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Pope's letter on why he includes women in acolyte and lectorate


Letter of the Holy Father Francis to the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on access of women to the ministries of Lector and Acolyte, 11.01.2021

To the Venerable Brother Cardinal Luis F. Ladaria, S.J. Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

The Holy Spirit, the relationship of love between the Father and the Son, builds up and nourishes the communion of the entire People of God, inspiring in it many different gifts and charisms (cf. Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, no. 117). Through the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist, the members of the Body of Christ receive from the Spirit of the Risen Lord, to varying degrees and with different expressions, those gifts which enable them to make the necessary contribution to the building up of the Church and to the proclamation of the Gospel to every creature.

The Apostle Paul distinguishes in this regard between gifts of grace-charisms (“charismata”) and services (“diakoniai” - “ministeria" [cf. Rom 12:4ff and 1 Cor 12:12ff]). According to the tradition of the Church, ministries are the different forms that charisms take when they are publicly recognised and are made available to the community and its mission in a stable form.

In some cases the ministry has its origin in a specific sacrament, Holy Orders: these are the “ordained” ministries of the bishop, presbyter and deacon. In other cases the ministry is entrusted, by a liturgical act of the bishop, to a person who has received Baptism and Confirmation and to whom specific charisms are recognised, following an appropriate path of preparation: we then speak of “instituted” ministries. Many other ecclesial services or offices are in fact exercised by many members of the community, for the good of the Church, often for a long period and with great effectiveness, without any particular rite envisaged for conferring such office.

In the course of history, as ecclesial, social and cultural situations have changed, the exercise of ministries in the Catholic Church has taken on different forms, although the distinction, not only of degree, between “instituted” (or “lay”) ministries and “ordained” ministries has remained intact. The former are particular expressions of the priestly and regal condition proper to every baptised person (cf. 1 Pt 2:9); the latter are proper to some of the members of the People of God who, as bishops and priests, “receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head" or, as deacons, “are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity” (Benedict XVI, Apostolic Letter in the form of Motu Proprio Omnium in mentem, 26 October 2009). Expressions such as baptismal priesthood and ordained (or ministerial) priesthood are also used to indicate this distinction. In any case, it is worth reiterating that, with the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium of the Second Vatican Council, that “the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ” (LG, no. 10). Ecclesial life is nourished by this reciprocal reference and is nourished by the fruitful tension between these two poles of the priesthood, ministerial and baptismal, which despite their distinction are rooted in the one priesthood of Christ.

In line with the Second Vatican Council, the Supreme Pontiff Saint Paul VI wished to revise the practice of non-ordained ministries in the Latin Church - hitherto referred to as “minor orders” - adapting it to the needs of the times. This adaptation, however, should not be interpreted as an substitution of previous doctrine, but rather as an implementation of the dynamism that typifies the nature of the Church, always called with the help of the Spirit of Truth to respond to the challenges of every age, in obedience to Revelation. The Apostolic Letter in the form of the Motu Proprio Ministeria quaedam (15 August 1972) configures two offices (tasks), that of the Reader and that of the Acolyte, the first being closely connected to the ministry of the Word, the second to the ministry of the Altar, without excluding that other “offices” may be instituted by the Holy See at the request of the Episcopal Conferences.

Moreover, the variation in the forms of exercising non-ordained ministries is not simply the sociological consequence of a desire to adapt to the sensibilities or cultures of times and places, but is determined by the need to enable each local/particular Church, in communion with all the others and having as its centre of unity the Church in Rome, to live out its liturgical activity, its service to the poor and its proclamation of the Gospel in fidelity to the mandate of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the task of the Church's Pastors to recognise the gifts of each baptised person, to guide them also towards specific ministries, to promote and coordinate them, so that they may contribute to the good of the communities and to the mission entrusted to all disciples.

The commitment of the lay faithful, “who are, put simply, the vast majority of the people of God” (Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, no. 102), certainly cannot and must not be limited to the exercise of non-ordained ministries (cf. Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, no. 102). However, a better configuration of the ministries and a more precise reference to the responsibility that is born, for every Christian, from Baptism and Confirmation, can help the Church to rediscover the sense of communion that characterises her and to initiate a renewed commitment in catechesis and the celebration of the faith (cf. Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, no. 102). And it is precisely in this rediscovery that the fruitful synergy born of the mutual ordination of the ordained priesthood and the baptismal priesthood can find a better expression. This reciprocity, from service to the sacrament of the altar, is called to flow back, in the distinction of tasks, into that service of “making Christ the heart of the world' which is the particular mission of the whole Church. It is precisely this unique, albeit distinct, service to the world that broadens the horizons of the Church's mission, preventing her from being wrapped up in the barren logic aimed above all at claiming spaces of power, and helping her to experience herself as a spiritual community that “goes forward together with humanity and experiences the same earthly lot which the world does” (GS, no. 40). In this dynamic we can truly understand the meaning of the “outbound Church”.

In the context of renewal outlined by the Second Vatican Council, there is an increasing sense of urgency today to rediscover the co-responsibility of all the baptised in the Church, and especially the mission of the laity. The Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region (6-27 October 2019), in the fifth chapter of the final document, signalled the need to think about “new paths for ecclesial ministry”. Not only for the Amazonian Church, but for the whole Church, in the variety of situations, “It is urgent for the Church … to promote and confer ministries for men and women in an equitable manner. … It is the Church of baptised men and women that we must consolidate by promoting ministerially and, above all, an awareness of baptismal dignity” (Final Document, no. 95).

In this regard, it is well known that the Motu Proprio Ministeria quaedam reserves the institution of the ministry of Lector and Acolyte to men alone, and canon 230 § 1 of the CIC accordingly establishes this. However, in recent times and in many ecclesial contexts, it has been pointed out that releasing such a reservation could help to manifest more clearly the common baptismal dignity of the members of the People of God. Already on the occasion of the XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church (5-26 October 2008) the Synod Fathers expressed the wish “that the ministry of the Lector be open to women as well" (cf. 17); and in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (30 September 2010), Benedict XVI specified that the exercise of the munus of the Lector in liturgical celebration, and in a particular way the ministry of the Lectorate as such, in the Latin rite is a lay ministry (cf. no. 58).

For centuries the “venerable tradition of the Church” has considered what were known as “minor orders” - including, indeed, the Lectorate and the Acolyte - as steps on a path that was to lead to the “major orders” (Subdiaconate, Diaconate, Presbyterate). Since the sacrament of Orders was reserved for men only, this also applied to the minor orders.

A clearer distinction between the attributions of what are today called “non-ordained (or lay) ministries” and “ordained ministries” makes it possible to dissolve the reservation of the former to men alone. If, with regard to ordained ministries, the Church “does not consider herself authorised to admit women to priestly ordination” (cf. Saint John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, 22 May 1994), for non-ordained ministries it is possible, and today it seems opportune, to overcome this reservation. This reservation made sense in a particular context, but it can be reconsidered in new contexts, always having as its criterion fidelity to Christ's mandate and the desire to live and proclaim the Gospel transmitted by the Apostles and entrusted to the Church so that it may be listened to in a religious manner, kept in a holy manner and faithfully proclaimed.

Not without reason, Saint Paul VI refers to a tradition that is venerabilis, not veneranda, in the strict sense of the term (i.e. which “must” be observed): it can be recognised as valid, and for a long time it was; however, it is not binding, since the reservation to men alone does not belong to the nature of the ministries of the Lector and Acolyte. Offering lay persons of both sexes the possibility of accessing the ministries of the Acolyte and the Lector, by virtue of their participation in the baptismal priesthood, will increase the recognition, also through a liturgical act (institution), of the valuable contribution that a great number of lay persons, including women, have offered to the life and mission of the Church for a very long time.

For these reasons, I considered it appropriate to establish that not only men but also women can be instituted as Lectors or Acolytes, in whom, through the discernment of the pastors and after adequate preparation, the Church recognises “the firm will to serve God and the Christian people faithfully”,  as it is written in the Motu Proprio Ministeria quaedam, by virtue of the sacrament of Baptism and Confirmation.

The decision to confer these offices on women as well, entailing stability, public recognition and a mandate from the bishop, makes the participation of all in the work of evangelisation more effective in the Church. “This would also allow women to have a real and effective impact on the organisation, the most important decisions and the direction of communities, while continuing to do so in a way that reflects their womanhood” (Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia, no. 103). “Baptismal priesthood” and “service to the community” thus represent the two pillars on which the institution of ministries is based.

In this way, as well as responding to what is required for the mission in the present time and accepting the witness given by many women who have taken care of and continue to take care of the service of the Word and the Altar, it will become more evident - also for those who are moving towards the ordained ministry - that the ministries of the Lector and the Acolyte are rooted in the sacrament of Baptism and Confirmation. In this way, on the path leading to diaconal and priestly ordination, those who are ordained Lector and Acolyte will better understand that they participate in a shared ministry with other baptised men and women. In this way the priesthood proper to each member of the faithful (communis sacerdotio) and the priesthood of the ordained ministers (sacerdotium ministeriale seu hierarchicum) will be shown to be even more clearly ordered to one another (cf. LG, no. 10), for the edification of the Church and for the witness of the Gospel.

It will be the task of the Episcopal Conferences to establish adequate criteria for the discernment and preparation of candidates for the ministries of the Lectorate or Acolytate, or other ministries which they deem to be instituted, according to what is already disposed in the Motu Proprio Ministeria quaedam, subject to the approval of the Holy See and according to the needs of evangelisation in their territory.

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments ensure the implementation of the aforementioned reform by amending the Editio typica of the Pontificale romanum or “De Institutione Lectorum et Acolythorum”.

In renewing the assurance of my prayers, I cordially impart the Apostolic Blessing to Your Eminence, which I gladly extend to all the Members and Collaborators of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

From the Vatican, 10 January 2021, Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

Francis