Women will soon officially act as lectors and acolytes during Roman Catholic Masses, after Pope Francis on Monday changed the church's law regarding the procedures, according to a statement issued by the Rev. W. Shawn McKnight, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City.
McKnight said the local diocese will implement the changes as soon as possible. However, it will likely have to wait until after the annual gathering of bishops in November, after bishops have had a chance to set up regulations.
The modification of the law doesn't change the requirement that only men may receive the sacrament of holy orders; however, it recognizes the distinctions between lay ministries and ordained ministries (such as with a deacon, priest or bishop).
"I will begin talking to my people about what this means," McKnight said. "We will look at what kinds of people (to consider for training). I would have the expectation that someone instituted as a lector would have some proven ministry in catechesis (religious formation)."
For example, they might begin by looking at people who have taught in Parish Schools of Religion, led Gospel study or shared Catholic principles.
Because of their baptism, women — like men — have a responsibility to ministry, McKnight said.
Lay women have served as lectors (readers) and acolytes (assistants or servers) during Masses, but have only done so "by temporary designation."
The updated church law requires those who possess "the age and qualifications established by the decree of the conference of bishops" may be admitted as lectors and acolytes.
"This update ensures that all laity — women and men — are able to use the gifts God has given to them for the good of the church, exercising appropriate co-responsibility in building up the church," McKnight explained. "We will be able to provide catechesis, training and formation for lay women and men who are called to these ministries so they can be good stewards of God's gifts."
A diocesan formation program will be established after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issues its formal decree.
Once the church has a sufficient number of formally trained acolytes, there won't be need for temporary ministers, McKnight said. Instituted acolytes would be the first "extraordinary ministers" of Holy Communion.
The conference will set a minimum age for acolytes.
The practice right now is to have children serve at the altar, McKnight said. That will continue, but adults who have been formally installed as acolytes will play larger roles at the altar.
"It's long overdue. (The change) better manifests what I've been a proponent of — lay involvement," McKnight said. "Both men and women who are competent and trained — it ought to be opened to them."
The Diocese of Jefferson City includes 38 counties in central and northeastern Missouri. Approximately 82,000 Catholics live in the diocese, worshiping and serving in 95 parishes.
This article was edited at 9:37 a.m. Jan. 12, 2021, to more accurately describe the future roles planned for children and adults serving at the altar.