POPE FRANCIS, widely seen as a reformer in an era demanding change, has altered church law to allow women to hold more prominent positions during Mass.
Though remaining barred from the priesthood, women can now act as readers, alter servers, and assist priests during services, including communion.
The move is in recognition of the "precious contribution" made by women to the church, the Holy Father said.
A simple change to a clause in canon law from 'lay men' to 'lay persons', implying that both genders can perform "the ministries of lector and acolyte", brought the new laws into force.
The decision will merely formalise arrangements already in effect in many countries, including the United States, where women regularly participate in Mass at the discretion of local priests and bishops.
Whereas women had to seek permission to serve as acolytes and lectors, they will now be able to do so independently. Moreover, conservative church authorities, some of whom exclusively sanction male-only altar services, will no longer be able to do so, or prevent female participation.
"Francis, on one side, is merely acknowledging reality on the ground, as it is right now," confirmed Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University.
"But this is important because the [conservative] bishops have been contradicted, openly, by Pope Francis," he added.
Despite being a moderate change, and falling short of the reforms to male-only priesthood that some had hoped for, this is a significant step in reforming the gender imbalance within the Church - one of the most divisive issues it is grappling with.
Pope Francis has consistently stated his view that only men are suitable candidates for priesthood.
Despite this, Catholic women's groups have urged the Pontiff to reconsider; one such group in Germany has organised church boycotts until the issue is resolved.
Cristina Simonelli, president of an Italian association of female theologians said that while Francis's move Monday was a "minimal thing", it is 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 concluded.