Women in Ministries of Lector and Acolyte: Some Background

Pope Francis has responded affirmatively to the recommendations made through the Synod of Bishops that women be admitted to the ministries of Lector and Acolyte. In an Apostolic Letter issued motu proprio titled “Spiritus Domini” [The Spirit of the Lord], published yesterday, 10 January 2021, the pope modified the Code of Canon Law (c. 230.1). Now, all qualified persons may be admitted to those ministries. To put this decision into perspective, several points need to be understood.

  1. Prior to 1972, ministries were seen as the province of the ordained, and “the ordained” in the Latin Church consisted of seven ranks of ordained ministers. This was known as the cursus honorum, the “course of honors” by which a man “rose through the ranks” to the Order of Presbyters. A man became a cleric through a rite known as “first tonsure.” This liturgical rite was not itself an ordination, but it opened the door to subsequent ordinations; it made a man capax — capable — of receiving ordination. The orders themselves were divided into four minor orders and three major orders. The minor orders were porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte; the major orders were subdeacon, deacon, and presbyter [priest]. This system was in place for many centuries. It is important to recognize that the minor and major orders were, in fact, ordinations.
  2. In 1972, St. Pope Paul VI responded to the recommendations of the bishops of Vatican II (1962-1965) that the sacrament of Holy Orders be streamlined to better meet the needs of the Church. The fact is, the various orders, except for the priesthood, had become little more than liturgical rituals celebrated in the seminaries before a man was eventually ordained a priest. No parish, for example, had the ordained ministry of a porter! Pope Paul, after considerable consultation with the world’s bishops, issued motu proprio the document Ministeria quaedam in 1972. This was tied with an additional document, Ad pascendum, which addressed some aspects of the newly-renewed order of deacons, which Paul implemented in 1967. Ministeria quaedam did a number of things.
  • Tonsure and Subdeacon were suppressed. A man now became a cleric upon ordination as Deacon.
  • The minor orders were also eliminated. At the same time, Pope Paul recognized the practical need for lectors and acolytes in parish life. However, rather than continuing as ordained ministries, he established these two ministries as rightfully lay ministries. So, they were no longer to be conferred through ordination but through installation by the bishop as lay ministries. It is significant to note that that these two installed ministries were open to men alone. This is what Pope Francis has now addressed.
  • Pope Paul further required that those in formation for ordination (to the diaconate and to the presbyterate) were to be installed in the ministries (not ordained) prior to ordination as Deacons. This was practical: these lay ministries offer valuable ministerial experience, and that is why the pope established this norm.

There are several things we need to keep in mind about the action taken by Pope Francis.

First, being installed a lector or acolyte is much more than just “reading at Mass” or “being an altar server.” We already have men and women who do that on a regular basis in our parishes. Being installed by the bishop into these ministries carries additional responsibilities, as outlined in Pope Paul’s Ministeria quaedam. Installed lectors and acolytes are diocesan ministers; one is not installed simply to serve in one parish.

Second, there is an expectation of leadership by these installed ministers. They are to assist in training other ministers of the Word and the Altar. They are to be knowledgeable of all aspects of their ministries and of the sacramental life of the Church. In fact, Pope Paul wrote that the responsibilities formerly assigned to Subdeacons could be assigned to these installed Lectors and Acolytes. [Ed. note: My fingers got away from me in the original post and said that the functions of the Subdeacon could NOT be assigned to installed Lectors and Acolytes; sorry for any confusion.]

Third, why have these lay ministries been experienced largely as liturgical steps required only for those on the road to ordination? The answers are complex, but many bishops did not see an immediate need to install lectors and acolytes formally because pastoral needs were being largely met by the ad hoc lectors and altar servers already serving in most parishes, and which involved both men and women. Many bishops were also reluctant to install lectors and acolytes formally because they could not admit women as well as men. Now, they can.

This is a good move, and one that should be applauded, not feared. It is consistent with what Pope Paul VI began, at the request of the world’s bishops, back in 1972.

A Servant’s Heart

Today, my daughter sent me a link to a video from an unlikely source: Arnold Schwarzenegger. She said the thing that struck her immediately was the Governor’s use of the phrase, “a servant’s heart.” I think she is absolutely right. I am passing along his video, not as a political act, or to condemn or criticize anyone. But as a career Naval officer, I watched with horror and growing anger the events of last Wednesday — the feast of the Epiphany of all days! — as our US Capitol was attacked and sacked. Like all military officers, I swore an oath that never expires, to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic.” And here was the secular temple of that Constitution being ransacked, with innocent staffers, visitors, members of Congress and even the sitting Vice President, assaulted and terrorized for several hours by fellow Americans. How can begin to move forward — together — as Americans?

As we all consider our next steps, the Epiphany reminds us that, whatever our perceived grievances, THIS is not the way to address them. This is not how a People, under God, treat each other. For Christians especially, who believe that God took on human nature in Christ out of love for us, what we saw was the antithesis of God’s will for humanity. At a Catholic Mass, the deacon adds a little water into the wine which will be consecrated and offered to God, and says, “Through the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” What happened on Wednesday was the farthest thing from sharing “in the divinity of Christ.”

Instead we need to heed the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. . . .” (Philippians 2:3-5). Imagine if each and every one of us took these verses to heart and acted on them! Not in conceit and pride, but putting the interests of others ahead of our own. These are not only religious truths: they apply to many forms of servant-leadership. In my years of Navy service I served with many such women and men. As a deacon I continue to serve with many such women and men, who constantly put themselves and their own needs last. That is the heart of the servant, the heart “that was in Christ Jesus,” the heart that should be in each of us.

The Governor is correct: what is needed now is a servant’s heart. Think what you will of the rest of the video. Don’t fixate on the cheesiness of using Conan’s sword as a prop. Rather, listen to his insight about a servant’s heart. On that, he is right on point.