Francis allows women to be installed in liturgical ministries

This is big. Pope Francis just decided motu proprio that females can be installed in the liturgical ministries of lector and acolyte.

To be sure, this move won’t change much in practice, and most Catholics will be perplexed by it. Women already proclaim readings at Mass, and we’ve had altar girls as well as altar boys – with Vatican permission – for more than 25 years. The short answer to that perplexment is that up until now, females couldn’t be installed in these ministries, but they could do these ministries anyway.

There has been an incoherence between liturgical reality and legal status ever since Pope Paul’s odd compromise of 1972 in Ministeria quaedam. Paul eliminated the old minor orders of porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte, which had mostly ceased being real ministries for many centuries and were just formalities into which every seminarian was inducted on his way to the major orders of subdeacon, deacon, and priest. (I don’t believe any seminarians ever served as doorkeepers after being ordained porters…)

Paul replaced the four minor orders with the two real “ministries” actually being done: lector and acolyte. But he retained their tie the all-male clergy by saying that only men could receive these ministries. Females could do these ministries, but they couldn’t be installed in them.

This has meant in practice that almost no one is installed in these ministries, male or female, except seminarians. Most all lectors and servers (male and female) do their ministries without being installed in them. Every spring, in seminaries around the world, seminarians are officially installed in ministries they’ve already been doing for years, in a ceremony that is always unsatisfying in its surreal and fictional quality.

Many years ago, Cardinal Basil Hume (d. 1999) called for a common sense reform at a Synod of Bishops so as to admit females to these ministries. One would have thought that the proposal to bring things in line with reality would have been readily accepted.

But this issue has famously become a ditch in which a certain kind of defender of clerical tradition is willing to die. In the most extreme fringes of traddie rejection of liturgical reform (if not of Vatican II) – I’m not making this up – there are actually people who argue for restricting these ministries to men in theory and in practice. Pope Francis has now undercut them.

Fabian Bruskewitz, whose term as bishop of the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska ended in 2012, was an outlier in the U.S. in that he only allowed men installed as lectors (laymen or seminarians) to proclaim Scripture readings at Mass. I always respected him at some level for his coherent thinking, even as I was horrified at its implications on the ground.

Now – and this is the good news – the whole church can be brought into a coherence which is not discriminatory. Males and females will continue to lector and acolyte as before, but now they will be able to do so with an official mandate from the bishop and a full ceremonial affirmation of their important liturgical role. This could have a positive effect on liturgical ministry training programs and on everyone’s view of the significance of these ministries. It will highlight the role of bishop as chief liturgist of his diocese – and that’s a good thing.

Kudos to Pope Francis.








28 responses to “Francis allows women to be installed in liturgical ministries”

  1. Jack Wayne Avatar
    Jack Wayne

    I wonder what the implications of this will be in practice, as I confess I’m not 100% sure what instituted acolytes and lectors do beyond what the names obviously imply. If a female acolyte were in a parish where the priest had forbidden female altar servers, would he have to allow the female acolyte to fulfill this role if one were available? I recall being told years ago that while installed/ordained ministers can decline to do some things in favor of laypeople doing them, they cannot be denied their official function in favor of laypeople if they are willing to do it.

    One article I read said acolytes officially assumed the role of subdeacon and can even be called such. Does this mean, in theory, a woman could act as a server or even subdeacon at an Extraordinary form Solemn High Mass? Not that I would find this likely in practice as it would be unpopular. I’m just thinking out loud.

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      Hi Jack, I had the same question – will instituted females minster as lector and acolyte and subdeacon at Tridentine (High) Mass? I wouldn’t hold my breath. But it’s a big church and I suppose anything is possible somewhere. I believe that it is possible for a bishops’ conference to use the term “subdeacon” but I honestly don’t know if any have done so.

      1. Fritz Bauerschmidt Avatar

        I could imagine some folks wanting to celebrate a EF Solemn High Mass with a female subdeacon, just to troll the traddies.

      2. Jack Wayne Avatar
        Jack Wayne

        Fritz, I could see it being for that reason, but I could also see it eventually opening up the incomparable riches of the old rite for those who believe it currently excludes women. Unlikely as that may be at this point in time, we do belong to a church that thinks in centuries and you never know where things will go. The EF allows even a layman to serve as a subdeacon for Solemn High Mass, so being officially called such doesn’t seem to matter. I’m sure in suggesting it I would make many fellow traddies angry, but female servers and readers have never bothered me.

        I do know of parishes that exclusively use the OF that forbid female servers, and I do wonder what ramifications this has for those places. That would likely have much wider impact for more Catholics than whether or not a female acolyte can be a subdeacon.

  2. A.J. Boyd Avatar

    Next, he really should take the instituted ministries out of the seminary altogether. Well, and eliminate the ‘transitional’ form of the diaconate. Then we’d be getting somewhere!

  3. Eric Styles Avatar
    Eric Styles

    For those of us lay ministers who exercise significant pastoral leadership this could be a substantial way for that to be recognized more clearly in the liturgical assembly. I wouldn’t discount the role this step could play in that regard. As a lay rector at the University of Notre Dame, I am responsible for the liturgical life of the residential community I lead and serve. Think about lay pastoral associates and parish administrators.

    My other question is there good in preparing ALL liturgical lectors and servers more intently? Should the goal be to install children and teenagers who exercise these ministries as well or only seasoned adults?

    1. Aaron Sanders Avatar
      Aaron Sanders

      Bishops’ conferences are to regulate eligibility requirements. In the USA they run thus, apart from today’s expansion to women:

      “Complementary Norm: The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in accord with the prescriptions of canon 230, §1, hereby decrees that a layman who is to be installed in the ministries of lector or acolyte on a stable basis must have completed his twenty-first (21) year of age. The candidate must also possess the skills necessary for an effective proclamation of the Word or service at the altar, be a fully initiated member of the Catholic Church, be free of any canonical penalty, and live a life which befits the ministry to be undertaken.”–canon-230-%C2%A71-installed-lay-ministries

      1. Eric Styles Avatar
        Eric Styles

        It makes a great deal of sense to me. As Deacon Bauerschmidt puts it, “stable ministries” will be an important consideration.

  4. Fritz Bauerschmidt Avatar

    I believe that these are called “stable ministries,” so I think it is worth asking whether we would want to institute 9-year-old altar servers as acolytes, given the way that kids tend to float into and out of these ministries. Perhaps it might make more sense to institute those who train servers, or serve as MC, or even sacristans. Likewise, it might make more sense for those who oversee readers at Mass, or who might lead the daily office, to be instituted as lectors, rather than everyone who reads at Mass.

    And however we implement it initially, we’ll probably get it wrong.

    1. Devin W Rice Avatar
      Devin W Rice

      Agree 100%. Common sense.

    2. Kevin Vogt Avatar
      Kevin Vogt

      I imagine what you have described, Deacon Bauerschmidt, will be the most likely practical implementation.

  5. Matt Herek Avatar
    Matt Herek

    So, if men and women can be installed as acolytes—does this mean they can purify the vessels after communion/mass? Thus getting rid of the weird “rite of the priest doing dishes” that seems to happen in so many places? (Watch as father swirls….swirls…..SWIRLS…the water)

    1. Chuck Middendorf Avatar
      Chuck Middendorf

      This was going to be my question. I recall during the roll out of the Roman Missal 3, the purification of vessels could be assigned to installed acolytes. I have a friend in Montana who asked his bishop to install him as an acolyte — and the bishop did!

      If this hasn’t changed (or get reversed), I guess we could install the 1 million women sacristans as acolytes.

      1. Eric T Styles Avatar
        Eric T Styles

        What progress! Women will be able to wash the sacred dishes.

        I actually think it’s important work that is seems strangely relegated to the ordained.

  6. Sean Connolly Avatar
    Sean Connolly


    The ablutions, you mean? Beautiful moment of natural silence and reflection in the Mass, if you ask me, without adding anything to the ritual.

    I’ve been at plenty of parishes that found other side-steps to this liturgical moment, without the latest pontifical permission. Never liked the very abrupt end to the Communion rite, myself.

    1. Jack Wayne Avatar
      Jack Wayne

      I’m with you. I certainly don’t see it as distracting or as “doing the dishes.”

      However, it seems to me that if some people see it as the “rite of doing dishes,” that it would be symbolically better for the priest to do it as an act of humble service. Otherwise the symbolism being communicated could be that the priest is too good to clean up, or worse, the image of a man leaving “dirty dishes” behind for a woman to wash (“women’s work” as some of my older relatives would say).

      1. Chaplain Donna Zuroweste BCC Avatar
        Chaplain Donna Zuroweste BCC

        It already HAS BEEN communicated. As a trained and educated EMOHC (and registered with the Diocese), my hands are holy enough to deliver the Body and Blood, but NOT holy enough to wash their vessels? Ridic. Our priests run Masses back to back; with greeting the faithful, they have no time to do the dishes.

  7. Kevin Vogt Avatar
    Kevin Vogt

    In addition to bringing the law into coherence with common practice, this development may distance the category of instituted lay ministry from the vestiges of the suppressed minor orders, helping to bring some coherence to the reality of so-called “lay ecclesial ministry.” Such coherence might involve testing the provision in “Ministeria quaedam” for the creation of new instituted ministries (Sacristan? Cantor? Extending the presently-limited institution of Catechist throughout the Universal Church?). I don’t know what the current state is of the question of Lay Ecclesial Ministry (in my neck of the woods I haven’t heard a word about it in over 10 years), but it seems to me one of the flaws of LEM envisioned by “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord” is the notion of lay ecclesial ministry being rooted in “recognition” by a bishop, rather than in Baptism, as envisioned by “Ministeria quaedam.” A subtle distinction, perhaps, but foundational, I think. However it develops, it would need to be in accord with the Church’s understanding of the apostolic life of the laity. While distancing from the suppressed vestigial minor orders of the seminary, future inquiry might benefit from plumbing the history of the minor orders to there communal, monastic roots, and then ask the question whether or not meaningful modern expressions of lay ecclesial ministry in parish life warrant or would benefit from the development of lay instituted ecclesial ministry grounded in Baptism (as is all ministry).

    1. Eric T Styles Avatar
      Eric T Styles

      A solid liturgical role for lay ecclesial ministers working in and with a particular ecclesial/liturgical assembly would do some real good for the ways in which our parishes, etc function. I am all for it.

    2. Alan Johnson Avatar
      Alan Johnson

      This resonates with me.
      It raises the question of why these ministries need to be formally commissioned at all. Should they not be seen as a natural part of ones life as a baptised person? Although they are not clerical since the Tonsure was scrapped, do they sail close enough to it that there is the danger of the aroma of creeping clericalization being detected?

      1. Kevin Vogt Avatar
        Kevin Vogt

        As a full-time professional lay minister, I confess I tilt in favor of it, but I’m simultaneously suspicious about creeping clericalization as you suggest. That’s why I think monastic origins need to be explored, particularly in the early cenobitic tradition in which the number of clerics in a community was limited. I similarly believe the authentic historical roots of the novel post-Vatican II “lay choir” (rather than a vestigial clerical choir) may be found in the communal monastic tradition –a choir of intentional disciples giving witness to the choral identity of the wider Church. The fact that there are many lay professionals serving the Church in some places gave rise to the consideration of a “lay ecclesial ministry.” I don’t know enough about “Ministeria quaedam” to know if Pope Paul VI’s motivation was primarily to simplify and clarify clerical orders by eliminating those that had become superfluous in the secular context, or whether there was present a nascent and prescient vision of lay ecclesial ministry. In any case, I don’t think there will be a rush to implement anything because those who are inclined to toward formalization are probably not thrilled about the direction this seems to be heading, and those who are excited by the direction of gender inclusivity may conclude that creating a pseudo-clerical caste is not desirable and that baptism is enough.

  8. Father Jack Feehily Avatar
    Father Jack Feehily

    All of the details of implementation have been assigned to episcopal conferences. You can bet that group will make it clear that each bishop oversees all provisions for liturgy in their respective dioceses. They’ll probably ask the Worship office (or whatever they’re calling that these days) to suggest some parameters that bishops can look to when deciding how to handle this in their own sees. I hope the conference will initiate some kind of commission to explore other ministries that would benefit from some form of preparation and recognition rite. One possible benefit of instituting Readers could be a prep program that would make it clear that this is a ministry that is probably better served by those who discern a call to it and who have sufficient knowledge of the texts to be able to do more than just read the words correctly. It is not an office that one should merely be filled by “volunteers”.

  9. Scott Smith Avatar
    Scott Smith

    Unless dioceses make being instituted compulsory in order to perform these roles, it seems to me the most likely outcome is the status quo, with almost everyone continuing to act without the formal office.

    With the bureaucracy which will undoubtedly attach to actually being instituted, I don’t see that many pastors or lay ministers being massively motivated to jump through all the hoops.

    1. Alan Johnson Avatar
      Alan Johnson

      Random questions …
      If they are commissioned (by their bishop as seminarians are?) would this be for their own parish, or for a wider ministry. If for the latter would they need some sort of ID?
      Would commissioned readers/acolytes be at the head of the queue when rotas are put together?

      1. Scott Smith Avatar
        Scott Smith


        I’d imagine some form of certificate would be provided at the time of commissioning, similar to what we do on receipt of other offices, in accordance with Canon 156.

        In terms of priorities on rotas, I think that is supposed to happen already where instituted lectors etc exist based on some older Vatican documents, but that it rarely works like that in practice (which would likely remain the case).

  10. Paul Schlachter Avatar

    Maybe in a generation or two the understanding of ministry and institution for us laypersons will be more widespread due to documents like this. Maybe I should have said that it could be rediscovered, at least in our archdiocese. Two archbishops ago, when I was certified as lector in English and Spanish, we had a strong sense of that. In the parishes that I know today, reading at mass is a mere function filled at the pastor’s discretion by people whom he wishes to reward for some other accomplishment. After all, can’t anyone do it with minimal preparation, which is not so true for other liturgical “functions?” And don’t they feel obligated to involve more of their parishioners in these ministries? I have fought the good fight long and conscientiously; if enough persons in the right positions share Pope Francis’ concern this state of affairs will change for the better.

  11. Mike Neis Avatar
    Mike Neis

    I recall this note from Pius X’s Tra Le Sollecitudini:

    “13. On the same principle it follows that singers in church have a real liturgical
    office, and that therefore women, being incapable of exercising such office,
    cannot be admitted to form part of the choir.”

    Things have obviously changed since the publication of this document. Although I have extensive experience as a liturgical musician, I know very little about installation. Does the church install liturgical musicians? This job (office or not) requires extensive training and dedication. And women dominate this area in the church now. Does the church practice a similar dynamic of allowing women to perform this office while not installing them?

  12. Chaplain Donna Zuroweste BCC, NACC, MBA Avatar
    Chaplain Donna Zuroweste BCC, NACC, MBA

    Dear brothers, nice mansplaining on this thread.

    I was trained by our monsignor to lector in 1962, as VII closed, and lay ministry was “approved”.

    I have been a commissioned EMOHC with the Archdiocese of STL since the mid ’80s.

    As a NACC Board Certified Chaplain since 2011 with a full MDiv, and 2480 clinical hours of supervised practice of ministry AND the requisite episcopal endorsement for Certification, i already am DOing diaconal ministry (as are the other 1100+ female NACC Certified Chaplains), and can preach better than many Archdiocesan priests (who have actually had the gall to request copies of my memorial preaching, since a female lens is different), thanks to a full year of graduate homiletics from the Order of Preachers (and more education than most male deacons).

    While Rome and American, as well as global, clerics and hierarchs are wringing hands and clutching pearls; we are done with crumbs from the table, we are not dogs. Even Jesus ceded to that remark from the beggar woman. AND He personally chose Mary the Migdal to preach the good news of the Resurrection TO the men.

    Should it be of any interest to you, since our education/training program is considered “platinum” by the USCCB, NACC is now also training and certifying “lay ecclesial workers”.

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