Acolyte Reflects on Chicago Installation

Blase Cupich Welcomed As Archbishop Of ChicagoAt his installation Mass last Tuesday, Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich was served at the altar by four women and four men, which reportedly was his request of the Archdiocese’s Office of Divine Worship.

One of those four female acolytes, Beth Knobbe, recently shared a reflection on her experience of serving in the liturgy.

What an honor to serve at the Installation Mass of Chicago’s Ninth Archbishop, Blase Cupich and to wish the best to Francis Cardinal George as he begins a much deserved retirement after 17 years. There are so many stories to share!

Knobbe noted the spirit of welcome found in Holy Name Cathedral that day:

On the day the Church installed a new Archbishop, “welcome” was an overriding theme!  There was an atmosphere of welcome and inclusion that I hope to hold onto for a long time.  To be honest, being welcoming and inclusive is not something that the Church has always done well, and I think we still have a long way to go.  There are moments from this day that I will truly treasure.

And Knobbe felt truly welcome in her role:

Women serving on the altar is not something you see every day – and certainly not at the installation of a bishop!  If anyone objected to our presence, no one said it.  Not with their words or their body language.  As a matter of fact, I heard “thank you” a lot – thank you for being here, thank you for serving, thank you for all that you do.  I heard this from priests and laypeople alike.

Getting up close to the new Archbishop offered the opportunity for Knobbe to notice a few personal details that gave a glimpse into Cupich’s pastoral style and demeanor:

I also took a good, long look at Bishop Cupich’s hands.  Hands carry a history, hands tell a story.  My grandma had hands that were strong enough to carry a crate of calf bottles and knuckles big enough to knead bread dough.  Bishop Cupich has hands that are soft yet well-worn with age and wisdom.  Hands that have surely baptized babies and anointed the elderly. Hands that will touch a lot of lives here in Chicago.  Christina and I also both noted how he looked us in the eye during the rite.  He has these piercing blue eyes, set deep into his face – inviting people in and reading everything around him.

Check out Beth Knobbe’s entire essay, “Reflections on the Installation Mass” at her blog.


  1. Responding to comment now removed at request of author:

    I believe the GIRM distinguishes between “instituted acoloytes”, and those who are deputized to carry out the tasks allocated to the acolyte, who still might be appropriately called “acolytes”.

  2. Fortunately, we are not required to restrict the ministry of reader or of acolyte to those who have been instituted. If we were, there would be none at all in most places – whether men or women!

  3. But since my childhood (in the dim and disrant past) those servers who carried candles and did the business with cruets were called acolytes to distinguish them from thurifers etc. A role, not an office.

  4. Perhaps it’s time to “rake up” the question of why women cannot be instituted as lectors and acolytes, and perhaps testing Ministeria Quaedam with the proposal of new instituted ministries (e.g. Catechist, Cantor – in the “big” sense). During diocesan conversations surrounding the issuing of “Co-workers in the Vineyard of the Lord,” Omaha cathedral rector Fr. Michael Gutgsell proposed grounding the discussion of non-clerical ministry in the Church on the foundation of Ministeria Quaedam, affirming baptism as the source of lay ecclesial ministry rather than episcopal recognition. If instituted ministries are truly distinct from the former minor orders (even if they remain part of the process of clergy formation), why should women not be instituted if they are already able to serve in the liturgical role?

  5. Precisely. If regular instituted ministries are not Orders, why should they be restricted? Ministeria Quaedam could be built upon in such a way that allows for the development of baptism-rooted lay ministries that are distinct from both Holy Orders and extraordinary ministry. Calling on some canonist or theologian to explore this! Anyone already done it?

    1. Responding to comment now removed at request of author:

      “Settled post-conciliar practice” maybe for you, but obviously not for other people including the commenters here.

      The diocese of Lincoln NE has required that all readers be instituted lectors, meaning that only laymen may proclaim Scripture readings at Mass there, not laywomen. Obviously the vast majority of these laymen are not seeking orders. So the link between these ministries and ordained ministry isn’t strong everywhere.

      You seem to assume that any development must be organic, but that’s just your personal rule. “Organic development” is one line in a conciliar document, and then some have elaborated it into a grand theory, but the theory has not attained anything like consensus among theologians. Many think it does not hold up, either as an accurate account of what happened historically, or as a helpful guide as to what further developments might be acceptable. Its application appears to be rather arbitrary in the hands of its proponents.

      Cardinal Basil Hume once advocated at a synod for bishops for the admission of women to all ministries not requiring ordination. I don’t see any movement in this direction in the immediate future, but I doubt that the question will go away for good. I personally think such a development is entirely possible, whether or not it is held to be an organic development.


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #15:
        Well said Anthony.

        What is more, “organic development” is about as useful as “hermeneutic of continuity” — that is, not very much. One person’s continuity is another’s rupture. One person’s “organic” is another’s “fabricated”.

  6. There are many forms of essential ministry without which parishes would not live. Why single out liturgical ministers for “institution” and not welcomers and guitarists and cleaners?

  7. Our diocese has had both men nod women serving as Episcopal “masters” of ceremonies for over 16 years. I remember seeing young women serving in the sanctuary in Rome in 1985. And in Zermatt in 1982. And now in Chicago!

  8. Bishops authorize the public commissioning of lay Communion Ministers using a rite included in the Book of Blessings. What could justly preclude bishops from auhorizing the public commissioning of Readers, Server/Acolytes, Cantors, Music Ministers, and Catechists? I think it borders on silly to even have to ask this question. Is this not clearly an issue that lies within the competence of local bishops? Can anyone imagine the pope reprimanding a bishop who chooses to do this?

  9. In 1995 at the beatification ceremonies presided over by St John Paul II in Papua New Guinea and Australia a number of women were servers (we didn’t call them acolytes) and in Australia two were also official MCs.

  10. For your information, my opinion is that MQ clearly envisaged that ministries would be bestowed far more extensively than merely to would-be priests.

    MQ has generated uses which were not intended or foreseen by Paul VI. My local parish has an instituted acolyte who is considered a “permanent subdeacon” for solemn EF Masses.

    Fr. Anthony makes a very important distinction between customary or “organic” law and positive law. Unless one forgets, Summorum pontificum, which many consider to be an organic development, was created as positive law to fulfill the wishes of some of the faithful. Some liturgists consider the postconciliar period to be one entirely formed by positive law (few aspects of the preconciliar “past” are customary). Although this standpoint deeply angers me, I must respect it as one viewpoint of many on how the Church could perpetuate itself.

  11. Responding to comment now removed at request of author:

    I didn’t mean to ascribe anything to you, and I tried to respond to what you wrote. I don’t believe I did so combatively. You wrote this:
    “Against a background of ancient tradition and settled post-conciliar practice linking ministries strongly to ordained ministry, it’s hard to see how an organic development admitting women to institution could occur.”
    I took this to mean that you link ministries to ordained ministry, and that it would have to be an ‘organic development,’ which you think it isn’t, to admit women to ministries.

  12. Re: the question of “organic development” and specifically regarding the involvement of women – a little history in two comments.

    What many Catholics today regard wistfully as the most traditional of Catholic traditions – the fully habited “active” community of sisters, is, in fact, a very recent historical development. Because for 450 years, Popes and ecumenical councils had declared over and over again – in the strongest possible terms – that true women religious must be completely enclosed.

    In 1298 Pope Boniface VIII issued a papal decretal (a legal, disciplinary ruling) named Periculoso for its first Latin word “dangerous”. Periculoso required perpetual enclosure for all vowed religious women. Enforcement of Periculoso, which was never total, was a multi-century struggle and reinforced by papal decrees in 1309, 1566, 1570, and 1572 as well as by the Council of Trent. By the time of Trent, the decretal’s dictates had largely become synonymous with traditional conceptions of women religious; for example, the Council referred to enclosure as the “primary obligation for nuns”.

    One result: For many centuries, priests and monks greatly outnumbered religious women because the discipline of enclosure meant that only small communities of women could be sustained economically.

    The complex history of Mary Ward’s Congregation of Jesus/Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary reveals a good deal about how what we now regard as “traditional” religious ministry changed dramatically.

    Her community was formally suppressed in exceptionally harsh terms by the Pope in 1631 – in part due to their lack of enclosure (Mary was an incessant traveler by foot and walked across Europe several times).

    (The conclusion in a second comment)

  13. The 1631 Papal Bull of Suppression was never been rescinded but some houses of Mary’s community survived, including one in Munich. It was the Munich house that became the trigger for the surprisingly low-key undoing of 450 years of required enclosure for all vowed women. In 1749, the local archbishop wanted to assert Episcopal control over the Munich house and asked the Vatican to rule on whether or not the group was a “religious” community, because if it was, he demanded episcopal jurisdiction. The Pope’s ruling gave the Munich community permission to remain unenclosed as true religious, ending the era of enforced enclosure with a whimper.

    The disciplinary decision of 1749 triggered a staggering growth in women religious which was unprecedented. By 1800, new congregations of active religious women were being formed all over Europe.

    In Ireland, for instance, there were only 120 women religious in 1800. Sisters made up only 6% of the sum total of all priests/women religious. By 1851, women religious comprised 38% of all priests/women religious and 50 years later, they outnumbered priests more than two to one. Finally, in 1900, Leo XIII, in the apostolic constitution Conditae a Christo, formally recognized as an authentic form of Religious Life non-cloistered apostolic congregations.

    No Catholic today, not even the most radical of traditionalists, is campaigning for the return of all women religious to strict enclosure. The “active women religious” model has clearly become both the formal and de facto norm everywhere.

    My question: Does the history of this development met the organic test? If so, it would seem to imply that true “organic development” can encompass even dramatic changes in both discipline and direction at the highest levels of the Church.

    1. @Sherry Weddell – comment #22 and 23:
      This is a fine contribution to the discussion.

      I’m wondering if the “continuity/rupture” paradigm will even be viewed as relevant 20 or 50 years from now. After all, the primitive Jerusalem community, when faced with decisions about future apostolic activity, did not consider whether the new directions being proposed were “organic developments,” or, instead, “ruptures” in current practices. The standard for discernment was, “Is this of the Holy Spirit?”

    2. @Sherry Weddell – comment #23:
      In a way, nothing has changed in one context: bishops and some men are still trying to confine women religious in some way.

      As for the continuity/rupture paradigm, I don’t think it has legs today. At worst, it is part of the usual resistance to the change spurred by a major council. A good number of us don’t ascribe to organic development as a major principle at all. As part of a wider appropriation of pastoral prudence, continuity may have value in the context of a local community. But sometimes, people need a nudge, a push, an urging forward.

  14. The “organic development” issue is much older than the “continuity/rupture” debate so common after B16’s 2005 address. And of course, B16 was constantly being misquoted in the first place because he was freely acknowledged the need for both the traditional and the new, emerging in response to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

  15. My experience in parish ministry is that the term “acolyte” isn’t really in common usage. Our parish does what I believe most parishes around here do: they subdivide “acolyte” into two different ministries, altar server and eucharistic minister. Both males and females have been doing both of these for years throughout the Chicago archdiocese. Beth Knobbe was an altar server during the installation. Perhaps a woman doing that is something new or unusual for Holy Name Cathedral (I am not certain), but it’s certainly nothing new for the archdiocese. In the recent confirmation liturgy with an auxiliary bishop at our parish, there were six altar servers, at least three of whom were girls.

    It is true that frequently at liturgies with bishops there are seminarian satellites revolving around the episcopal planets. I am sure there are both traditional and practical reasons for that, but I don’t know that it’s particularly more *fitting* that celibate males serve in ministries that, after all, are not essentially clerical.

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