Pope Francis has formally changed the Code of Canon Law to allow in practice the access of lay women to serve at the altar in the Catholic Church.
"There is nothing new about women proclaiming the Word of God during liturgical celebrations or carrying out a service at the altar as altar servers or as Eucharistic ministers," said Vatican News on Jan. 11.
"In many communities throughout the world these practices are already authorized by local bishops."
Pope Francis wanted to formalize and institutionalize the presence of women at the altar said Vatican News.
The ordained priesthood will still be the preserve of men, Francis stressed in the decree., the BBC reported.
It said the law change is official recognition of roles already performed by women in some Catholic services, especially in Western countries.
The announcement is expected to force conservative church leaders to accept greater involvement of women in the liturgy.
NO WOMEN PRIESTS
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 Washington Post reported.
The Post said the new law merely formalizes a role that women in many parts of the world, including the United States, 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, said the newspaper.
"Francis, on one side, is merely acknowledging reality on the ground, as it is right now," said Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University was quoted as saying.
"But this is important because the [conservative] bishops have been contradicted, openly, by Pope Francis."
Cristina Simonelli, president of an Italian association of female theologians, said Francis's move Monday was a "minimal thing" but still significant, "if you look at how absurd the situation was."
"We're still 100 steps behind the historic moment that we live, but [this is] always better than standing still," Simonelli said.