The Ministry of Women in the Liturgy: ‘Sound Tradition’ and ‘Legitimate Progress’

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Cesare Giraudo, SJ

 Cesare Giraudo, SJ / Church Thought / 7 April 2021


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On the occasion of the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Pope Francis promulgated a document by which he recognized the possibility for women to exercise the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte. It is well known that earlier legislation, established by Paul VI with a similar measure, reserved these ministries to male laity. In order to grasp the importance of these two documents, on which we will dwell later, let us first take a look at the prehistory and evolution of a service that the Church has always provided for the Word of God and the table of the Lord.

The Jewish ancestry of the reader and the acolyte

Anyone interested in ecclesial ministries can hardly think that they were invented by the apostles to meet the needs of the nascent Church. Regardless of the specific terms by which we designate them today, we must rather recognize that the Church inherited the service to the altar and the service at the ambo, respectively, from the temple and the synagogue.

In spite of the scant knowledge we have of the temple liturgy, it is possible to establish a connection, at least an ideal one, between the figure of the acolyte and the Levitic cult. We know, in fact, that in the temple of Jerusalem, together with the priests, chosen from among the descendants of the Levite Aaron, other Levites worked in subsidiary functions. They were taken from among other members of the tribe of Levi and employed as porters, singers or helpers in the various tasks required by the sacrificial cult.[1]

While we cannot say more about the Jewish precedent for the acolyte than this, we do know more about the Jewish precedent for the reader, which can be seen in the accounts of two liturgical celebrations recorded by the Scriptures.

The first story (Neh 7:72-8:12)[2] concerns the liturgy celebrated on a square that, in an emergency situation, was transformed into a sacred space. It is there that Ezra, priest and scribe, assisted by 13 Levites in charge of translating into Aramaic, proclaims in Hebrew the writings of the Law of Moses to the survivors of the exile who no longer knew the sacred language. The other story (Luke 4:16-22)[3] describes the liturgy in the synagogue of Nazareth, in which Jesus proclaims a text from Isaiah that concerns him personally (“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to evangelize the poor…” [Isa 61:1-2]). In spite of its essential significance,[4] the evangelist’s account makes us understand that the reading, by the very fact of being a cultic proclamation of the word of God, already actualizes it. In fact, by lending his mouth to God the Father, the reader – who in this case is Jesus himself – actualizes the Word, in the sense that it puts him in a position to speak to the assembled community.

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