ROME – Pope Francis issued a new law formalizing the ability for women and girls to be lectors and altar servers at Mass on Monday, something which has long been common practice in Western countries such as the United States but had yet to be written formally into law.

Signed on the Jan. 10 feast of the Baptism of the Lord and published Jan. 11, the new law, titled, Spiritus Domini, establishes that women may now officially take on the roles of lector and acolyte during liturgical celebrations.

Called a motu proprio, meaning a piece of legislation issued on the pope’s own authority, the new law revises canon 230 in the Code of Canon Law, which previously stated that “lay men 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.”

Now the revised text begins, “lay people who possess the age and qualifications,” making the sole condition for admittance to the ministries one’s baptism, rather than one’s gender.

In an explanatory note issued alongside the new law, Italian priest Father Angelo Lameri, professor at the Pontifical Lateran University, called the new law “a maturation of a process begun in 1972 by St. Paul VI,” who that year declared in his own motu proprio Ministeria quaedam that one need not be a priest or seminarian in order to be an altar server, opening the role to laity.”

In 2016, Pope Francis made a similar gesture when he modified the rubric for the foot-washing ritual during Mass on Holy Thursday, formally allowing women to be selected, even though this had also been the common practice for years in countries such as the United States.

Francis in a letter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that the choice to formally admit women to these ministries, “which entail a stability, a public recognition and the mandate on the part of the bishop, makes the participation of all in the work of evangelization more effective in the Church.”

This decision, he said, “ensures that women have a real and effective impact in the organization, in the most important decisions, and in the leadership of communities but without ceasing to do so with the style of their feminine imprint.”

“In this way, in addition to responding to what is asked for the mission in present times and welcoming the testimony given by so many women who have cared for and care for the service to the Word and the Altar, it will appear with greater evidence – even for those who are considering ordained ministry – that the ministries of the Lectorate and Acolyte are rooted in the sacrament of baptism and confirmation,” he said.

Opening the door for all laity to take on these roles, he said, those preparing for the priesthood will better understand “that they are participants in a shared ministry with other baptized men and women.”

Pope Francis said it will be up to individual bishops’ conferences, some of which still prevent girls from becoming altar servers, to establish “adequate criteria” for both the “discernment and the preparation of men and women candidates” to the Lectorate or the Acolyte according to the criteria set out in Ministeria quaedam, “subject to the approval of the Holy See and according to the needs of evangelization in their territory.”

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