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Pope formalises women’s lay ministry

15 January 2021


Pope Francis recites the Angelus in his studio at the Vatican, last week

Pope Francis recites the Angelus in his studio at the Vatican, last week

WOMEN may now serve canonically as lectors and acolytes in the Roman Catholic Church, after a change to canon law announced by Pope Francis on Monday.

These lay ministries, which include reading biblical texts at mass, carrying the processional cross, presenting the Bible to the priest, bringing the bread and wine to the altar, and assisting at communion, had previously been described as open only to “suitable male faithful”, because they were considered preparatory to eventual admission to Holy Orders.

Around the world, however, women were already doing these things, authorised by local bishops: something that the Vatican acknowledged as “nothing new” in its explanation of the move. “Now, in the wake of the discernment which has emerged from the last Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis wanted to formalise and institutionalise the presence of women at the altar,” it explained.

The Pope makes a clear distinction in the letter between lay and ordained ministries. “A doctrinal development has taken place in recent years which has highlighted how certain ministries instituted by the Church are based on the common condition of being baptised and the regal priesthood received in the Sacrament of Baptism; they are essentially distinct from the ordained ministry received in the Sacrament of Orders.

“A consolidated practice in the Latin Church has also confirmed, in fact, that these lay ministries, since they are based on the Sacrament of Baptism, may be entrusted to all suitable faithful, whether male or female, in accordance with what is already implicitly provided for in Canon 230:2.”

“Deepening the subject doctrinally”, the Pope says, will enable “offering appropriate support to the role of evangelisation that is incumbent upon the ecclesial community”.

The Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC), which advocates the ordination of women, welcomed the move as bringing the institutional Church into better alignment with pastoral realities around the world and eliminating “the ability of an individual bishop to apply misogynistic theology to bar women and girls from these roles”.

Its executive director, Kate McElwee, said: “Whilst this is not a radical shift, the Church recognising widely accepted practices by Catholics around the world, and taking doctrinal steps to be more inclusive, is radical.

“In addition, it shows that Pope Francis clearly has the authority to change church teaching in order to reflect the signs of the times and the sense of the faithful, both of which point to equality for women in the Church.

“While we will continue to uncompromisingly advocate for the full equality of women, the strengthening of the baptismal equality of all people through this change will impact communities that use the Roman Catholic Church’s unjust treatment of women to defend oppressive practices in society.”

Lockdown-escapers criticised. The Pope has criticised those who have fled abroad to escape tough lockdowns in their own countries.

Speaking in a video address earlier this month, he said that he had been “saddened” by newspaper reports of people escaping lockdown by flying abroad to go on holiday. “They didn’t think about those who were staying at home, of the economic problems of many people who have been hit hard by the lockdown, of the sick people. [They thought] only about going on holiday and having fun,” he said.

The Vatican has been among the most prominent voices urging that vaccines be distributed equitably, and that poorer countries not be left behind.

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