The roles were once considered “minor orders” in the tradition of the Church
Details from Vatican News:
With a Motu proprio released on Monday, Pope Francis established that from now on the ministries of Lector and Acolyte are to be open to women, in a stable and institutionalized form through a specific mandate.
There is nothing new about women proclaiming the Word of God during liturgical celebrations or carrying out a service at the altar as altar servers or as Eucharistic ministers. In many communities throughout the world these practices are already authorized by local bishops.
However, up to this point, this has occurred without a true and proper institutional mandate, as an exception to what Pope St Paul VI had established when, in 1972, even while abolishing the so-called “minor orders”, he decided to maintain that access to these ministries be granted only to men because they were considered to be preparatory to the eventual admission to holy orders.
Now, in the wake of the discernment which has emerged from the last Synods of Bishops, Pope Francis wanted to formalize and institutionalize the presence of women at the altar.
With the Motu proprio Spiritus Domini, which modifies the first paragraph of Canon 230 of the Code of Canon Law, Pope Francis, therefore, establishes that women can have access to these ministries and that they be recognized through a liturgical act formally instituting them as such.
Pope Francis specifies that he wanted to welcome recommendations which have emerged from various synodal assemblies, writing that “a doctrinal development has been arrived at in these last years that has brought to light how certain ministries instituted by the Church have as their basis the common condition of being baptized and the royal priesthood received in the Sacrament of Baptism.”
The Pope, therefore, invites us to recognize that what is under discussion are lay ministries “fundamentally distinct from the ordained ministry that is received through the Sacrament of Holy Orders.”
In the motu proprio “Spiritus Domini,” issued on Jan. 11, the pope changed canon 230 § 1 of the Code of Canon Law to read: “Lay people who have the age and skills determined by decree of the Episcopal Conference, they can be permanently assumed, through the established liturgical rite, to the ministries of lectors and of acolytes; however this contribution does not give them the right to support or to remuneration by the Church.”
Prior to this change, the law formerly said that “lay men who possess the age and qualifications established by decree of the conference of bishops can be admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte.”
The roles of lector and acolyte are publicly recognized ministries instituted by the Church. The roles were once considered “minor orders” in the tradition of the Church and were changed to ministries by Pope Paul VI. According to Church law, “before anyone is promoted to the permanent or transitional diaconate, he is required to have received the ministries of lector and acolyte.”
NCR adds some context on why this is so significant:
Although women in many U.S. Catholic dioceses already serve as readers and altar servers, the church’s canon law had technically only allowed for their service on a temporary basis and according to the whim of the local bishop.
The pope’s change, which replaces “lay men” as the category of those who can formally serve in the ministries with “lay persons,” would appear to require all global Catholic bishops to accept women into those roles.
Francis has struggled throughout his nearly eight-year papacy to better include women in the Catholic Church’s leadership structure and ministries, and has repeatedly reaffirmed Pope John Paul II’s ban on women’s ordination to the priesthood.
Phyllis Zagano, a recognized expert on women deacons and a member of the pope’s first commission, told NCR that Francis’ change to canon law represented “the first official recognition” that women could serve in a role near the altar during liturgical celebrations.
“Here we have the Holy Father putting into law that women can be inside the sanctuary, women can be near the sacred,” said Zagano, who is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and also an NCR columnist. “That women are equally human.”
But aren’t women already doing this? Yes, but as Deacon Bill Ditewig explained it:
To serve as a lector at Mass doesn’t require the rite. However, the rite establishes a person permanently in the role throughout the Diocese, since it is the bishop who installs them in the ministry. There’s also a leadership component to the installed ministry, in that they are to assist in training others for the ministry. Also, this opens up the ministry of Acolyte as well as Lector. This brings people even closer to the ministry of the altar. As St. Paul VI taught, the ministries of the subdiaconate, which he had just suppressed in the West, were to be divided up between the newly-created ministries of Lector and Acolyte.
Bill has more details at this blog. Check it out.