There has been a lot of ferment recently around questions of ministry in the Catholic Church—both in the liturgy and in the life of the Church more broadly. Who ministers? How is their service honored as a gift of the Holy Spirit for the building up of the Body of Christ? How do ministries flow from the liturgy and lead us back to the liturgy, which is the summit and source of the life of the Church? It is worth summarizing some recent developments, many of which have taken place in just the past year, and considering their implications.
The possibility of opening the permanent diaconate to women continues to provoke much discussion, both at the grassroots level and in Rome. A thriving grassroots organization called Discerning Deacons is gathering steam, and two Vatican committees were formed under Pope Francis’s watch to study the question. The second of these has just begun to meet. In the meantime, Francis has opened the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte to women. This looks like a modest venture on the surface, but it could prove significant. Then, in May 2021, he decreed the creation of a new instituted ministry, that of catechist, also available to women. This will not only honor those with a lifelong vocation to the catechetical ministry, but will also affect lay pastoral ministers who shepherd communities, spread the faith, lead prayer, help the sick, celebrate funerals, promote justice, and represent the Church in far-flung places. The Rite of Institution of Catechists was just released, with a start date in January. This is lightning speed for Rome: announcement in May, fulfillment in December. (It took Cardinal Robert Sarah more than a year to change one line in the liturgy of Holy Thursday so that women could be included in the foot-washing ritual.)
The ministerial priesthood also seems to be a focus of renewal. In March, there was a crackdown at St. Peter’s Basilica that eliminated private Masses in favor of concelebration. It’s a shift inspired by Vatican II. The problem of having multiple priests celebrating “their” Mass privately, at the same time other Masses are going on, was explicitly addressed by the council, which introduced the practice of concelebration. The norm of the liturgy is that it is a communal exercise, not a solo performance. Concelebration underscores the unity of the priesthood. That point, unfortunately, tended to be lost amid media coverage that subsumed the change to an existing narrative about Francis’s hostility to the older forms of the Mass. But it really was more than that.