This past January Pope Francis issued a Motu Proprio: Spiritus Domini, which modified the first paragraph of Canon 230 of the Code of Canon Law. Through this action, Pope Francis made the decision that from now on the ministries of Lector and Acolyte were to be open to women. (A Motu Proprio refers to a document issued by the pope on his own initiative and personally signed by him.)
Now, there is nothing new about women proclaiming the Word of God during liturgical celebrations, or ministering as Eucharistic ministers or altar servers. In many communities throughout the world these practices have been authorized by local bishops, and have been in place for many years.
However, up to this point, the above has occurred without an institutional mandate. Rather, it has occurred as an exception to the protocols that were established by Pope Paul VI in 1972. At that time Pope Paul abolished the so-called “minor orders,” but decided that access to the ministries of lector and acolyte should be granted only to men because both of these ministries were considered to be preparatory to the eventual admission to holy orders. However, after the conversations and consultation which took place and emerged from the last Synods of Bishops, Pope Francis decided to formalize and institutionalize the presence of women at the altar.
Now you would think that a change of this kind would be recognized and shared broadly. However, as I was writing this (at the beginning of May), I checked the United States Conference of Bishops’ website and found no mention of it there. Further, I have heard of only a handful of bishops who have commented on it. I think this is a real missed opportunity. And in regard to missed opportunities Author Jodi Picoult once said: “Missed opportunities are never superficial wounds; they cut straight to the bone.”
For centuries, women have served in our Church well, selflessly, and most often with little recognition and meager compensation. Now that Pope Francis has opened the ministries of Lector and Acolyte to women, you would think this would be cause for celebration—or at least acknowledgment. Sadly, for some reason, the leadership of our Church has not done this. I believe this is not just a superficial wound. More importantly, it is not only a wound for woman, but also it is a wound for our Church.
Whenever we can’t or won’t recognize the gifts of people in our church—in this case specifically the gifts women have to offer—we are less than we can and should be as a church. Church is at its best when it is able to recognize, accept, and celebrate the gifts and contributions of everyone, woman and men, young and old, rich and poor, named and unnamed; progressive and conservative; people of every race and nationality.
The muted response of our bishops to Pope Francis’ “Motu Proprio” admitting women to the ministries of Lector and Acolyte is not just a superficial wound to our Church; rather it is a wound that cuts straight to the bone.
Rev. John M. Bauer
Pastor, The Basilica of Saint Mary