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Pope Francis Formalises Recognition of Roles

Image: (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)
Image: (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)


Since Francis, succeeded to the Chair of Peter on 13 March 2013 there has been a perception in many quarters that he is or would be a somewhat ‘liberal’ pontiff. This may have come about because of the undoubted ‘conservatism’ of his immediate predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. However, it would seem that a lot of people projected onto Francis their own desires for ‘changes’ without any real basis and have since felt ‘let down’ because things have not moved fast enough!

Such thinking shows a lack of understanding about the Church’s teachings which is not something that can change ‘with the times’ or the mood music of the moment.

Position of Women

Francis has spoken highly of women’s gifts and the church’s need for them and whereas his stance on their ordination has not changed he has taken steps to elevate their position.

In January 2020, he named the first woman to a managerial position in the Vatican’s most important office, the Secretariat of State.  Part of her brief is to coordinate the church’s relationship with multilateral organizations, like the United Nations.

This month on 23 January, Pope Francis conferred, for the first time the lay Roman Catholic ministries of lector and catechist on women, roles that previously many, including myself, had carried out without institutional recognition.  He conferred the ministries at Mass in St Peter’s Basilica during a celebration of the Sunday of the Word of God, which he instituted in 2019.  This was to encourage in all Catholics an interest in knowing the sacred Scriptures and their central role in the life of Jesus.  Francis gave a bible to each lector and a crucifix to each catechist.

This formalisation, including a conferral ceremony, will make it more difficult for conservative bishops to block women in their dioceses from taking on those roles.  While this would probably not happen in Ireland or the UK, there are countries where women’s position in society is deemed lower than that of men.

This despite the fact we have women doctors, lawyers, artists, scientists, and political leaders.   In some cases, conservative bishops have made a point of enforcing male-only altar servers, something they will no longer be able to do.

Change to Canon Law

Previously the two ministries were reserved only to men because they were considered preparatory to receiving Holy Orders.  While in most dioceses women already served as readers and altar servers at Mass they were not formally instituted in those services on a stable basis.

In 2021, Francis changed Church law on the ministries of lector and acolyte, which had once been considered “minor orders” for those preparing for the priesthood, saying he wanted to bring stability and public recognition to women already serving in the roles.  Lectors read from scripture, acolytes serve at Mass, and catechists teach the faith to children and adult converts.

Phyllis Zagano who was a member of the pope’s first commission of experts to study whether women could be deacons (which ended in stalemate), called the changes important because they represent the first time the Vatican has explicitly and through Canon Law allowed women access to the altar.

Not a Precursor to Ordination

Pope Francis has made it clear that the ban on the ordination of women still stands, and that Pope Saint John Paul has had the last word on the subject.

In 1994 the pope stated in a document that the door was closed on this issue. This decree was so absolute that years later, at least one bishop was fired for suggesting that ordaining women to the priesthood was one way to solve the Roman Catholic shortage of clergy.

While it is the view of most observers, it is unlikely we will see women being allowed to become deacons, it is a step forward to know that something many women in countless parishes have being doing for years is now enshrined in Vatican law.

Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

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