VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has changed Catholic Church law to make explicit that lay women can act as readers and altar servers in liturgical celebrations, effectively removing a previous option for individual bishops to restrict those ministries only to men.

In an unexpected apostolic letter published Jan. 11, the pontiff says he is making the change to recognize a “doctrinal development” that has occurred in recent years.
Corinne Griske uses American Sign Language while serving as a lector during a Mass for members of the Catholic Deaf Community of Long Island, N.Y., at St. Frances de Chantal Church in Wantagh, N.Y., Dec. 20, 2020. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
That change, the pope says, “shines a light on how some ministries instituted by the church have as their foundation that common condition of baptism and the royal priesthood received in the Sacrament of Baptism.”

Francis’ new letter, titled Spiritus Domini and issued ‘motu proprio,’ changes the Code of Canon Law to explicitly allow women to be installed in the Catholic Church as lectors and acolytes.

Lectors are ministers who proclaim readings at Mass and other liturgical celebrations. Acolytes are ministers who typically assist priests in preparing the altar during the Mass or in distributing communion. Acolytes are often known as altar servers or Eucharistic ministers in common parlance.

Although women in many U.S. Catholic dioceses already serve in those two roles, 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.

Last year, the pope disappointed those campaigning for the church to return to the practice in early centuries of the faith of ordaining women as deacons, declining to answer a request from the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region on the issue.

The pope has however created two commissions to study the issue of women deacons, with the latest being announced in April 2020.

This breaking story is being updated.


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