Pope Francis has changed the Code of Canon Law to institutionalize what is already allowed in practice: the access of lay women to the service of the Word and the Altar. The Pope explains his decision in a letter to Cardinal Ladaria.



To Venerable Brother
Cardinal Luis F. Ladaria, SI,
Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

The Holy Spirit, a relationship of love between the Father and the Son, builds and innervates the communion of the entire people of God, arousing in it many and different gifts and charisms (cf. Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium , n. 117) . Through the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist, the members of the Body of Christ receive from the Spirit of the Risen One, in varying degrees and with different expressions, those gifts which enable them to make the necessary contribution to the building up of the Church and to the proclamation of the Gospel to every creature.

In this regard, the Apostle Paul distinguishes between gifts of grace-charisms (“charismata”) and services (“diakoniai” – “ministry” [cf. Rom 12, 4ff and 1 Cor 12, 12ss]). According to the tradition of the Church, ministries are called the various forms that charisms assume when they are publicly recognized and are made available to the community and its mission in a stable form.

In some cases the ministry has its origin in a specific sacrament, Holy Orders: these are the “ordained” ministries, the bishop, the presbyter, the deacon. In other cases the ministry is entrusted, with a liturgical act of the bishop, to a person who has received Baptism and Confirmation and in whom specific charisms are recognized, after an adequate journey of preparation: we then speak of “instituted” ministries. Many other ecclesial services or offices are practiced by many members of the community, for the good of the Church, often for a long period and with great effectiveness, without a particular rite being envisaged for the conferral of the office.

Over the course of history, with the changing ecclesial, social and cultural situations, the exercise of ministries in the Catholic Church has taken on different forms, while the distinction, not only of degree, between “established” (or “lay”) ministries remains intact ) and “ordained” ministries. The former are particular expressions of the priestly and royal condition proper to every baptized person (cf. Pt 2: 9); the latter belong to some of the members of the people of God who as bishops and presbyters “receive the mission and the faculty to act in the person of Christ the Head” or as deacons “are enabled to serve the people of God in the diakonia of liturgy, of the word and of charity “(Benedict XVI, Apostolic Letter in the form of Motu Proprio Omnium in mentem , October 26, 2009). To indicate this distinction, expressions such as baptismal priesthood and ordained (or ministerial ) priesthood are also used . In any case, it is good to reaffirm, with the dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium of the Second Vatican Council , that they “are ordered to one another; in fact, one and the other, each in his own way, participate in the one priesthood of Christ “( LG , n. 10). Ecclesial life is nourished by this mutual reference and is nourished by the fruitful tension of these two poles of the priesthood, ministerial and baptismal, which, despite the distinction, are rooted in the one priesthood of Christ.

In line with the Second Vatican Council , the Supreme Pontiff Saint Paul VI wanted to review the practice relating to non-ordained ministries in the Latin Church – until then called “minor orders” – adapting it to the needs of the times. This adaptation, however, must not be interpreted as an overcoming of the previous doctrine, but as an implementation of the dynamism that characterizes the nature of the Church, always called with the help of the Spirit of Truth to respond to the challenges of every age, in obedience to Revelation. . The Apostolic Letter in the form of a Motu Proprio Ministeria quaedam (August 15, 1972) configures two offices (tasks), that of the Reader and that of the Acolyte, the first strictly connected to the ministry of the Word, the second to the ministry of the Altar, without excluding that other “offices” may be instituted by the Holy Seat upon request of the Episcopal Conferences.

Furthermore, the variation in the forms of exercise of non-ordained ministries is not the simple consequence, on the sociological level, of the desire to adapt to the sensitivity or culture of the epochs and places but is determined by the need to allow each local / particular Church , in communion with all the others and having as the center of unity the Church which is in Rome, to live the liturgical action, the service to the poor and the proclamation of the Gospel in fidelity to the mandate of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the task of the Church’s Pastors to recognize the gifts of each baptized person, to direct them also towards specific ministries, to promote and coordinate them, so that they contribute to the good of the communities and to the mission entrusted to all the disciples.

The commitment of the lay faithful, who “are simply the immense majority of the people of God” (Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium , n. 102), can not and should certainly not be limited in the exercise of non-ordained ministries (cf. Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium , n.102 ), but their better configuration and a more precise reference to the responsibility that arises, for every Christian, from Baptism and Confirmation, can help the Church to rediscover the sense of communion that characterizes her. and to initiate a renewed commitment to catechesis and the celebration of the faith (cf. Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium , n. 102). And it is precisely in this rediscovery that the fruitful synergy that arises from the mutual ordination of ordained priesthood and baptismal priesthood can find a better translation. This reciprocity, from service to the sacrament of the altar, is called to flow back, in the distinction of tasks, in that service to ‘make Christ the heart of the world’ which is the particular mission of the whole Church. Precisely this unique, albeit distinct, service in favor of the world broadens the horizons of the ecclesial mission, preventing it from withdrawing into sterile logic aimed above all at claiming spaces of power and helping them to experience itself as a spiritual community that “walks together with humanity as a whole and together with the world he experiences the same earthly destiny “( GS, no. 40). In this dynamic one can truly understand the meaning of “Church going out”.

In the horizon of renewal traced by the Second Vatican Council , there is an ever greater urgency today to rediscover the co-responsibility of all the baptized in the Church, and in particular the mission of the laity. The Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region (6-27 October 2019), in the fifth chapter of the final document, signaled the need to think about “new paths for ecclesial ministeriality”. Not only for the Amazonian Church, but for the whole Church, in the variety of situations, “it is urgent that ministries be promoted and conferred on men and women … It is the Church of baptized men and women that we must consolidate by promoting ministry and, above all, the awareness of baptismal dignity “(Final document , n. 95).

In this regard, it is known that the Motu Proprio Ministeria quaedam reserves the institution of the ministry of Lector and Acolyte to men only and thus establishes can. 230 § 1 of the CIC . However, in recent times and in many ecclesial contexts, it has been noted that dissolving such a reservation could contribute to more manifesting the common baptismal dignity of the members of the people of God. Already on the occasion of the XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on The Word of God in the life and mission of the Church (5-26 October 2008) the Synod Fathers wished “that the ministry of the Lectorate be open also to women” (cf. Proposition n. 17); and in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (30 September 2010), Benedict XVI specified that the exercise of the munus of reader in the liturgical celebration, and in particular the ministry of the reader as such, in the Latin rite is a lay ministry (cf. n. 58).

For centuries the “venerable tradition of the Church” has considered what were called “minor orders” – including the Lectorate and the Acolyte – as stages of a path that was to lead to “major orders” (Subdiaconate, Diaconate, Priesthood ). Since the sacrament of Orders was reserved for men only, this was also valid for minor orders.

A clearer distinction between the attributions of what today are called “non-ordained (or lay) ministries” and “ordained ministries” allows the reserve of the former to be dissolved only to men. If with respect to the ordained ministries the Church “has no power in any way to confer priestly ordination on women” (cf. St. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis , 22 May 1994), for non-ordained ministries it is possible, and today it seems appropriate, to overcome this reserve. This reservation had its own meaning in a certain context but can be rethought in new contexts, always having as a criterion fidelity to the mandate of Christ and the will to live and proclaim the Gospel transmitted by the Apostles and entrusted to the Church so that it may be religiously listened to, holy guarded, faithfully announced.

Not without reason, St. Paul VI refers to a venerabilis tradition , not to a venerable tradition , in the strict sense (that is, which “must” be observed): it can be recognized as valid, and for a long time it has been; however, it does not have a binding character, since the reserve for men only does not belong to the nature of the ministries of the Lector and the Acolyte. Offering lay people of both sexes the possibility of accessing the ministry of the Acolyte and of the Lectorate, by virtue of their participation in the baptismal priesthood, will increase the recognition, also through a liturgical act (institution), of the precious contribution that for some time many lay people, also women, they offer to the life and mission of the Church.

For these reasons, I thought it appropriate to establish that they can be institutes as Readers or Acolytes not only men but also women, in which and in which, through the discernment of the pastors and after adequate preparation, the Church recognizes “the firm will to serve faithfully God and the Christian people ”, as it is written in the Motu Proprio Ministeria quaedam , by virtue of the sacrament of Baptism and Confirmation .

The choice of conferring these offices on women as well, which entail stability, public recognition and the mandate on the part of the bishop, makes the participation of all in the work of evangelization more effective in the Church. “This also ensures that women have a real and effective impact in the organization, in the most important decisions and in the leadership of communities, but without ceasing to do so with the style proper to their feminine imprint” (Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia , no. 103). The “baptismal priesthood” and “community service” thus represent the two pillars on which the institution of ministries is founded.

In this way, in addition to responding to what is asked for the mission in the present time and welcoming the testimony given by many women who have cared for and care for the service to the Word and the Altar, it will appear more clearly – even for those who are they orient to the ordained ministry – that the ministries of the Lectorate and the Acolyte are rooted in the sacrament of Baptism and Confirmation. In this way, on the path that leads to diaconal and priestly ordination, those who are instituted Readers and Acolytes will better understand that they are participants in a shared ministry with other baptized men and women. So that the priesthood proper to every faithful ( communis sacerdotio ) and the priesthood of ordained ministers (sacerdotium ministeriale seu hierarchicum ) show themselves even more clearly ordered to one another (cf. LG , n. 10), for the edification of the Church and for the witness of the Gospel.

It will be the task of the Episcopal Conferences to establish adequate criteria for the discernment and preparation of candidates for the ministries of the Lectorate or of the Acolyte, or of other ministries that they deem to establish, according to what is already provided in the Motu Proprio Ministeria quaedam , subject to the approval of the Saint. Seat and according to the needs of evangelization in their territory.

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments will provide for the implementation of the aforementioned reform with the modification of the Editio typica of the Pontificale Romanum or of the “ De Institutione Lectorum et Acolythorum ”.

In renewing the assurance of my prayer, I cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing to your Eminence, which I gladly extend to all the Members and Collaborators of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

From the Vatican, 10 January 2021, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord .


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