The Pope’s decision on women lectors and acolytes: Did anything really happen?

Pope Francis has begun 2021 by taking important steps to enhance the role of women in the Catholic Church.

Feb 20, 2021

By Massimo Faggioli
Pope Francis has begun 2021 by taking important steps to enhance the role of women in the Catholic Church. On February 6, he appointed Sr Nathalie Becquart, a Xavierian Missionary, to be the first woman undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, and it appears she will be the first woman with a right to vote in the Synod’s assemblies.

This is very important news for the Synod and indeed “an inflection point for women’s leadership in the Catholic Church”.

Spiritus Domini, the “motu proprio” Francis issued on January 11, is potentially even more consequential.

It changes Canon Law to allow both women and men to be formally installed or “admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte”.

The Pope noted that participants at the 2019 Synod assembly for the Pan-Amazonian Region had specifically requested this change.

But so had many bishops over the years requested the same change, particularly during the various Synod assemblies held at the Vatican.

In most dioceses around the world, only men in formation for the diaconate or presbyterate are formally installed as lectors and acolytes.

The importance of Spiritus Domini is that it breaks the identification of authority in the Church with the male gender.

As Italian theologian Andrea Grillo put it, Francis makes clear that “the exercise of the authoritative word in the Church is not reserved only to baptised males”.

The Vatican’s communications department rightly made much of the new development.

L’Osservatore Romano was especially keen on shining a light on the new “motu proprio”, explaining its significance in the paper’s February 6 issue of Donne Chiesa Mondo, a monthly supplement on women and theology.

But what has been the echo of this news in the local churches?

Only a handful of bishops seem to have openly welcomed the “motu proprio.”

Local Catholic newspapers have reported on Spiritus Domini, but most national episcopal conferences — and even local bishops — have largely ignored it.

After more than one month, it is hard to find any announcement on the preparation for these changes.

Episcopal conferences and individual bishops could and should have welcomed the latest “motu proprio”. For instance, they could have highlighted the link between admitting women to the ministries of lector and acolyte and what women already do in the Church. They could have announced forthcoming programmes of formation for these ministries.

At the very least, the Pope’s decision should have been a reason for celebration. But it has not been. And this has nothing to do with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

This is problematic, even for the future. Let’s imagine what would happen if the Pope were to decide one day to open the diaconate to women.

Would there be a revolt from those clerics who reject this change, or would it be easier to just ignore the news as it is happening today?

On the other hand, without a synodal process, it is impossible or at least very hard, to imagine local Churches accepting any decision that Pope Francis makes, including on women and ministry.

Until synodality becomes a lived reality, all other ecclesial reforms have but a slim chance to be implemented.

The muted reception of this recent decision of Francis on the possibility for women to be formally installed as lectors and acolytes is just one example of the current ecclesial impasse. ––LCI (https://

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