Women have been proclaiming Sacred Scripture and assisting at the altar at Mass for many years, but only in a “temporary” way, as defined by the Church.
That will change under a revision to Canon Law made by Pope Francis on Jan. 11, allowing lay women to be instituted by their bishop as lectors and as acolytes.
The offices of lector and acolyte were previously reserved to adult lay men.
“This update ensures that all laity — women and men — are able to use the gifts God has given to them for the good of the Church, exercising appropriate co-responsibility in building up the Body of Christ,” said Bishop W. Shawn McKnight. “We will be able to provide catechesis, training and formation for lay women and men who are called to these ministries, so they can be good stewards of these gifts from God.”
The change reflects the Church’s recognition of a particular grace bestowed on each person at baptism.
“It’s a natural development stemming from the Second Vatican Council and its recognition of the Universal Call to Holiness, through which everyone is summoned to full, conscious and active participation in the life of the Church,” said Bishop McKnight.
Pope Francis made clear that the change is not a move toward ordaining women as deacons or priests. Rather, it is an affirmation of a calling received both by men and women within their vocation as laypeople.
Pope Francis explained his decision in the context of the gifts and talents given by the Holy Spirit “through the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist” to all members of the Church so that they can contribute “to the building up of the Church and to the proclamation of the Gospel to every creature.”
“The Priesthood of the baptized and service to the community represent the two pillars on which the institution of ministries is based,” the pope said.
Lay men and women will continue to be allowed to serve as lectors and altar servers at their parishes without being instituted as lectors or acolytes. But their ability to serve in those roles will remain temporary and restricted to their own parish.
Instituted lectors and acolytes receive a permanent mandate to carry-out the responsibilities of their office.
“It’s for life,” said Bishop McKnight. “And it’s effective throughout the entire world. If the person moves to another parish or diocese, they take it with them.”
For that reason, only a bishop can install someone in the office of lector or acolyte outside of clerical institutes of consecrated life.
New paths to leadership
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states the role of instituted acolytes and lectors at Mass:
Both descriptions will soon be updated to include women.
Bishop McKnight noted that both offices have unique roles. Whenever a canonically instituted lector is present at Mass, he or she, rather than a priest, deacon or bishop, should proclaim the readings other than those from the Gospel.
Likewise, whenever an instituted acolyte is present, he or she should be the one to prepare the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
“I like the fact that they both are given roles that only they can do whenever they are present,” he stated.
Until now, the office of lector and acolyte have usually been limited to men who are preparing to be ordained to the Diaconate or Priesthood.
Bishop McKnight is looking forward to instituting more laypeople, women and men, as lectors and acolytes in the diocese.
He emphasized that the official offices of lector and acolyte and the responsibilities that come with them flow from a person’s baptism, not from a calling to ordination.
“It’s not a calling beyond baptism,” Bishop McKnight explained. “It’s a summoning forth of a ministry from within, already given by God and revealed by people having the proper skills for carrying-out the ministry and a desire to do so.”
The bishop said the revised canon will create new pathways to leadership both for lay men and lay women in the Church.
“This gives us a new and visible example of lay leadership in the Church that will be present at the Liturgy,” he said.
He emphasized that the institutes of acolyte and lector aren’t simply honorary titles.
“They’re actually going to have already proven ministry experience in the Church,” he said. “They’re people who are already DOING that work, that sacred work, that is represented by those liturgical roles in the celebration of the Mass.”
Pope Francis granted bishops’ conferences throughout the world the authority to adopt standard norms for putting these new changes into practice.
The U.S. Catholic bishops will work on creating those norms this year and will likely approve them at their fall meeting in November.
Bishop McKnight will then seek guidance from his priest advisors on the Diocesan Presbyteral Council and from the Diocesan Pastoral Council, made up mostly of laypeople, on implementing the norms in this diocese.
He believes that those who are instituted to be official representatives of the laity at Mass should also be active in related lay ministries beyond the Liturgy.
“Especially with our first cohort of instituted lectors, I want them to be people with proven ministry experiences in catechesis or involvement in RCIA or teaching in the Catholic school system — something related to proclamation of the Word outside the Liturgy,” he said.
Likewise, he believes candidates for the institute of acolyte should have extensive experience visiting the sick or shut-ins, “since they’re also the ones to assist with bringing viaticum to the dying and Holy Communion to those who are not present at Mass.”
Instituted acolytes automatically become extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, at Mass and out in the community.
“Laypeople are allowed to do that at Mass with a temporary mandate,” he explained. “As an instituted acolyte, they hold that privilege permanently by virtue of having been instituted.”
Pastors will nominate parishioners to serve as instituted lectors and acolytes. Those parishioners who accept that invitation will be required to have solid theological and liturgical formation. If they don’t already have formal education, coursework will be required.
“It will be more than just learning the techniques for performing tasks in the Liturgy,” said Bishop McKnight. “There will also be theological and liturgical training.”
For instance, candidates for the institute of lector would have to demonstrate an appropriate understanding of the Sacred Scriptures from a Catholic perspective, as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.
Bishop McKnight hopes each parish in the diocese will eventually have at least one instituted acolyte and at least one instituted lector.
“They would serve in leadership, assisting the pastor in the formation and training of the temporary readers at Mass or the temporary altar servers,” he said.
“Diversity of charisms”
Bishop McKnight emphasized that being instituted as an acolyte or lector is “a calling within a calling.”
“This isn’t a general vocation like marriage, religious life or the ministerial Priesthood,” he said. “It’s a way in which someone who is baptized can live out their baptism.”
He cautioned against allowing these offices, which are meant to be avenues for humble service in the Church, to become a means for promoting elitism or separation in parishes.
In other words, not every active, adult Catholic would become an instituted lector or acolyte.
“Rather, those who are instituted should be seen as representatives of all laypeople of the Church, serving alongside the priests and deacons,” he said.
“It’s important to have a visible representation of that in the Liturgy,” he added, “so people actually see a diversity of charisms coming together — which is what brings about the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist.”
Contributing to this report were Helen Osman, diocesan communications director for the Jefferson City diocese, and Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service.