Catechists attend Pope Francis's celebration of Mass marking Sunday of the Word of God at the Vatican, January 23, 2022 (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters).

On the Sunday of the Word of God this year, Pope Francis solemnly instituted lectors and catechists. They were drawn from nations around the world. The pope gave to each of the lectors a book of the Scriptures, and to the catechists a cross. There were prayers, and he enjoined these servants of the word to bring the Gospel to the world through their ministry. None of this was truly extraordinary, however. What made the event historic was that, for the first time, the rite included women.

It was a long time coming. In 1965, a subcommittee of the Consilium (the body of scholars and churchmen who crafted many of the liturgical reforms after the Second Vatican Council) gathered to study what was then called “minor orders,” including what we now call instituted lectors and acolytes. In Christian antiquity various people held these offices, but gradually they were restricted to seminarians on their way to being ordained to the priesthood. Over time, the priesthood assumed all the roles formerly held by a variety of ministers. The committee acknowledged the possibility of turning the page on this clericalization of ministry, but they did not discuss including women out of deference to those bishops who believed that the minor orders were part of the sacrament of Holy Orders, rendering women ineligible.

Nevertheless, a door was opened by the Consilium’s final report in 1967, which affirmed that the Church has considerable flexibility in reforming the offices below the level of deacon. The minor orders, although rooted in antiquity, can be reconfigured, they argued—some abolished, others added or adapted—to respond to the needs of the Church. The question of who receives them, and whether they are permanent or temporary, was not settled.


By the time of the council, everyone recognized that the Church’s practice of minor orders had become incoherent. The history was venerable, but modern-day seminarians were deriving little benefit from being ordained into these roles. It was more or less a formality they went through, with the rites serving as stepping stones in a cursus honorum that led to priestly ordination—their real goal. They moved through the minor orders quickly, sometimes celebrating two at a time. Some found it embarrassing to receive deputation, in solemn ceremonies, for tasks other people carried out. The role of doorkeeper was, for example, already filled by sacristans and ushers. Altar boys performed the role of acolyte. The priest read the readings at Mass. To be an actual exorcist was an advanced and specialized role quite separate from the “order of exorcist” conferred on them, which really meant nothing. One of the principles of the reform was “truthfulness.” By this canon, the minor orders were failing badly.

Pope St. Paul VI was interested in keeping the minor orders as a part of seminary formation. His focus was on renewing them and establishing a more coherent plan. Pastoral bishops saw this in a wider frame of reference, however, and had more ambitious goals. They wanted to simplify the preparation for priesthood and render it more realistic, but they also kept an eye on the horizon of lay ministry, which was a growing phenomenon. There was considerable interest, especially in mission dioceses, in strengthening lay ministries and finding ways to bless them. There were requests not only to institute women as lectors and acolytes, but also to consider instituting ministries of catechesis and various forms of pastoral service, which were already being filled successfully by women. There was also the question of allowing lay people to preach and conduct worship services in the absence of a priest. Some kind of blessing for music ministers, such as cantors, psalmists, and organists, was on the wish list too.

It wasn’t even clear where this topic belonged in the flow chart of the reform.

The topic of minor orders continued to be discussed among the various dicasteries of the Curia during the period immediately following the council, prompted at times by interventions from local churches and from the pope, but the conversation dragged on without resolution, at least in part because there were so many different discussions going on at the same time. It wasn’t even clear where this topic belonged in the flow chart of the reform: Holy Orders? Baptism? Blessings? Clergy formation? Liturgy? Evangelization and mission? All of the above?

In 1972, Pope Paul VI issued his motu proprio, Ministeria quaedam, which put an end to the discussion. He suppressed the orders of doorkeeper, exorcist, and subdeacon. He changed the terminology of “minor orders” to “ministries” and defined the ministry of lector and acolyte as lay ministries. Following an obscure precedent set by the Council of Trent, he added that “ministries can be entrusted to the lay Christian faithful; accordingly, they do not have to be reserved to candidates for the sacrament of Orders” (MQ III). Nevertheless, he reserved the instituted lay ministries of lector and acolyte to males “according to the venerable tradition of the Church” (MQ VII).

It’s important to recall that Paul VI did not attempt to prohibit women’s participation in liturgical ministry. The third instruction on the right implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium (Liturgicae instaurationes, 1970), which went out with his explicit approval, gave permission for women to read the pre-Gospel readings at Mass, as well as the general intercessions and any commentary designed to assist the assembly in understanding the rites. This instruction also permitted women to serve as leaders of song, organists, and ushers, and to organize processions and take up the collection. It noted that, with the permission of the bishop, designated lay leaders (for example, catechists), may conduct services of the word with Holy Communion from the reserved sacrament in cases where priests are not available to celebrate the Eucharist. It was, on the whole, an expansive endorsement for women. But it only went so far.

With his decisions on minor orders, Paul VI cleared away some of the confusion, but still ended up perpetuating the incoherent situation he inherited. The roles of lector and acolyte continued to be filled mostly by people who were not instituted. Seminarians continued to be instituted for roles in which they had no lasting interest or commitment. His motu proprio never got at the fundamental issue of “truthfulness.”

The truth will out, however. The fact that women were doing the work did change the landscape of the Church’s imagination over time. Although they were not instituted in these ministries, the prospect of instituting women someday never really died. At the Synod on the Word of God in 2008, the world’s bishops, impressed by decades of women’s service to the word, pressed the question. Proposition 17 read: “The synod fathers recognize and encourage the service of the laity in the transmission of the faith. Women, in particular, have an indispensable role on this point...they know how to arouse hearing of the Word and the personal relationship with God, and how to communicate the meaning of forgiveness and evangelical sharing. It’s hoped that [the] ministry of lector can be opened also to women, so that their role as announcers of the Word may be recognized in the Christian community.” The proposition passed with a vote of 191 in favor, 45 opposed, and 3 abstentions, but nothing was done. Pope Benedict’s post-synodal exhortation didn’t even mention it.

It came up again at the Amazon Synod in 2019. The working document for the synod was somewhat general, but the final document was sharp and specific on this point, showing that dialogue among those present, rather than weakening the case for women in the instituted ministries, had given it teeth:

We ask that the Motu Proprio of St. Paul VI, Ministeria quaedam (1972) be revised, so that women who have been properly trained and prepared can receive the ministries of Lector and Acolyte, among others to be developed. In the new contexts of evangelization and pastoral ministry in the Amazon, where the majority of Catholic communities are led by women, we ask that an instituted ministry of “women community leadership” be created and recognized as part of meeting the changing demands of evangelization and care for communities. (Final document, no. 102).

The vote was overwhelmingly in favor: 160 in favor, 11 against.

What is the horizon of our expectations? How deep is our own commitment to “truthfulness” in the exercise of these ministries?

Pope Francis, in his post-synodal exhortation Querida Amazonia, praises women for their generous service, but then uses the improbable success of such work as an argument to keep their aspirations in check. Like Pope Benedict, Pope Francis did not mention the instituted ministries in his exhortation. Oddly, he offered instead various cautions and warnings that reinforce the all-male priesthood (ordaining women to the priesthood was not advocated by the synod, but it seems to come up, like an uneasy conscience, every time Church officials consider any proposition to expand the access of women to ministries in the Church). Yet Francis did raise the question of office (publicly recognized duties) with respect to women:

In a synodal Church, those women who in fact have a central part to play in Amazonian communities should have access to positions, including ecclesial services, that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs. Here it should be noted that these services entail stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop. This would also allow women to have a real and effective impact on the organization, the most important decisions and the direction of communities, while continuing to do so in a way that reflects their womanhood. (QA 103)

This echoes an earlier statement he made in the encyclical The Joy of the Gospel, which proposed a greater role for women in decision-making in the Church.

As it turns out, “stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop” are precisely the conditions that were fulfilled when Pope Francis determined in 2021 that it would be both permissible and “opportune” to change Canon 230 § 1 to include women in the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte. This dissolved the reservation of Ministeriam quaedam and allowed women a place in the instituted ministries, just as the Amazon Synod requested. He opened this prospect not only for the Amazonian region but for the universal Church.

Francis followed this decision with another motu proprio establishing the ministry of catechist as an instituted ministry. This corresponds loosely to the request of the synod for establishing an official designation for “women’s community leadership” (though it is also open to men) because the catechist is the de facto community leader in mission territories, and may be the sole official representative of the Church.

Now that this precedent has been established, however, new questions arise for which there are no easy or self-evident answers. What is the horizon of our expectations? How deep is our own commitment to “truthfulness” in the exercise of these ministries?

Let us be blunt here: the modes and models of the minor orders that we’ve inherited from the past were not substantially revised by the reforms of Paul VI. Yes, some minor orders were set aside, and others received new names, but underneath the nomenclature and sorting, little changed. The Church’s experience with the instituted ministries has been restricted almost entirely to men who are on their way to ordination, while most of the work is done by somebody else. This model has never been subjected to a searching critique.

A look at what remains on the books concerning the instituted ministries prior to Francis’s intervention shows a distinctly clerical bias. The norms are strict about order and privilege (if an instituted minister is present, the non-instituted minister must give way; those instituted must sit in the sanctuary, etc.), but silent on issues of collaboration and reciprocity. Francis’s letter to Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in contrast, envisions a vibrant experience of reciprocal collaboration between the baptismal priesthood and the ministerial priesthood played out in the exercise of these instituted ministries. Francis has introduced the instituted ministries as a significant opportunity for women to enter into decision-making in the ecclesial community, further the work of evangelization, inspire the laity, affect the life of parishes, and shape their mission. Yet how all this will happen remains vague.

The rhetoric Francis uses to describe the foundations of such ministries (“the royal priesthood of Baptism”) is robustly Christological, but our conception of what is going on continues to gravitate toward the merely functional. This is no doubt because lay liturgical ministries have developed in ways that reflect their ad hoc status. Right now, they are an extremely limited “plug and play” reality in our parishes. They presume no lateral relationships (catechists in the United States have peer organizations, but there is nothing comparable for lectors or acolytes). They carry within them no notion of public office. Nor do they lead to any structured participation in the counsels and decision-making of a local community. They enjoy no mandate from the bishop, and most people who exercise them have received only minimal training, formation, or education in liturgy. All that has to change, if instituted ministries are going to become a “real thing” in the Church and not mere window dressing.

We need more reflection on the intertwined yet different subjects of ministry, office, and the Christian participation in Christ’s threefold munera (priest, prophet, and king) in the Church. Yet there is no guarantee that this will happen. The prolonged period during which our horizon of expectations was foreshortened to a level of basic functionality and “helping Father” could very well lead to a failure of theological imagination and courage as we face this new moment in history. The blank stares that the news has elicited (“Don’t women already do these things?”) show that, for many of us, we’ve arrived at this moment ill prepared.

It’s important that we not pour the new wine of women’s participation into the old wineskins of a failed clericalist vision. In the clerical model, when an office is conferred, ministry is presumed to follow automatically. But if there is anything that the development of lay ecclesial ministry has taught us over the past decades, it is that genuine ministry doesn’t work like that. It is a sharing of gifts in response to needs. There is an authentic reciprocity between the service of those who minister and the needs of those who are served. Priests and pastors know this from experience, just as lay people do, yet our system has for a long time lagged behind. Being dubbed “lector” doesn’t confer on anyone the gift of reading the scriptures intelligently, passionately, or well. First, the gift must be discerned. Then the need must be acknowledged. (The proclamation of the word in liturgy is important; much is riding on this.) Only then does public office make sense. Questions of precedence and order are secondary to questions of charism and service. The credibility of the Church’s ministry demands that we get this right.

The opening of instituted ministries to women will also begin, really for the first time, a reckoning with an ecclesiology that divides the Church too simply into clergy and laity. A multiplicity of different ministries, each formally recognized and empowered by the bishop, and all ordered toward communion, are being established. This complicates things, but it is a wonderful complexity. We are being invited into new modes of collaboration with one another in the great work of the Church. We cannot walk into this with our eyes closed, as if we are simply putting a new label on an already-existing set of roles and relations. It is a new moment. To borrow the expression of the distinguished scholar Cesare Giraudo, SJ, who wrote about the instituted ministries in La Civiltà Cattolica, the inclusion of women in these ministries is “a milestone and a point of no return.”

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Pastoral Guide to Pope Francis’s Desiderio Desideravi (Liturgical Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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Published in the April 2022 issue: View Contents
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