Catholic Thinking – Women as lectors and acolytes

WelCom March 2021 Spiritus Domini (The Spirit of the Lord) is an apostolic letter in the form of a motu proprio by Pope Francis, signed on 10 January 2021 and…

WelCom March 2021

Spiritus Domini (The Spirit of the Lord) is an apostolic letter in the form of a motu proprio by Pope Francis, signed on 10 January 2021 and released the next day. In Catholic canon law, a motu proprio refers to a document issued by the pope on his own initiative and personally signed by him. 

Spiritus Domini changed the Code of Canon Law to allow women to be formally admitted to the instituted ministries of acolyte (celebrant’s assistant) and lector (reader), which had until this change been exclusively available to men. This change will emphasise for men preparing for priesthood – who are also formally instituted as lectors and acolytes – that these ministries ‘are rooted in the sacrament(s) of baptism and confirmation’.

Thomas O’Loughlin, Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology, The University of Nottingham, UK discusses Spiritus Domini. 

Professor Thomas O’Loughlin.

Pope Francis’ little document Spiritus Domini is a most welcome development – and a very interesting small brick in his larger pastoral edifice dedicated to implementing the reforms of Vatican II.

While some have presented Spiritus Domini as no more than formalising common practice since the 1970s, and others as but ‘too little, too late’ perhaps the key thing is to step back and look at what it signifies within a stream of documents guiding liturgical renewal since the mid-1950s. Since 1955 and the reform of Holy Week down to today, one theme has been a constant: to enable the whole People of God to have ownership of the liturgy, to take part in the liturgy as their vocation, and to see themselves as ministers within the Church. 

Spiritus Domini is but the latest moment in a long-term process.

Whose liturgy? 

Let’s start with a simple question. Walk into any Catholic building while a ceremony is taking place and ask yourself: ‘whose liturgy is this?’ Most people would say it is this parish’s or this group’s liturgy led by their priest. If one asked that in the 1950s the answer would have been that it was the priest’s liturgy done on behalf of the parish. The shift from it being a clerical affair to the business of the priestly people, activity of all the baptised, has been a slow one. While the rituals changed quickly, especially over a period of just a few years around 1970, the shift in understanding has been slow, very patchy, and made against a great deal of resistance. Moreover, the shift in appreciation by most Catholics has been even slower: many people still think they are just ‘going’ to something that the priest does.

For the first time ministries of lector and acolyte are formally open to women.
Photo: Digital Catholic Missioners

The clericalist church is based around the notion that the clergy are ‘the real church’ or, at least, its core. They are happy to be ‘churchmen’. But this term should surely apply to all the baptised and since they are made up of both males and females it would be better to speak of ‘churchpeople’ – but the very notion would shock most ‘churchmen’. These clergy celebrate the liturgy not with their sisters and brothers in baptism but for them. The real work of the liturgy is what the clergy do, others attend (or, at most, they just help out in the way that altar servers have done for centuries).

One still sees the old clerical mindset time and again. The presider steps in and does all the readings unless someone makes a fuss, he does not call on ‘extraordinary ministers’ or even think about sharing the cup and presents himself as the only real minister in the assembly. This mindset until now has not been formally challenged because that cleric could point to the law and, filled with legal righteousness, perpetuate the notion that the baptised are only present at his liturgy. Instead of the unified vision of a people with the Christ worshipping the Father, this older idea was of a priestly tribe inside the sanctuary with the laity located outside.

Now it is formally the case that it is our common memory as a whole people, which we celebrate in the Liturgy of the Word. The scriptures are the books of our common memory, and so any one of the baptised who is skilled in their performance – a task far more demanding that just literacy – has the right not only theologically, but canonically, to take on this ministry and have it formally conferred by the community of faith. It may have taken canon law centuries to catch up on theology, but on 15 January 2021 it did! Better late than never!

Likewise, eating and drinking at eucharistic celebrations is not a matter of acquiring some sacred object consecrated by a presbyter, but the celebration of the supper of the Lord as the community of faith whereby in our eating and drinking together we, with the Christ, offer the sacrifice of praise to the Father. This community meal is our meal not simply the presbyter’s meal, and so there should be within each community those who help in serving the meal and bringing that meal’s food to those community members who cannot be there. This is a ministry arising from the nature of the Eucharist, not simply a job that needs to be done to hasten a ceremony or ‘help out’ a tired or busy priest.

Liturgical change takes time – because it requires not only new ways of doing things, but new ways of seeing ourselves and what we are doing. Spiritus Domini calls us to think again at practices we take for granted.

Canon 230, 1 now reads:

Lay persons 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. Nevertheless, the conferral of these ministries does not grant them the right to obtain support or remuneration from the Church. 

Instead of LAY PERSONS it used to read ‘lay men,’ and so an important threshold has been passed in having the law reflect the faith of the Church that the liturgy is the work of all of us, sisters and brothers of Jesus in baptism.

Will bishops now take the corresponding step forward? 

In the Roman Pontifical there are formal rituals for instituting lectors and acolytes. How many have ever seen these being used? In the period of over 40 years since they were promulgated, I have never seen them used outside a seminary! In seminaries they are seen as just steps toward the diaconate and as progress markers that a seminarian is on track for ‘greater things’.

Meanwhile, readers are often just people ‘willing to help out’ and not afraid of awkward words such as ‘Nebuchadnezzar’. Likewise, ‘Extraordinary ministers’ are given the occasional retreat day but it is often seen as just a convenience or an intrusion!

Five challenges
1. Will communities shift their perception of those who perform the readings and see this as taking up part of the baptismal call to witness to the Good News? 
2. Will these women and men see this as a ministry and part of their conforming their lives with the work of Jesus?
3. Will presbyters take this vision to heart – and see it is a profound shift from clericalism?
4. Will those who help in the Ministry of the Table see this as part of their baptismal calling and not just a ‘job’ to ‘help out’ Father?’
5. Will bishops/episcopal conferences take Pope Francis’ letter to heart and actually institute these ministries of lector and acolyte? This is the acid test for the importance of Spiritus Domini.

So many have already dismissed Spiritus Domini as of no importance in the actual life of the Church – would that it were so! It can only be dismissed when every bishop has formally instituted lectors and acolytes – and provided the means to train them for their ministries – in every community in their care.