With his decision, Francis gives women the right to act as readers and altar servers, assisting the priest during services or in administering Communion.
Although the move is far from the more significant step of admitting women to the priesthood, Francis said it was a way to recognize that they can make a “precious contribution” to the church.
The new law merely formalizes a role that women in many parts of the world, including Rwanda, have already been holding. But until now, they had been serving as acolytes and lectors as the positions are known at the discretion of local bishops or priests. In some cases, conservative bishops have made a point of enforcing male-only altar services, something they will no longer be able to do.
Speaking to IGIHE, the Archbishop of Kigali, Cardinal Antoine Kambanda welcomed the decision of Pope Francis highlighting that it will foster evangelization.
Referring to Coronavirus preventive measures that saw the Government imposing lockdown and ordering churches’ closure, Kambanda explained that laities have proven capability to contribute to church services where they took responsibility to teach children how to pray and led gospel celebration at home or elsewhere during and after lockdown.
“You understand that laities are getting more involved in leading liturgical services. At home, a child recognizes God, learns to pray, how to remain faithful and seek protection from God. These virtues are imparted by parents. In fact, family is the church’s foundation,” he said.
“Pope Francis wants laities to be involved in church’s activities to increasingly decentralize services to Christians. A priest might not be able to reach all patients who need sacraments but laities provide assistance,” added Cardinal Kambanda.
In a new edict, the pope formalized what in practice has been already allowed for years in many communities around the world.
“The pontiff, therefore, has established that women can accede to these ministries and they are attributed by a liturgical function that institutionalizes them,” the Vatican said.
It also stressed, that these roles were “essentially distinct from the ordained ministry,” explaining that this new step towards women’s equality within the church should not be seen as a precursor to women being ordained as priests – something feared by many conservative Catholics.
The new decree, called “Spiritus Domini,” modifies the Code of Canon Law to establish that women can have access to these ministries and that they are recognized through a liturgical act formally instituting them as such.
The pope said many bishops from around the world had said that the change was necessary to respond to the “needs of the times.”
In recent years the church has struggled in some regions to recruit new members of the all-male priesthood.
Francis specified that he wanted to welcome recommendations which have emerged from various synodal assemblies, writing that “a doctrinal development has been arrived at in these last years that has brought to light how certain ministries instituted by the Church have as their basis the common condition of being baptized and the royal priesthood received in the Sacrament of Baptism.”
The Motu proprio edict was accompanied by a letter addressed to the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, in which Francis explained the theological motivations behind his decision.
The pontiff wrote that “within the spectrum of renewal traced out by the [the 1960s’] Second Vatican Council, the urgency is being ever more felt today to rediscover the co-responsibility of all of the baptized in the Church and the mission of the laity in a particular way.”
Pope Paul VI was the pioneer of reforms placing women in liturgical services since 1963. Later on, his successors gradually appointed women in Catholic Church’s decision making positions.