
Lectors are mainly the readers at Mass. Their ministries include organizing the congregation’s singing, preparing people for the sacraments and aiding other readers at Mass.
Acolytes serve at the altar at Mass, but they are not mere altar servers. For example, an acolyte can purify chalices and patens used for Communion, which altar servers do not do.
They distribute Communion, expose the Blessed Sacrament for adoration and guide other altar servers. They also assist priests and deacons with other sacraments.
These two ministries formed part of the four minor orders (the other two being exorcist and doorman) in the early Church. At the time men were ordained into these ministries on their way to priestly ordination. Over time, wealthy and educated men came forward to be installed in these roles, although they were not aspiring to become priests.
But later these orders were reserved for only men aspiring for the priesthood. Pope Paul VI in 1972, five years after the Second Vatican Council, decreed that laymen could be installed as acolytes and lectors, making them lay ministries.
Since that decree, women began to demand they be allowed to approach the altar and to read and serve at Mass, and some bishops allowed it. But it took almost two decades for the Church to approve it officially. In 1994, the Vatican officially said local bishops can allow women and girls at Mass while making clear that their role should not be of acolytes or lectors.
A letter accompanying the Jan. 11 papal decree stated that some ministries like those of lector and acolyte are derived from baptism and cannot be reserved as stepping stones for the priesthood.
“Offering laypeople of both sexes the possibility of accessing the ministry of acolyte and lector, by virtue of their participation in the baptismal priesthood, will increase the recognition, also through a liturgical act [institution], of the precious contribution that many laypeople make, including women, to the life and mission of the Church,” the pope wrote.
The Second Vatican Council also stressed “an urgent need” to “rediscover the co-responsibility of all the baptized in the Church.”
In his 2020 apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia (Beloved Amazonia), Pope Francis stressed a greater role for women at all levels in the Church. The new decision is in line with it.
The papal decree and the letter do not hint at priestly ordination for women. In the letter, Pope Francis has referred to Pope John Paul II’s 1994 declaration that women could never be ordained as priests.
The Women’s Ordination Conference, which lobbies for women to be ordained as priests, welcomed the pope’s recognition that “some ministries in the Church are founded on the common priesthood of all the baptized.”
Pope Francis has sought more roles for women in decision-making and leadership positions in the Church since he began his pontificate.
However, his new step is not necessarily a push toward women’s ordination. But it gives women the right to stand with a priest during the Mass and assist.
In fact, with the change, a brand new female ministry is born in the Catholic Church.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.