Q: Pope Francis is now allowing women to be instituted as lectors and acolytes. I’m not quite clear how this affects what I’ve been doing. My bishop has never appointed me as a reader or altar server, even though I do both. Does this simply mean that women now have a bishop’s formal ‘protection’ in these ministries?
A: Thank you for your ministry to the church. There is no functional difference between a reader and a lector. Both do the same things. But the reader is understood to take on this responsibility wherever there are no lectors. When someone is instituted a lector, they possess that ministry for life. It would have made sense for bishops to institute lectors throughout his diocese, recognizing the gifts and dedication of the most appropriate people in all the parishes. However, most bishops have not done this because the rules from 1973-2020 forbade him to institute women. It would have seemed unjust.
The only functional difference between an extraordinary minister of holy communion and an instituted acolyte is that instituted acolytes may purify vessels. However, the restriction of that function to acolytes was only made clear in the United States because of a joint directory established between our bishops and the Vatican. The same rules have not applied in other countries, where in practice communion ministers have been purifying vessels.
But because women and men, girls and boys, have all been serving Mass, most people will not notice the difference once more lay people are instituted. However, like lectors, acolytes are the default ministers, and other servers assist in their absence.
Some have argued that the changes make it more difficult for bishops and priests who do not want to have girl servers and therefore gives them formal “protection”. Maybe. But it really has nothing to do with that. This is about allowing women into two ministries that the Catholic Church has reserved to men from time immemorial. Prior to 1973, the two ceremonies that we now call “institutions” were called “ordinations”. This is a monumental change in how the church views liturgical ministries, commitment to service, and the role of women.