The Vatican has told church leaders here that no women may assist in distributing holy communion at masses conducted by Pope John Paul II during his U.S. tour next month.
Women as well as nonordained men have been permitted since 1973 to assist in holy communion as "special ministers of the eucharist." Tens of thousands of women assist in these services every week in local parishes in the United States.
Only priests, deacons and acolytes, however -- orders open only to males in the Roman Catholic Church -- are being enlisted to help distribute communion at papal masses, by order of the pontiff's master of ceremonies, Msgr. Virgilio Noe.
The Vatican instruction that allowed women a role in holy communion indicated that the special ministers would function only when there were not enough priests to distribute communion promptly, particularly in large congregations.
It is common practice in some parishes, however, for women to be scheduled regularly at masses in order to involve them in church leadership roles.
"When the pope comes, there will be zillions of priests available (to distribute the eucharist) and there would be no reason, in Rome's eyes, to use the special ministers," said Sister Luanne Durst, administrative assistant for the liturgy office of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"If you had women, it would appear that there were not enough priests and deacons," she said.
The exclusion of women from the eucharistic role is expected to disappoint many in the American church, both men and women, who have been pressing for a widening of leadership roles for women.
"It's very unfortuanate," said Sonya Quitslund, of the George Washington University department of religion and a leader of local Catholic feminists. "Many will be hurt and angry that women don't exist in these liturgies," she said.
Quitslund said that it is "definitely not the fault of our local men . . . They've been trying to think of some way they can do something."
The Rev. Anthony Krosnicki, associate director of the bishops' liturgy office, said that women would have other roles at the papal masses.
"Women will be visible in many ministries -- as gift bearers and reading the scripture" in the liturgies, he said.
Msgr. Noe's directive, relayed to church leaders here by Bishop Paul Marchinkus, who is in charge of papal travel, is simply a matter of going by the book in arrangements for the papal masses, officials her said.
Large numbers of lay women as well as nuns in the Catholic Church in the United States have undergone the special training to become eucharistic ministers and serve regularly in their parishes.
The Catholic Church does not admit women either to the priesthood or to the diaconate. The latter is an order open to married men, which involves several years of training in night and weekend classes.
Deacons may preach and perform some of the duties of a priest but may not celebrate mass, hear confessions or give last rites to the dying.
Acolytes, as currently defined, are men who have undergone the training as eucharistic ministers plus some additional training and have been formally instituted as acolytes.
Locally, efforts are under way to recruit 1,500 priests, deacons and acolytes from the Washington, Baltimore and Arlington dioceses to assist at the papal mass on the Mall here Oct. 7.