March 1, 2021 | Local News

Donna Murphy of St. Stephen Cathedral serves as a lector during the Diocese of Owensboro’s March 27, 2018 Chrism Mass held at the Owensboro Sportscenter.  ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD | WKC

Living, personal, whole

‘Spiritus Domini’ validates women’s ‘self-giving love’


On Jan. 11, 2021, Pope Francis published an apostolic letter which modified canon law to allow women to be officially instituted in the lay ministries of lector and acolyte.

The pope’s apostolic letter, titled “Spiritus Domini” and issued “motu proprio” (Latin for “on his own impulse”), modified canon 230 §1 of the Code of Canon Law.

This motu proprio states that the roles of lector and acolyte “are now seen as ministries open to all the baptized,” said Fr. Patrick Cooney, OSB, the diocese’s judicial vicar.

This does not mean dioceses will necessarily begin to formally institute women into these roles – which many have held for some time now – but it is a “symbolic gesture in recognizing and validating the role that women have been serving in the liturgy for decades now,” said Lauren Johnson, co-coordinator of the Diocese of Owensboro’s Office of Worship.

“From the Church’s inception at Pentecost, women have been integral in its ministry,” said Johnson, who works with worship office co-coordinator Fr. Brandon Williams to plan liturgies and advise the Office of the Bishop on liturgical matters.

“St. Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles, before the coming of the Holy Spirit, ‘All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus,’” she added, citing Acts 1:14. “In fact, throughout all of Acts, women are named as assisting in the ministry of the Church.”

‘All suitable faithful’

During a Jan. 8, 2017 Mass in honor of the Epiphany, three young girls carry the crucifix and process out at the end of the liturgy at Sts. Joseph and Paul Parish in Owensboro. ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD | WKC

Women have been assisting as lector and acolyte (the latter meaning a role which not only serves at the altar but serves as Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion) for many years following the Second Vatican Council.

Johnson explained that in response to post-council changes implemented in the liturgy, some of which have led to a greater involvement of the laity, “women have been serving as lectors and servers with the permission of their diocesan bishops,” said Johnson.

“This role for both lay women and lay men was not considered a permanent ministry, but they could be deputed for this role on a temporary, as-needed basis,” she said.

This became such a commonplace practice in parishes around the United States that many people have not been aware of the history, or the technicalities.

Even though the motu proprio is unlikely to change day-to-day parish life, the reasons for this revision are explained in the text of Spiritus Domini. The letter states that “lay ministries, since they are based on the Sacrament of Baptism, may be entrusted to all suitable faithful, whether male or female.”

“What the law changed is that these two stable ministries have now been opened to both men and women,” said Fr. Cooney.

He said this revision to canon law is not a path toward women’s ordination.

“Pope Francis continues to reaffirm Pope John Paul II’s ban on women’s ordination to the priesthood,” he said.

Ministry of service

 Johnson explained that there is a difference between ministry of service (now available to all the lay faithful) and ministry at the altar (available to the ordained).

Holy Orders confers a ministry to the altar of the Eucharist – which is not simply a spiritual offering, “but a real offering of the Body and Blood of Christ in the person of Christ for the entire Church,” said Johnson. “Christ had not only a divine nature, but a human nature, which was male.”

Johnson said the Church teaches male and female are “both equal in dignity and made in the image of God, but are distinct in purpose in order to best show the uncontainable glory of God.”

“By virtue of our baptism, both man and woman are given the common priesthood of the faithful,” she said.

And to stand in the person of Christ is “to offer up his sacrifice, both fully divine and fully human, in the person of Christ,” said Johnson. “Therefore, a male must be ordained to the ministry of the altar to effect the real, human and divine sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist, in the person of Christ, because only Christ can offer Himself to the Father.”

“There are some roles that are natural to women (motherhood, giving life through conception and birth), and others to men (fatherhood), but which cannot be done without the help of the other,” she added. “Man and woman working together points to the fruitful reality of God as Trinity.”

Supernatural role

Johnson said the Catholic Church “cannot be fruitful without women.”

She said that if the world woke up tomorrow with no men, the Church could not continue its mission, most easily seen by the absence of priests – without which the Church would have no Eucharist.

“The same can be said of women: without women, the Church could not fulfill its mission as it would be rendered infertile without the contribution of the unique gifts bestowed on woman’s nature by God,” said Johnson.

Johnson said that the WWII-era saint, Edith Stein – also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – wrote extensively on the role and nature of women.

“Stein explains that ‘Woman naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal, and whole,’” said Johnson, citing Stein’s essay “The Ethos of Women’s Professions.”

And Pope St. John Paul II, who canonized Stein in 1988, stated in a 1995 letter to the Secretary General of the Fourth World Conference on Women of the United Nations that women possess a unique ability to “humanize” institutions.

Still, Johnson said women’s absence in the Church’s hierarchy means their influence “remains largely invisible,” except perhaps in cases of significant female saints like St. Joan of Arc, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila.

But this hiddenness does not take away from the “supernatural role” to which all women are called, said Johnson, referencing the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Gospels.

“Rarely is she spoken of, yet she is the most highly venerated of all the saints,” said Johnson. “The Church could not exist were it not for the Blessed Virgin Mary; the same is true of the role of women in the Church today, although usually not always visibly seen by all.”

Johnson referenced Paul VI’s Dec. 8, 1965 address to women at the closing of Vatican II, in which he said the hour is coming – in fact, had already come – when the “vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved.”

The pope concluded that address with: “Women of the entire universe, whether Christian or non-believing, you to whom life is entrusted at this grave moment in history, it is for you to save the peace of the world.”

Johnson said that women can learn much about their value in the Church not only from female saints of the past, but also by “the living female ‘saints’ in our everyday lives.”

“These are those women that, following in the footsteps of the Blessed Virgin Mary, lead a life of self-giving love tending to even the most ordinary of lives tasks with extraordinary love,” she said.

Did you know?

In the Acts of the Apostles, women are frequently referenced in assisting in the ministry of the Church. Examples include Acts 9:36-45, 12:6-19, 16:11-40, 17:16-34, 18:1-28.

Originally printed in the March 2021 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.


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