This is big. Pope Francis just decided motu proprio that females can be installed in the liturgical ministries of lector and acolyte.
To be sure, this move won’t change much in practice, and most Catholics will be perplexed by it. Women already proclaim readings at Mass, and we’ve had altar girls as well as altar boys – with Vatican permission – for more than 25 years. The short answer to that perplexment is that up until now, females couldn’t be installed in these ministries, but they could do these ministries anyway.
There has been an incoherence between liturgical reality and legal status ever since Pope Paul’s odd compromise of 1972 in Ministeria quaedam. Paul eliminated the old minor orders of porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte, which had mostly ceased being real ministries for many centuries and were just formalities into which every seminarian was inducted on his way to the major orders of subdeacon, deacon, and priest. (I don’t believe any seminarians ever served as doorkeepers after being ordained porters…)
Paul replaced the four minor orders with the two real “ministries” actually being done: lector and acolyte. But he retained their tie the all-male clergy by saying that only men could receive these ministries. Females could do these ministries, but they couldn’t be installed in them.
This has meant in practice that almost no one is installed in these ministries, male or female, except seminarians. Most all lectors and servers (male and female) do their ministries without being installed in them. Every spring, in seminaries around the world, seminarians are officially installed in ministries they’ve already been doing for years, in a ceremony that is always unsatisfying in its surreal and fictional quality.
Many years ago, Cardinal Basil Hume (d. 1999) called for a common sense reform at a Synod of Bishops so as to admit females to these ministries. One would have thought that the proposal to bring things in line with reality would have been readily accepted.
But this issue has famously become a ditch in which a certain kind of defender of clerical tradition is willing to die. In the most extreme fringes of traddie rejection of liturgical reform (if not of Vatican II) – I’m not making this up – there are actually people who argue for restricting these ministries to men in theory and in practice. Pope Francis has now undercut them.
Fabian Bruskewitz, whose term as bishop of the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska ended in 2012, was an outlier in the U.S. in that he only allowed men installed as lectors (laymen or seminarians) to proclaim Scripture readings at Mass. I always respected him at some level for his coherent thinking, even as I was horrified at its implications on the ground.
Now – and this is the good news – the whole church can be brought into a coherence which is not discriminatory. Males and females will continue to lector and acolyte as before, but now they will be able to do so with an official mandate from the bishop and a full ceremonial affirmation of their important liturgical role. This could have a positive effect on liturgical ministry training programs and on everyone’s view of the significance of these ministries. It will highlight the role of bishop as chief liturgist of his diocese – and that’s a good thing.
Kudos to Pope Francis.