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.