For the first time ever, there were more women than men among the official ‘observers’ at the October Synod in Rome on ‘The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church’.
Thousands of women throughout the world had campaigned tirelessly to ensure that the voice of the other half of the church was heard. While they were not allowed to vote, the observers could attend all synod sessions, take part in the working groups and had an opportunity to address the entire synod assembly.
Pope Benedict also allowed six women biblical scholars to be among the 41 resource people available to the synod members as they discussed the importance of the scriptures in the life of the church, the bible’s role in Catholic prayer and liturgy, its role in ecumenical and interreligious relations, as well as ways to improve biblical literacy at every level of the church.
At the end of the three-week gathering the 253 members (all bishops and leaders of men’s religious orders) submitted 55 overwhelmingly approved proposals for the Pope to base his followup document on. Most of the proposals clarify and build on Dei Verbum (On Revelation, 1965), the key Vatican II document on sacred scripture.
The most controversial proposal was #17. Here the bishops suggested that ‘the ministry of lector be opened also to women so that their role as announcers of the Word may be recognised in the Christian community’.
Why is this so significant? Don’t women already read at Mass? Yes we do and have done since Vatican II (1962-65). That is, we are allowed to perform the ‘function’ of reader at Mass, but officially this is only a ‘temporary’ measure; we cannot be ministers of the Word in the same way that men can.
Under current Canon Law (#230), the ministry of lector (ie, reader) is technically open to males only. ‘Lay men’ can be installed ‘in the ministries of lector and acolyte’, while ‘lay persons’ (including women) can ‘fulfill the function of lector’ by ‘temporary deputation’. This is mainly for historical reasons.
Prior to 1972 the office of lector was one of several ‘minor orders’ leading to priestly ordination. However, Pope Paul VI abolished these orders but retained lector and acolyte as ministries and opened them to laity. The catch was that he insisted they be for men only.
Some of the 45 bishops who voted against the current proposal feared that opening the ministry of lector to women (and not just the function, as it is now) could eventually lead to opening other, higher ministries.
It is significant that the proposal was made as the church celebrates the Year of Paul for it was Paul who wrote:
For all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
The church continues to address the first two areas of division that Paul names, ie, between slave and free person and between Jew and Gentile, but it has yet to address sexism in the church. Perhaps proposal #17 should best be regarded as a ‘small step for man …’ moment.
Whether or not the Pope grants the bishops’ request doesn’t really matter. What is important is to recognise the monumental shift in the institutional (ie, male) imagination and the overwhelming willingness by the present bishops to heed (deliberately or not) the prophetic statement from Vatican II:
Nevertheless, with respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, colour, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent.
(Gaudium et Spes, 1965, # 29)
The proposal is indeed a cause for great hope. Next time I read at Mass it may be as a minister of the Word.