POPE Francis has ordered a change to canon law, allowing women to be formally installed as lectors and acolytes.
It’s a move that has been welcomed as “very significant” by Brisbane Ursuline Sister Kari Hatherell, who served for nine years as chair of the Australian Catholic Council for Lay Pastoral Ministry.
“As an ecclesial community all roles are needed, and all roles need to be valued for what they are,” Sr Hatherell said.
By issuing a motu proprio “Spiritus Domini”, the Pope has formalised what is already allowed in practice in dioceses around the world – women proclaiming the Word of God during liturgical celebrations or carrying out a service at the altar as altar servers or as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion.
However, until now, this has occurred without a true and proper institutional mandate.
The new document, published on January 11 changes the wording of Canon 230, paragraph 1.
The canon used to say, “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 updated paragraph changes “lay men” to “lay persons”, specifying that they can perform “the ministries of lector and acolyte” in Catholic services.
Sr Hatherell, who most recently served as parish pastoral director of St John Wood’s-The Gap, said the significance of this latest papal document was “in the language and the formality”.
“Most of the Church documents and still the scriptures we use in the liturgy assume that when we say ‘men’ we mean women as well,” she said.
“Now Pope Francis is not saying ‘lay men’ includes ‘lay women’ when he changes canon law – so I think that is a very significant point.
“He (Pope Francis) is recognising that language – if we are going to be inclusive of people and, in particular, women – all aspects of our language need to change, including in canon law and, I think, in the translations of the scriptures.”
A lector can recite prayers and sacred texts such as psalms during Mass and other services, but the Gospel is read by a priest or deacon.
An acolyte assists the priest or deacon at the altar and can be an Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion during Mass.
Growing up in Brisbane, Sr Hatherell recalled serving at the altar in the 1970s when she was still in high school.
“Only at school, not on Sundays,” she said.
“Women and girls have been doing that for a long time.
“But this (Pope Francis’s motu proprio) is more formal.”
In a letter to prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Pope Francis explained his decision to admit women to the ministries of lector and acolyte.
He said women were making a “precious contribution” to the Church.
The Pope highlighted the distinction between “‘established’ (or lay) ministries and ‘ordained’ ministries”, and expressed the hope that opening these lay ministries to women might “better manifest the common baptismal dignity of the members of the People of God”.
Pope Francis said in his letter that it would be up to local bishops’ conferences to set appropriate criteria for the discernment and preparation of candidates for the ministries of lector and acolyte in their territories.
“Offering lay people of both sexes the possibility of accessing the ministry of the acolyte and the 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 lay people, even women, offer to the life and mission of the Church,” Pope Francis wrote.
Sr Hatherell said she hoped this latest canon law change would act as a reminder to a gathering of Australia’s Plenary Council later this year “of the place of women and the place of lay pastoral ministers”.
“I hope that those who are on the Plenary Council will take seriously the need to look at language (at all levels) in Church documents,” she said.
“The only place I get called a son and a brother is when I go to Mass – and that’s pretty sad.
“In the rest of the world I don’t.”