The ministry of women in the liturgy: ‘sound tradition’ and ‘legitimate progress’

By Cesare Giraudo, SJ, 15 April 2021


On the occasion of the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Pope Francis promulgated a document by which he recognized the possibility for women to exercise the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte. It is well known that earlier legislation, established by Paul VI with a similar measure, reserved these ministries to male laity. In order to grasp the importance of these two documents, on which we will dwell later, let us first take a look at the prehistory and evolution of a service that the Church has always provided for the Word of God and the table of the Lord.

The Jewish ancestry of the reader and the acolyte

Anyone interested in ecclesial ministries can hardly think that they were invented by the apostles to meet the needs of the nascent Church. Regardless of the specific terms by which we designate them today, we must rather recognize that the Church inherited the service to the altar and the service at the ambo, respectively, from the temple and the synagogue.

In spite of the scant knowledge we have of the temple liturgy, it is possible to establish a connection, at least an ideal one, between the figure of the acolyte and the Levitic cult. We know, in fact, that in the temple of Jerusalem, together with the priests, chosen from among the descendants of the Levite Aaron, other Levites worked in subsidiary functions. They were taken from among other members of the tribe of Levi and employed as porters, singers or helpers in the various tasks required by the sacrificial cult.[1]

While we cannot say more about the Jewish precedent for the acolyte than this, we do know more about the Jewish precedent for the reader, which can be seen in the accounts of two liturgical celebrations recorded by the Scriptures.

The first story (Neh 7:72-8:12)[2] concerns the liturgy celebrated on a square that, in an emergency situation, was transformed into a sacred space. It is there that Ezra, priest and scribe, assisted by 13 Levites in charge of translating into Aramaic, proclaims in Hebrew the writings of the Law of Moses to the survivors of the exile who no longer knew the sacred language. The other story (Luke 4:16-22)[3] describes the liturgy in the synagogue of Nazareth, in which Jesus proclaims a text from Isaiah that concerns him personally (“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to evangelize the poor…” [Isa 61:1-2]). In spite of its essential significance,[4] the evangelist’s account makes us understand that the reading, by the very fact of being a cultic proclamation of the word of God, already actualizes it. In fact, by lending his mouth to God the Father, the reader – who in this case is Jesus himself – actualizes the Word, in the sense that it puts him in a position to speak to the assembled community.

For the purposes of our reflection, the question remains whether there was room for lay people in the ministries of the Old Testament. This question must be answered in the affirmative. In fact, it appears that among the temple workers, subordinate to the Levites, there were individuals of various backgrounds, including slaves and non-Jews, and therefore lay people t.[5] Moreover, the office of reader, while respecting an order of precedence,[6] was and still is open to every Israelite.[7] Proof of this is the fact that Jesus, although not of Levitical descent,  “stood up to read” in the synagogue of Nazareth (Luke 4:16). Jesus, in fact, by Jewish law was an ordinary Israelite; we would say today, a layman.[8]

Lectors and acolytes in the Early Church

From the fertile furrow of Judaism, in which the Christian ministries of reader and acolyte were born, we pass now to consider how, through natural progression, they evolved in the primitive Church. Let us begin with the oldest account of the Sunday liturgy left to us by Justin (d. circa 165), who describes the figure of the reader by saying that “on the day ‘of the Sun’ […] the memoirs of the Apostles and the writings of the Prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has finished, the one who presides admonishes and exhorts everyone to imitate these beautiful things.” Knowing full well that, in enumerating two elements, Justin, in deference to a well-known stylistic procedure, likes to invert the order; we would say that the reading of the Prophets and of the Apostles requires the involvement of at least two readers. His narrative continues with the mention of the “supplications” and the description of the Eucharistic liturgy, at the end of which “by means of the deacons,  a portion [of the Eucharistic elements] is sent also to those who were not present.”[9] With these deacons, remembered by Justin, we can associate those inferior ministers who later would be called “subdeacons” or “acolytes,” who had the task of bringing the fermentum, that is, a portion of consecrated bread as a sign of ecclesial communion to the suburban churches.[10]

If we want to get an idea of the esteem that the early Church had for the ministry of the reader, it would be enough to look at the letters that Cyprian (d. 258), bishop of Carthage, addressed to the community to notify the choices he had made regarding the readers. In one of these he announces that “he has made Saturus a reader and Ottatus, the confessor, a sub-deacon,” and gives the reason: “Both of them, already before, by common deliberation, we had initiated to the clerical state: in fact we had entrusted Saturus twice on Easter Day with the task of reading, while Ottatus we had constituted among the readers the teachers of catechumens.”[11] Here we have a precious piece of information: the bishop was personally concerned about establishing permanent readers in his Church, in whose place he substituted extraordinary readers in emergency situations. Although Cyprian paid special attention to the lectors, he was also interested in the acolytes, whose names he gave us (Naricus, Favorinus, Nicephorus, Lucian, Maximus, and Amancius), to whom he also entrusted charitable missions, such as bringing alms to the condemned, widows and the sick.[12]

A source for the various ecclesiastical orders, the ritual of the Apostolic Tradition mentions the reader, specifying that “he is instituted when the bishop hands him the book, since the hand is not imposed on him.” Further on, regarding the subdeacon, whom we can also understand as the equivalent of the acolyte, it says: “The hand is not imposed on the subdeacon, but he is appointed to follow the deacon.”[13] The recurrence of the verb akoluthein (“to follow”), which in the lost Greek original we can envisage as underlying the expression “to follow the deacon,” seems to argue in favor of the equivalence “subdeacon=acolyte.” The ritual of the Apostolic Constitutions, which indicates for the institution of the reader the imposition of the bishop’s hand, also transmits to us the prayer said over him. Here are some of its expressions: “Give him the Holy Spirit, the prophetic spirit; you who made your servant Ezra wise so that he might read your laws to your people, now, through our prayer, make your servant wise; and grant to him that, fulfilling in an irreproachable manner the office that has been placed in his hands, he may be recognized as worthy of a higher degree.”[14] While the first petition invokes on the reader the Spirit that makes him a “prophet,” that is, it enables him to authoritatively proclaim the word of God before an assembly, the second petition turns into a prayer that, taken negatively, seems to anticipate a sort of ecclesiastical careerism.

It is not easy to answer the question of the status of lectors and acolytes in the early centuries, because the roles of both fluctuate between charisms, ministries and corporation. At times, since the fourth century, in the clerical lists, there appear, in addition to the doorkeepers, exorcists, lectors and acolytes, “cantores” (singers), “apothecarii” (clerks), “fossores” (grave diggers), and “custodes martyrum” (guardians of the tombs of the martyrs). From the letter of Pope Cornelius to Fabius of Antioch, reported by Eusebius, it appears that in Rome there were “44 presbyters, 7 deacons and as many sub-deacons, 42 acolytes and 52 exorcists, readers and ostiarii.”[15] While numerous testimonies foresee the passage to higher rank as normal, there is also the case of Dysderius (i.e., Desiderius), who died an acolyte in Lyon in 517 at the age of 85, as his tombstone attests.[16]

Lectors and the acolytes in the post-patristic Church

In order to understand the status of ecclesiastical ministries at the end of the first millennium, which, moreover, will remain in place until the provisions of Paul VI, it is sufficient to read the description given by Peter Lombard (d. 1160). For the father of scholasticism, the ecclesiastical orders are “seven degrees or orders of spiritual offices” (ostiarii, lectors, exorcists, acolytes, sub-deacons, deacons, priests[17]), transmitted by the patristic writers and shown by the example of Jesus himself. To signify their status, clerics wear on their heads the “royal crown,” that is, the tonsure. In this review of what are called “minor orders,” we also include the subdiaconate.[18]

“The ostiarii […] are so called because they oversee the doors of the temple […], welcome the worthy and repel the unworthy; therefore, when ordained, they receive from the bishop the keys of the church […]. The Lord personally exercised this office when, having made himself a whip out of cords, he drove sellers and buyers out from the temple […]. The second rank is that of the readers, so called because they must read […], even if some readers pronounce in such a miserable way as to force some to complain and lament. They are also called ‘pronouncers,’ because they proclaim from the front, so that their voice must be so clear that it reaches the ears of those who are positioned far away. It is the task of the reader to proclaim the readings, and to preach to the people what the prophets have foretold: he in fact reads the prophecies and the readings ex officio. For this reason, before the people, the bishop hands him the book of divine readings […]. Whoever is promoted to this rank must be instructed in the letters, to understand the meaning of the words, to know the force of the accents, to read distinctly, so as not to deprive his hearers of understanding by a confused pronunciation. They are to attention to what is to be read as an affirmation or as a question, where distinction must be made in reading. These things, if not observed, disturb the intellect and provoke others to laughter. The reader’s voice must consult with the ears and the heart. Christ exercised this office when, in the midst of the elders, having opened the book of Isaiah, he read distinctly so that they might understand, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, etc.’ (Isa 61:1-2) […]. The third is the order of the exorcists […]; they invoke the name of the Lord on the catechumens and on those who have an unclean spirit, begging him to come out of them […]. He must therefore have a pure spirit who commands unclean spirits […], lest, since the medicine he gives to others does not help him, he be told: ‘Physician, heal yourself’ (Luke 4:23). These, when ordained, receive from the bishop the book of exorcisms […]. Christ exercised this office […] when he healed many possessed […]. In fourth place follow acolytes, so called in Greek, but called in Latin ceroferari because they carry the candles at the reading of the Gospel or in the offering of the sacrifice. It is then that they light and carry the lamps, not to chase away the darkness of the air, since at that moment the sun is already shining, but to show a sign of joy, so that through the image of bodily light that light of which we read in John 1:9 may be manifested: ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.’ It is the task of the acolyte to prepare the lamps in the sacristy, to carry the candle, and to prepare for the subdeacons the small vials containing wine and water for the Eucharist. These, when they are ordained […], receive from the archdeacon the candlestick with the candle and the empty cruet. The Lord exercised this office when he said, ‘I am the light of the world, etc.’ (John 8:12) […]. The fifth is the order of the subdeacons [], so called because they are subject to the orders and offices of the Levites […]. It is the duty of the subdeacon to bring the chalice and the paten to the altar of Christ, to hand them over to the Levites and to be at their service. They also keep the jug, tray, and towel for the bishop, presbyters, and Levites to wash their hands at the altar […]. The Lord exercised this office when he girded himself with a towel, put water in the basin, and washed and dried the feet of the disciples.”[19]

From this presentation by Peter Lombard, it appears that the orders mentioned are now reserved for clerics preparing for the priesthood and involve exclusively liturgical functions. It is with this configuration that minor orders are dealt with by the Council of Trent, which in the second doctrinal chapter of Session XXIII declared: “Since the ministry of such a holy priesthood is a divine reality, it was fitting that, in order to be exercised more worthily and with the greatest respect, there should be in the perfectly ordered structure of the Church various and different orders of ministries, placed at the service of the priesthood, and distributed in such a way that those who had already received the clerical tonsure should rise from the minor orders to the major orders.”[20] Then, in the second canon, the Council reiterates the same content in a negative formulation: “If anyone should say that, apart from the priesthood, there are no other orders in the Catholic Church, whether major or minor, along which, as up a sort of stairway, one tends to the priesthood, let him be anathema!”[21]

To correct the impression that with these pronouncements the Council wanted to reserve the minor orders to a clergy in progressive ministerial promotion,[22] and therefore celibate, a decree of the Council, little known because it was not included in the handbooks, provides that “[…] The holy Council, burning with the desire to restore the ancient practice [of minor orders], establishes that in the future these ministries shall not be exercised except by those who have received them; and it exhorts in the Lord all the prelates of churches, ordering them, as far as possible, to restore their functions in the cathedrals, collegiate churches and parishes of their dioceses […]. If celibate clerics are not available for the ministries of the four minor orders, it will be possible to make up for this with married men of exemplary life (suffici possint etiam coniugati vitæ probatæ), as long as they are not bigamous, and suitable for the exercise of their duties, who wear the tonsure and the clerical habit in church.”[23] Although destined to remain a dead letter, we cannot fail to notice the bold opening of this decree that admitted married men to minor orders.

Anyone who remembers what the liturgy was like before Vatican II knows well that the exercise of minor orders was confined, for the duration of the academic year, within the walls of the seminaries. If someone in minor orders[24] on vacation was asked, “And now, what can you do?” The porter replied that his job was already taken by the sacristan. The exorcist, a bit confused, would refer to canon 1151 of the Code that prohibited him from exercising such an office, which was always entrusted to an experienced priest. The reader knew that, in addition to being able to read at most at the Easter Vigil, since the priest was responsible for the readings of the Mass, he could bless “the bread and all the new fruits,” including those first fruits that are children, but no one told him with what formulas he could exercise his office. The acolyte blushed, knowing that in his office he was permanently ousted by the altar boys. The only one able to inform the interlocutor about the powers he had received was the subdeacon, who exercised them, but only at solemn Masses, chanting the epistle, bringing the bread and wine to the altar, and holding up, well covered by the humeral veil, the empty paten waiting for the master of ceremonies to give it to the celebrant. This was the state of affairs when the updating desired by the Second Vatican  Council arrived.

Paul VI’s reform: from minor orders to reserved ministries

The overview of minor orders traced so far has allowed us to note their progressive shift from an effective function, open to laymen and clerics, to a formal function, reserved for clerics preparing for the priesthood. The fleeting exercise of individual minor orders, destined to disappear with the ascent to the next order, did not go unnoticed by the Council Fathers, who limited themselves to saying: “The rites of ordinations should be revised with regard to the ceremonies and the texts.[25] The desired revision was transferred to the Consilium, that is, to the body specifically created by Paul VI the day after the closing of the Council to translate the Constitution on the Liturgy into practice.[26] In this case, it was a matter of applying two underlying principles of the constitution itself: the principle of truth and the principle of subsidiarity. The first establishes that the sign, in order to be true, must adapt to the reality it intends to signify, with the consequent suppression of what is outdated.[27] The second recalls that in the liturgy, since everyone is an actor, no one should override what another can do, that is, everyone is obliged to do what is his or her duty.[28] To these two principles are added the stimuli that came from the adoption of the vernacular, the enrichment of the liturgy of the Word and the recognition of the need to lighten the burden on the priest, who for too long had become the unique actor of the celebration. These were the considerations that, with the work of Consilium, prepared the ground for the promulgation of the motu proprio[29] Ministeria quaedam, with which Paul VI reformed the ancient minor orders, adapting them to contemporary needs.

The normative part of this magisterial intervention is divided into thirteen points, of which we report here the first seven: “1) The first tonsure is no longer conferred; entrance into the clerical state is annexed to the diaconate. 2) What have hitherto been called minor orders are to be called ‘ministries’ in the future. 3) Ministries may also be entrusted to the laity, so that they are no longer considered as reserved to candidates for the Sacrament of Orders. 4) There are two ministries which are to be maintained throughout the Latin Church, adapted to present-day needs: that of the reader and that of the acolyte. The functions, which until now were entrusted to the subdeacon, are delegated to the reader and the acolyte, and therefore, in the Latin Church, the major order of the subdeaconate no longer exists […]. 5) The lector is instituted for the office, proper to him, of reading the word of God in the liturgical assembly. Therefore, at Mass and in other sacred actions it is his duty to proclaim the readings of Sacred Scripture (but not the Gospel) […]. 6) The acolyte is instituted to help the deacon and to minister to the priest. It is therefore his task to attend to the service of the altar, to help the deacon and the priest in liturgical actions, especially in the celebration of Holy Mass; moreover, to distribute Holy Communion as an extraordinary minister whenever the ministers mentioned in canon 845 of the CIC are not present or are unable to do so because of illness, advanced age, or because they are impeded by other pastoral ministries, or whenever the number of faithful who approach the Holy Table is so great that the celebration of Holy Mass would last too long. In the same extraordinary circumstances, he may be asked to expose publicly to the adoration of the faithful the sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist and then to place it in its position; but not to bless the people […]. 7) The institution of reader and acolyte, according to the venerable tradition of the Church, is reserved to men (virus preservatory).”[30]

In order to know how the reform of the minor orders, which Paul VI, with exquisite pastoral sensitivity, had the courage to prune and transform into ministries, has been received, a distinction must be made. As far as candidates for Holy Orders are concerned, the reception has been positive, since, with the suppression of obsolete degrees, attention has been focused on actual ministries. On the other hand, as far as lay candidates are concerned, it must be acknowledged that – with the exception of a few ecclesiastical provisions exercised by pastors sensitive to the liturgy – Paul VI’s generous offer has fallen on deaf ears, since the instituted ministries, to be understood as ordinary ministries, have been replaced by extraordinary ministries, which in not a few cases have turned out to be improvised ministries. In saying this, I am not referring to the extraordinary ministry of the Eucharist, which has been regulated by precise norms and which is exercised to the great benefit of the faithful both in the distribution of communion during Mass and in taking communion to the sick. I am referring to the extraordinary ministry of the Word, which, in the absence of adequate norms, is exercised by those innumerable lectors who are unprepared – whether they are improvised lectors or budding readers – for whom standing at the ambo is often transformed into a tiring exercise in reading syllable by syllable. The one who suffers is not so much the incapable reader, but the Word of God which, even with the best of intentions, is mistreated. Obliged to pay the price for this liturgical minimalism are above all the ears of the recipients, to whom the Word does not reach. Now these inconveniences, which are observed by everyone but which few have the courage to denounce, are largely to be attributed to the lack of liturgical-pastoral reception of Ministeria quaedam.

Francis’ reform: from reserved ministries to open ministries

The main difficulty that arose for those who wanted to take Ministeria quaedam seriously was the fact that Paul VI had reserved instituted ministries to men only, a reservation later set forth in can. 230 § 1 of the Code of Canon Law. Two synodal assemblies intervened to urge the overcoming of this limitation: first, the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God, wishing that “the ministry of the reader be open to women as well”[31]; then the Synod of Bishops for Amazonia, expressly asking that “adequately formed and prepared women may also receive the ministries of the reader and acolyte.”[32]

The removal of this reservation has now been provided by Pope Francis’ motu proprio Spiritus Domini with these words: “I therefore decree that Canon 230 § 1 of the Code of Canon Law shall in future have the following formulation: ‘Lay persons who possess the age and qualifications established by decree of the conference of bishops can be admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte.’”[33]

Previously the Latin text of the canon read: “Viri laici, qui ætate dotibusque pollent…” Now it reads: “Laici, qui ætate dotibusque pollent…” The suppressed noun “viri” (male persons) has made space for the original adjective “laici” in a noun function, therefore including both sexes. It was sufficient to remove one word to remove the limitation.

With the admission of women to the instituted ministries of reader and acolyte,[34] Pope Francis, while respecting “sound tradition,” has nevertheless opened the way to “legitimate progress.”[35] He has legitimized the aspiration of the faithful to see in the baptismal priesthood the fulcrum of a way of being ministerial that is destined to collaborate, in very precise areas, with the way of being ministerial deriving from the ordained priesthood. It can also be said that the new measure does justice to the marked religious sensitivity of women and to the ministerial potential they possess. It is enough to take a look at the faithful who fill our churches to realize that women are more involved than men. St. Paul had already realized this when, in Philippi, he went to the river where he believed the Sabbath prayer was held and spoke “to the women gathered there” (cf. Acts 16:11-15); if on that occasion he had relied only on men, Paul would have found himself almost alone. With this opening, was everything resolved? Certainly not. Rather than being the goal for which a convinced expectation had been aimed, Francis’ motu proprio will be the beginning of the effective application of Paul VI’s motu proprio.

Pontifical documents and the Code of Canon Law have already expressed the prerequisites required for institution. Although it is true that ministry is based on Baptism, it is also true that the Baptism received is not sufficient to make a member of the faithful fit to exercise ministries. The Church is a body, in which each member specializes, as Saint Paul reminds us in the metaphor of the body (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-26). It is therefore necessary, through adequate preparation, to verify whether the individual baptized person has the gifts required for the specialization he or she intends to exercise. Even if the acolyte, because of the service directed to the Eucharist, can be considered superior to the reader, who is at the service of the Word, nevertheless the characteristics required to be a reader are greater than those required to be an acolyte. To be an acolyte it is sufficient to have good dispositions of mind, the aptitude to cultivate the ars celebrandi, the ability to treat the sacred species with reverence, the ability to initiate catechesis, affability toward the sick to whom communion is to be brought, and so on. On the other hand, for those who aspire to be lectors, in addition to the basic dispositions similar to those mentioned above, those qualities are required which Peter Lombard, drawing from Isidore of Seville, mentions in the text quoted above.

The possibility of conferring instituted ministries on the laity, recognized by the motu proprio Spiritus Domini, is a milestone and a point of no return that will not fail to positively mark the life of the Church. Along with liturgical services, which are many and should not be minimized,[36] lectors and instituted acolytes will henceforth have an authoritative qualification to engage also in the management of charitable services, which flow from the Word proclaimed at the ambo and from the Bread of Life broken at the altar, to bring relief – as Justin recalls – “to orphans and widows, and to those who are neglected by sickness or other cause, and to those who are in prison, and to those who stay as foreigners: in short, […] to all those who are in need.”[37]

If women have wanted to express their thanks to Pope Francis,[38] men will now want to say their thanks to women, because with their tenacious patience they have been able to wait for this opening that will pave the way for the conferral of instituted ministries also on the “viri” included in the inclusive term “laity.”[39]

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 4 art. 9, 0421: 10.32009/22072446.0421.9

[1].      For the relationship between priests and Levites, cf. R. de Vaux, Le istituzioni dell’Antico Testamento, Turin, Marietti, 19773, 353-365; 375f; 379-395.

[2].      For the text and commentary, see C. Giraudo, Ascolta, Israele! Ascoltaci, Signore!, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana, 2008, 54-59.

[3].      For text and commentary, see ibid., 59-63.

[4].      Luke’s account mentions only the reading of the Prophets, which was certainly preceded by the reading of the Law (cf. Acts 13:15; 15:21).

[5].       Cf. R. de Vaux, Le istituzioni dell’Antico Testamento, op. cit., 375f.

[6].      Precedence in the reading of the Torah is given to the Israelite of priestly ancestry (kohèn); in his absence, to the Israelite of Levitical ancestry (levì); in the absence of both, to the ordinary Israelite (cf. M. E. Artom [ed.], Machazor di rito italiano secondo gli usi di tutte le Comunità, Rome, Carucci, 1990, 448f).

[7].      One thinks of the Jewish rite of Bar Mitzvah (“child of the commandment”), by which the boy who has reached the age of 13 is obliged to observe the commandments; on this occasion he is enabled to proclaim in the synagogue the readings of the Law and the Prophets. Similarly, for the girl who has reached the age of 12 years there is the rite of Bat Mitzvah (“daughter of the commandment”), which also qualifies her for synagogue reading (cf. Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 4, Jerusalem, Keter, 1996, 243-247).

[8] .     This “secularity” of Jesus is also recognized by Scripture: “If therefore he were on earth, he would not even be a priest, for there are those who offer gifts according to the Law” (Heb 8:4).

[9] .     Justin, First Apology 67:3-5 (PG 6, 429-430).

[10].     Cf. M. Righetti, Manuale di storia liturgica, vol. 4, Milan, Àncora, 1959, 382.

[11].    For the context of this text (Letter 29) and other related letters (Letters 38 and 39), cf. E. Cattaneo, I ministeri nella Chiesa antica. Testi patristici dei primi tre secoli, Milan, Paoline, 1997, 526-534; C. Giraudo, Ascolta, Israele…op. cit., 79-81. The term “confessor,” referring to Ottatus, designates a Christian who has confessed his faith before the civil authorities.

[12].    For prisoners’ support, cf. Letter 78; for support of widows and the sick, cf. Letter 36 (PL 4, 421.327).

[13].    B. Botte (ed), La Tradition apostolique de Saint Hippolyte: essai de reconstitution, Münster – Westfalen, Aschendorff, 19634, 32f.

[14].    F. X. von Funk (ed), Didascalia et Constitutiones Apostolorum, vol. 1, Paderbornæ, Schoeningh, 1905, 526f.

[15].     Eusebius of Caesarea, Historia Ecclesiastica, 6:43,11 (PG 19, 621-622).

[16].     Cf. E. Le Blant, Inscriptions chrétiennes de la Gaule antérieures au VIIIe siècle, vol. 1, Paris, L’Imprimerie impériale, 1856, 77f.

[17].    Lombard places the bishop among the ecclesiastical dignities.

[18].    For the oscillation of the sub-diaconate between the minor and major orders, cf. M. Righetti, Manuale di storia liturgica, vol. 4, op. cit., 384-386.

[19].     P. Lombard, Sententiarum Libri quatuor, lib. 4, dist. 24 (PL 192, 901-902). Here Lombard cites texts of Isidore of Seville, which he draws from Etymologiarum libri, lib. 7, ch. 12 (PL 82, 292-293) and from De ecclesiasticis officiis, lib. 2, ch. 10-15 (PL 83, 790-794). The Scholastic tradition would draw on this material.

[20].     H. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum (DS), Bologna, EDB, 1995, No. 1765.

[21].    DS 1772.

[22].    To control and moderate the ascent, together with the prohibition of orders “per saltum,” were the “interstices,” that is, the spaces of time that had to elapse between the reception of one order and the next.

[23].     Council of Trent, Session 23, De Reformatione, ch. 17.

[24].    The term “minor” designated the cleric who had received all, or part, of the minor orders.

[25].     Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), no. 76.

[26].    For the path followed by the Consilium, cf. A. Bugnini, La riforma liturgica (1948-1975), Rome, Centro Liturgico Vincenziano, 19972, 703-726.

[27].    The principle of truth can be read in the formulation: “Let those elements be suppressed which, with the passage of the centuries, were duplicated or added without great utility” (SC 50; cf. 21 and 62).

[28].    A formulation of the principle of subsidiarity is, for example: “In liturgical celebrations each one, whether minister or ordinary faithful, in carrying out his own office, should limit himself to doing all and only that which, according to the nature of the rite and the liturgical norms, is within his competence. The ministers, lectors, commentators and members of the schola cantorum also carry out a true liturgical ministry” (SC 28-29; cf. 14).

[29].    The expression “motu proprio” designates, in the papal chancery, a particular type of document concerning an intervention that the pontiff makes “on his own initiative” to justify a concession or to produce certain juridical effects.

[30].     Paul VI, Motu proprio Ministeria quaedam (August 15, 1972), in AAS 64 (1972) 529-534.

[31].    “It is hoped that the ministry of the reader will also be open to women, so that their role as proclaimers of the Word will be recognized in the Christian community” (Synod of Bishops on The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church [Oct. 5-26, 2008], Proposition 17).

[32].    “We call for the revision of Paul VI’s   motu proprio Ministeria quædam, so that adequately formed and prepared women may also receive the ministries of the lector and acolyte, among others that can be carried out. In the new contexts of evangelization and pastoral care in Amazonia, where most Catholic communities are led by women, we ask that the instituted ministry of ‘woman community leader’ be created, giving it recognition, in service to the changing needs of evangelization and care for communities” (Synod of Bishops for the Panamanian Region: New Pathways for the Church and for an Integral Ecology [Oct. 6-27, 2019], Final Document, No. 102).

[33].     Francis, “Motu proprio”, Spiritus Domini (Jan. 10, 2021), in Oss. Rom., Jan. 11, 2021, 10f.

[34].    To confirm the existence of a female ministry, it is enough to think of the presence of deaconesses in the ancient undivided Church, regardless of whether or not they were recognized as belonging to the sacred order. On this issue, see “Donna, carismi e ministeri”, in E. Cattaneo, I ministeri…op. cit., 181-199.

[35].     See SC 23.

[36].    In addition to the services that instituted ministers are called to perform in liturgies presided over by the presbyter, consider liturgies in expectation of the presbyter, that is, the liturgy of the Word which can culminate in the liturgy of the Presanctified (cf. C. Giraudo, Ascolta, Israele…op. cit., 145-155).

[37].     Justin, First Apology, 67.6 (PG 6, 429-430).

[38].     Cf. “Il ‘grazie’ delle superiori generali”, in Oss. Rom. , Jan. 13, 2021, 2f.

[39].    Even though the term ‘laity,’ with reference to male persons who are able to exercise the instituted ministries, embraces both the candidates to Holy Orders who receive them in a transitional form, that is, a ‘passage’ in view of the priesthood, and those who can receive them in a permanent form, our reflection converges on the latter, for whom the opening initiated by the reform of Paul VI – except in sporadic cases, as we have said – has not been followed up. The distinction between “permanent ministries” and “transitional ministries” is modeled on the distinction made in the Code of Canon Law (can. 1035 § 1) between “permanent diaconate” and “transitional diaconate.”


Cesare Giraudo, SJ is Professor Emeritus of Liturgy and Theology in the Eastern Institute of Rome and ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy of Theology.

With thanks to La Civilta Cattolica, where this article first appeared.


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