Pastoral Letter on Pope Francis’ Spiritus Domini
Admitting Women to the Ministries of Lector and Acolyte
When we think about the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we tend to think of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. These Orders were instituted by Christ as part of the seven sacraments, which are the ordinary means by which God distributes sanctifying grace to Christian believers. Already by the second generation of Christianity, however, we saw the emergence of lower ranks that came to be known as the Minor Orders: porter, exorcist, lector and acolyte. In addition, we have the institution of the order of subdeacon, which was considered the first of the Major Orders, which included Deacons and Priests. We have the testimony of St Polycarp, who served as subdeacon to St John, the author of the Fourth Gospel, as proof of their antiquity. From the beginning, the chief roles of the sacred liturgy were performed by men who were instituted into these minor and major orders, which were all considered either a part of, or ordered to, the sacrament of Holy Orders. As the Church expanded and the number of Masses multiplied, it was impossible to have men ordained to all the orders fulfilling the various functions of public worship in every place. So pastors identified boys and young men who could be potential vocations to the priesthood, and permitted them to fulfill some functions of those ordained to the minor orders, in an extraordinary manner, when there were not sufficient ordained clergy to execute the rites of the sacred liturgy. As time went on, men admitted to the minor orders came exclusively from seminarians studying for the priesthood, and the young men and boys who substituted for them in church were often just boys and young men from the parish.
These boys and young men were often called acolytes in view of their extraordinarily fulfilling many of the duties of the ordained minor order of acolyte, but they are more properly known as altar servers because they serve in various capacities during the sacred rites. They were considered from the beginning to be oriented towards the sacrament of Holy Orders, and recruitment to the priesthood, which, as St John Paul II definitively declared, is reserved to men alone, in imitation of Christ. For this reason, prohibitions against females serving in this position date as early as the year 494, when Pope St Gelasius condemned it as an abuse prevalent in southern Italy at the time. That prohibition was reprinted in canonical legislation as well as in liturgical texts all the way through the 1917 edition of the Code of Canon Law, as well as St John Paul II’s 1980 instruction Inaestimabile donum.
But in 1972 St Paul VI published a document called Ministeria quaedam, which reduced the minor orders and the subdiaconate to two new “ministries” called lector and acolyte, and opened them even to men who were not destined for the priesthood. Ordination as a term was henceforth reserved to Deacons, Priests and Bishops. In 1973, the Sacred Congregation of the Sacraments issued Immensae caritatis which allowed, under certain well defined circumstances, men and women to distribute Holy Communion as extraordinary ministers, a permission that had just been allowed to instituted acolytes the year before.
Already in 1965, the first document implementing the liturgical reform of Vatican II, Inter oecumenici, allows for a “qualified reader or server” to read the non-Gospel lessons at Mass, without specifying the gender of the lector, in the absence of an ordained lector. In 1969, women were allowed specifically to read at Mass, “when a qualified man is not available” and “while standing outside the sanctuary.”
These reforms allowed for lay men to receive the new ministries of lector and acolyte, even if they were not going on the priesthood. In the United States, installing laymen in the ministry of lector and acolyte who were not seminarians was very rare, although it did become common in Rome itself, as well as in missionary territories. But after 1973, both men and women increasingly came to function in an extraordinary capacity as lectors and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. In theory, this was supposed to be in the absence of men installed into the actual ministries that replaced the corresponding minor orders. In some places, bishops even deputized these readers and extraordinary ministers with totally invented liturgical rites, and they began to appear in various forms of liturgical vesture and even form part of the liturgical procession. In 1997, St John Paul II issued an instruction On Certain Questions Regarding Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of the Priest.In article 6, paragraph 2 the wearing of liturgical vesture by the non-ordained was forbidden, precisely to make clear that such persons were not ordained, and performing a function as a layperson in the absence of those instituted into the ministries.
We now have a situation in which what were minor orders, given to men in a clerical context, has now passed on to ministries with no reference to ordination, the functions of which are routinely performed by laypeople of both sexes in an extraordinary way. This practical development in the life of the Church, however, raised a serious theological question: are these ministries, and the functions performed by those who exercise them, rooted in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, or in the Sacrament of Baptism? Since the ministries, and the functions performed by those who exercise them, had been excluded by Pope St Paul VI in 1973 from the Sacrament of Holy Orders, where did they stem from? And if so, if women were excluded from Holy Orders but not from anything else in the life of the Church, what was the reasoning for excluding them from the ministries, especially when they were already functioning in an extraordinary capacity in that manner anyway?
Historically, there are well documented instances of women performing those roles. Carthusian nuns singing the Gospel at Mass, laywomen reserving and distributing Holy Communion during the Soviet persecutions, even Benedictine abbesses with quasi-episcopal jurisdiction over priests in the territories of their abbeys. None of these practices were ever repudiated by Rome as heretical or contrary to the faith, as unusual as they were.
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI issued a post-synodal apostolic exhortation called Verbum Domini.This is the first time that a document of the Magisterium refers to “an appointed reader, whether a man or a woman” as exercising a munus, or gift in the Church, which he defines “as such, a lay ministry,” in paragraph 58. This definition seems to change the nature of the institution of lectorate, defining it as essentially lay in character, and as such, rooted in the Sacrament of Baptism.
When this document came in, as a theologian, I raised certain questions, the answers to which were not forthcoming from any subsequent Magisterial clarification on the matter. First, how can we assert that being a reader (or, by extension, an acolyte) belongs by nature to the sacramental order of Baptism, when the universal historical practice of the Church up until 1973 contradicts that, maintaining instead that it belongs to the sacramental order of ordination? Second, who has the power to assert that and what is the legitimate means by which they can indeed assert that as true? Does it belong to the power of the keys to the Pope alone or to the Pope and the College of Bishops together? Third, if we can simply remove the functions of the ministries of lectors and acolytes from the sacrament of Orders and assign them to laypeople and then claim that they belong by nature to the laity because of their baptism, entirely by papal fiat, what is to prevent the Roman Pontiff from unilaterally removing the functions exercised by those in the sacrament of Orders and then assigning them to laypeople (ex: the calls for anointing of the sick to be administered by deacons or nurses, when the scripture which establishes the sacrament itself says, Let them send for the priests of the Church)? What does that in turn do the integrity of the sacramental economy and its relationship to Tradition and the force of custom and law?
On 11 January 2021, Pope Francis promulgated a motu proprio entitled Spiritus Domini which asserts that “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.” He further claims that “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.”
This raises further questions in my mind as a theologian: First, is a mere motu proprio the vehicle by which doctrinal development can occur and then be proposed to the faithful? Second, if received practice is what informs our theology, then is that not “putting the cart before the horse” as it were? Should what we believe not be the basis for our practice, rather than what we practice influence what we believe about the practice? Third, if received practice is the locus in which we assert the essentially baptismal character of the ministries of lector and acolyte, then what happens if Christian communities “unreceive” the practice and reserve the functions exercised by those ministries to the ordained, as is the case for those who celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite and the Eastern Rites of the Church? What does that say about the assertion that the ministries are by their nature baptismal, and not clerical in character, when the Eastern Churches do not envision them in that way? How can they therefore be essentially baptismal in character based on practice, when the practice of the Eastern Churches and the Extraordinary Form reaffirms that they are clerical in nature? Fourth, what are the ecumenical implications for reunion with the Orthodox Churches of this shift?
Now, the merit of this document is that the Minor Orders of the Extraordinary Form and the Ministries of the Ordinary Form are now very clearly different things, even if some of the nomenclature is the same. Before Spiritus Domini, the ministries were removed from ordination, but were still clericalized to the extent that they were reserved to men, and that women and men who performed the functions proper to those ministries did them in an extraordinary way, as if the ministries were vaguely clerical in historical nature but not in actual practice.
So where does that leave altar servers? Altar servers, as such, have never been an order or ministry of the Church. They have always functioned in some sense in an extraordinary manner, in the absence of ordained acolytes or those who were instituted into the ministry of acolyte. For that reason, the admission of lay women to the ministry of acolyte does not have anything to do with altar servers as such.
What is the pertinent legislation regarding altar servers? As we have mentioned before, canonical legislation and liturgical rubrical texts carried a very clear prohibition against females serving at the altar from at least the fifth century. Neither the 1983 Code of Canon Law nor the current edition of the Missale Romanum replicated the same prohibition from previous texts. Requests for clarification in the face of the growing unauthorized use of “altar girls” led to the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legal Texts ruling that, since the Code did not carry the prohibition, it was permissible for females to serve at the altar.
Interestingly enough, the same document also states the following: “It must also be clearly understood that the liturgical services mentioned above are carried out by lay people ex temporanea deputatione, according to the judgment of the Bishop, without lay people, be they men or women, having any right to exercise them.” For the 1992 clarification, laypeople who performed any of the functions of the lector or acolyte in an extraordinary manner as a reader, altar server, or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, did so in a way which had clear reference to them, not exercising them as a fruit of their baptism, but merely by the juridical permission of the Church. The 1992 permission envisions that bishops can refuse to allow female service at the altar in their dioceses. On 27 July 2001, a subsequent communication from the Congregation for Divine Worship asserted that an individual pastor in his parish could not be forced to abandon the tradition of male-only altar service. In doing so, it stated, “the obligation to support groups of altar boys will always remain, not least of all due to the well-known assistance that such programs have provided since time immemorial in encouraging future priestly vocations.”
As for right now, the pertinent legislation of the Church is that bishops and priests have the right to maintain the historical tradition of groups of boys and young men as altar servers in their dioceses or parishes. That legislation clearly recalls the historical connection of altar servers with the priesthood, and recognizes the utility of the tradition as a means of recruitment to the priesthood. In the Diocese of Charleston, up until now, there are no laypeople of either sex who are admitted to the ministries of lector and acolyte, who are not preparing for Holy Orders, in view of their already functioning as readers and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. The Diocese, in accord with the law of the Church, leaves to pastors the decision whether to employ “altar girls” or no.
I was an altar server myself in 1994 when “altar girls” officially appeared the first time. As a priest, I have never gotten rid of them where they were already present in a parish, and I have also never recruited them where they were not already present. Prince of Peace has maintained a vibrant, active group of altar boys for many years now, from far before my time here. We will continue to maintain that tradition as part of our parish’s charism of creative fidelity to the celebration of the traditions of the Roman Church.
At the same time, however, there are numerous ways in which young women and girls can actively participate in the rich liturgical life of the parish. Those who are properly formed are welcome to serve as readers and extraordinary ministers in the Ordinary Form, as part of choirs at both forms, and also as part of the Guild of Our Lady and St Gianna, which is reserved to the cultivation of liturgical participation of young women and girls in the life of the parish. A change of leadership, followed by the pandemic, means that we have to reactivate that group. There is a very real desire in the parish and on my part to develop female leaders within the Church, who are active protagonists in the liturgical and spiritual tradition of the Church in ways which are free from secularist ideologies of egalitarianism and the dismissal of gender as a mere social construct. Because the mission of the altar server is by nature one of servitude to the priest celebrant of the Mass, I wish our ladies to exercise their Christian freedom, not in servitude to the priest, but in driving the beautification of the sanctuary and its ceremonies by their prayerful spiritual presence and practical involvement.
Pope Francis’ recent motu proprio is like many other stages in the life of the Church: it settles some questions, and opens others. The admission of women to the ministries of lector and acolyte in the Church, viewed from the historical development of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, may seem a radical departure from Tradition. From the point of view of actual pastoral practice as we have experienced it in the post-Vatican II period, it is just another step in the actualization of a liturgical reform whose nature and fruits are constantly under examination in a Church which is semper reformanda.
 St John Paul II, Ordinatio sacerdotalis: http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1994/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_19940522_ordinatio-sacerdotalis.html