Vatican – Pope Francis has amended the law of the Catholic Church to explicitly state that lay people can act as readers and altar servers in liturgical celebrations, effectively eliminating the previous possibility of individual bishops restricting these ministries to men only.
In an unexpected apostolic letter published on January 11, the pontiff said he was making the change to recognize “doctrinal developments” in recent years.
This change, the pope said, “highlights how some ministries established by the church are based on this general condition for baptism and the royal priesthood received in the Sacrament of Baptism.”
Francis’ new letter, entitled the spirit of and issued motu proprio (on its own initiative) amended the Code of Canon Law to explicitly allow women to be installed in the Catholic Church as lecturers and ministers.
Lecturers are employees who announce liturgical readings and other liturgical celebrations. Acolytes are ministers who usually assist priests in preparing the altar during the liturgy or in administering communion. Acolytes are often known as altar servers or Eucharistic ministers in plain language.
Lay people who serve in these ministries are not ordained, but can be formally appointed to roles during a church ceremony.
Although women in many American Catholic dioceses already serve as readers and servers at the altar, church canon law technically allowed their ministry only temporarily and at the whim of the local bishop.
The change of the pope, who replaces “laity” as a category of those who can officially serve in ministries with “laity,” seems to require all the world’s Catholic bishops to accept women in these roles.
Through his nearly eight-year papacy, Francis has struggled to better include women in the Catholic Church’s leadership and ministries, and has repeatedly reaffirmed Pope John Paul II’s ban on ordaining women to the priesthood.
Last year, the pope disappointed those who campaigned for the church to return to the practice in the early centuries of the faith of ordaining women deacons, refusing to respond to a request from the Synod of Bishops for the Panamazonian region.
However, the pope has set up two commissions to study female deacons, the last of which was announced in April 2020.
Phyllis Zagano, a recognized expert on women’s deacons and a member of the pope’s first commission, told NCR that Francis’ change to canon law was “the first official recognition” that women could serve in their role near the altar during liturgical celebrations. .
“Here we have the Holy Father to legislate that women can be inside the sanctuary, women can be close to the sacred,” said Zagano, a senior fellow at Hofstra University and also a NCR columnist. “That women are equally men.”
The letter amending canon law was published along with a letter from the pope to Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In this letter, Francis again mentions John Paul II’s prohibition against the ordination of women to the priesthood, but adds that “for ordained ministries it is possible and still seems appropriate today to go beyond this reserve.”
Francis tells Ladaria that offering both men and women the opportunity to serve as lecturers and acolytes “will increase the recognition … of the valuable contribution that many lay people, including women, make to the life and mission of the church.”
“The choice to entrust these services to women … will make the church’s participation in the work of evangelization more real,” the pope continued.
Francis tells Ladaria that the role of national episcopal conferences will be to consider possible criteria for who in their communities can serve as lecturers and ministers, and says he also directs the Vatican’s prayer congregation to update its rules for the two ministries to reflect the change in canon law.
This groundbreaking story is being updated.