Ministries in the Church, momentum for change, once again


Could this deacon, preaching the homily at Mass, ever be a woman?

It was 1980 or a year or two later, and I was making a decision that hurt me. I was teaching in a Catholic elementary school. My children went to Catholic elementary school. We were strong Catholics. And I decided not to encourage my son to become a choir servant. With a new name, Acolyte, He and Reader were two roles that the Second Vatican Council a decade and a half earlier had decided to be lay ministries. It was a step in the elevation of the status of the laity in the Church.

I became a reader and I hoped to see my son also take his rightful place as a lay person in the Church. It was time for him to be a sidekick if he wanted to. But something stopped in my opinion. It was now a lay ministry, and men and women are also lay people. Vatican II made no distinction in this regard, but someone in Rome decided to keep the women in this secular ministry. I decided that if Dominic’s older sister couldn’t be a sidekick, then I wouldn’t even tell my son about it. Years later, when he was already in high school with other things on his mind than serving at Mass, women and girls were finally able to take their rightful place at the altar.

Last year’s action on Church ministries

What reminds me of those memories is an article in Rita Ferrone’s Commonweal, “Where the Action Is”. Here she writes about the evolution of Church ministries. Change in the Church is excruciatingly slow, and not always for good reasons, but it has happened. The last year, 2021, saw a few more gradual changes, pushing the participation of lay people in the Church a bit further. The Church honors this participation a little more. 2022 will see further discussions and, perhaps, a movement on lay ministries.

Last January, Pope Francis, in Ferrone’s words, “opened the instituted ministries of reader and acolyte to women”. With decades of girls and women already providing both of these services in most US parishes, this would be the height of the increase. Yet this is not meaningless. The key is the word “instituted”. Until Francis acts, canon law specified that the laity can exercise the ministries of reader and acolyte “on a stable basis”. Women were allowed “by temporary designation”. If I pass so briefly over an obvious (and frankly stupid) injustice here, that doesn’t mean I don’t feel any outrage.

In May, Francis acts again, “instituting” the ministry of catechist for men and women. In my part of the world, it is a little more than honoring what secular men and, more importantly, women have almost always done. For some time now, but not as long as ever, lay men and women have undertaken catechetical ministry as a career. Dare we hope that official recognition of their life’s work as a ministry “on a stable basis” can translate into practical benefits for them?

A Small Change in Priesthood Ministry

Before Vatican Council II, what now appears to be a strange practice, if not an abuse, was common among priests. At a large priestly gathering, say in St. Peter’s Basilica, rather than celebrating the Eucharist together in a joyful community, each priest said his own private Mass. Well, not totally private. It was against canon law. A priest once told me that in this situation he would ask another priest to be his “congregation”. Then the two priests would change places, and he would be the “congregation” for the other priest. Meanwhile, dozens or hundreds of other priests and bishops were doing the same in their separate nooks and crannies on their separate side altars. I’m pretty sure the Liturgy of the Word, if you can call it that, didn’t include a homily. Only the priest “saying” Mass took Communion, roughly the opposite of what Communion means. It was much the opposite of a celebration of the liturgy, the work of the people of God.

I write like it’s past and over, but apparently not. Firona writes,

In March, there was a crackdown at St. Peter’s Basilica that eliminated private masses in favor of concelebration.

The Second Vatican Council introduced concelebration precisely because, in Ferone’s words, “The norm of the liturgy is that it is a communal exercise, not a solo performance. And the concelebration, where more than one priest directs a mass, “underlines the unity of the priesthood”.

Lay people invited to priestly work

Prior to Vatican Council II, the priesthood was the end of a seven-step process called orders. There were five minor orders: porter, reader, exorcist, acolyte, and sub-deacon. Major orders of deacon and priest followed. Pope Paul VI eliminated the porter, the exorcist and the sub-deacon. The doorman perhaps translates to usher today, and exorcism is a specialty that only some courageous priests undertake. I don’t know what the sub-deacon was talking about. The main thing Paul VI has done, however, is to officially transfer the orders, now renamed ministries, of reader and acolyte to the laity.

There was what Ferone calls a “take”. These are lay ministries and important enough to Paul for ministers to be formally instituted. But “Paul reserved instituted ministries for men. We do not know why. Whatever the reason, it is now clear that women are officially welcome in the shrine. (An aside: why not let the movement go the other way? Instead of inviting a few more people into the shrine, just broaden the meaning of shrine to include the whole congregation. I suggested adopting this Protestant terminology in this article.)

New in 2022?

Cardinal Marc Ouellet is Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. He is planning a major conference on the priesthood in the Vatican in the coming year. Among other things, it will focus on the relationship between the priesthood of the faithful and the ordained priesthood. Ferone says it will be “constructive theology,” which means asking new questions. “

A somewhat new question concerns whether the Church should ordain women deacons. Pope Francis has formed a second Vatican committee to study this issue. The first of these committees came at the request of a worldwide organization of Catholic sisters and nuns. He could not agree on the role of women deacons in the early church and made no recommendations. My take: If the early Church had female deacons ministering as male deacons, that would resolve the issue. Otherwise, I don’t see why that would limit what the Church does today.

The Synod of Amazonian Bishops in October 2019 once again raised the question regarding the needs of this remote region. The new commission, with a totally different membership, was the pope’s response. The commission appears to be divided equally between those for and against women deacons. (“Commission of Women Deacons to Hold the First Meeting”, in The tablet, 23 Aug 2021)

You can guess that the participation of women in the life of the Church is important to me. Women have always been important to the Church, but not in decision-making. This must and can change. I don’t know why the College of Cardinals couldn’t include lay people, men and women. On the question of the ordination of women deacons, my point of view is simple: I would like to hear homilist women during the Sunday liturgy and see less male domination around the altar.

The role of the deacon

The Diocese of Los Angeles has published on the Internet a the description the role of the deacon. I will give the last word to this document, except that I have substituted plurals for all masculine singulars. Nothing is less suitable for women than for men.

Deacons are members of the clergy along with priests and bishops. The ministry of deacons has three dimensions: liturgy, word and service. At the liturgy, they assist the bishop and the priests. At Mass, deacons proclaim the Gospel, may be invited to preach the homily and attend the altar. Deacons can also baptize, witness and bless marriages, preside over the Liturgy of the Hours, and preside over funeral liturgies among many other functions.

Living in the world, deacons have a special sensitivity to the needs of real families – including single parents, students, the elderly, the disabled, incarcerated, and those suffering from poverty or addictions of all kinds.

All Christians are called, but deacons serve with special grace – unique authority and humble power. They respond to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They are sent by the Church to be the presence of Christ to those in need.

Image credit: Conference of Catholic Bishops of England and Wales


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