By Father Thom Hennen
Q. I recently read that Pope Francis “conferred the ministry of lector” on some lay people. What does that mean?
Yes, on Jan. 22 of this year, Pope Francis conferred this ministry on seven lay people, five of whom were women. This follows a Motu Proprio (an edict issued by the pope “of his own initiative”)
from January 2021 in which Pope Francis modified the Code of Canon Law to open the ministries of lector and acolyte to women.
But wait, haven’t we had women lectors and acolytes (“altar servers”) for a long time? Yes, in practice this has been the case in most parishes since the 1970s and more officially since 1994. However, most Catholics may not realize that there is a more “official” ministry that, up until this change, was conferred on men only and generally only on those in the process of formation for the diaconate and priesthood. These ministries were part of what used to be called the “minor orders.”
Prior to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, there were five minor orders: porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte and subdeacon. These were seen as “steps” to the major orders: deacon, priest, bishop. Interestingly, in the main chapel at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, the names of the orders in Latin are actually emblazoned on the steps ascending to the sanctuary. Following the council, the orders of lector and acolyte were kept and renamed “ministries” and the others were abrogated.
With the 2021 Motu Proprio it is now possible for women to receive these official ministries of the Church. What does this mean in practice in a parish setting? If you had an option between an instituted lector or acolyte, regardless of gender, and a non-instituted reader or server, the preference would generally be for the instituted lector or acolyte to exercise that ministry. Also, while all those who exercise these roles in the liturgy, whether officially instituted or not, should be qualified and trained to carry out this service well, instituted lectors and acolytes should especially receive appropriate formation.
These official ministries are also intended to be more stable. It is intended that parish volunteer readers and servers exercise those ministries for a limited period of time. Instituted ministers, on the other hand, are called to serve as lectors or acolytes in a more permanent way. Typically, instituted lectors and acolytes would also vest in an alb (the “baptismal garment”) for these ministries. If you have come to a major diocesan liturgy, you may have seen this, as often a seminarian or deacon candidate who has been officially instituted may vest and fulfill these ministries.
In addition to opening the ministries of lector and acolyte to women, in another Motu Proprio in May 2021 Pope Francis instituted (or really restored) the ancient ministry of catechist. Again, we have had volunteer catechists serving our parishes for a long time but, like those ministries of lector and acolyte, this is more official, more stable, will have more specific duties and requires more intense formation.
Why don’t we have these more official ministries in our diocese yet? As this is still a relatively recent change in the long life of the Church, we are still awaiting more specific national directives for the implementation of these ministries as well as a translation of the rites themselves. Once we have those, we will then need to decide as a diocese how best to implement these ministries, figure out some process for the selection of candidates and how best to go about providing the necessary formation — so stay tuned!
(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and Vicar General for the Diocese of Davenport. Send questions to email@example.com)