Friday, August 26, 2011

No More Lasses Serving The Masses?

Recently, the rector of the Cathedral parish in Galveston, Texas, announced that he would be limiting altar service to males only, citing the role as a means of fostering priestly vocations. Could this be the start of a trend?

IMAGE: St Stephen's Church, Hamilton OH, 1934

Relax, kids, it isn't gonna happen anytime soon. But according to Father Zuhlsdorf, if William Oddie of The Catholic Herald in the UK had his way, the role of acolyte (altar server) would once again be restricted to boys and men.

One of the guests at dinner one evening was Archbishop André Vingt-Trois of Tours (now Cardinal Archbishop of Paris). The subject of conversation at one point was the way in which, in the local Parish Church, presumably in an attempt to involve women in the celebration of the Mass, not only were all the readers women but so also were all the servers girls; my wife (not I) compared it to a farmyard, with the priest as the cock strutting about in the middle of a flock of hens.

IMAGE: St Andrew's Boys Choir, Milford OH, December 1966. The author is third from the right.

Thankfully, it gets better.

Until about the mid-1990s, I was in favor of using female altar servers, albeit reluctantly. A handout prepared by Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio for the 1987 Synod on the Laity called for retaining the traditional practice. I found his arguments inconclusive. As women were permitted to serve as lectors within the sanctuary since 1971, I concluded that the traditional restriction of women from the "presbyterium" -- the place of presiding, the sanctuary; at Mass, in this case -- was broken, thus any rule against female altar servers would have been implicitly abrogated.

IMAGE: Female altar servers are still not permitted in the Diocese of Rome, which does not prevent at least a few surprises.

What changed my mind? One factor was the people who broke the rules and did it anyway. My home parish in Ohio announced they were eliminating "altar servers" which could only be male, and was introducing something of their own called "altar attendants," which served the same purpose as altar servers, but could be male and/or female. Virtually the entire parish went along with their intelligence being insulted (except for Dad, who gave the pastor a good scolding over the phone one evening). There were also other places where they were illicitly used. I had always been taught that serving at the altar was a privilege, but this was obviously meaningless to those who were making some sort of point about the role of women in the Church.

How could I tell their motives, you ask? Well, bragging about it was a big tip-off.

IMAGE: Acolytes in the Eastern churches wear an ornate tunic known to the Greeks as a "sticharion." It is similar in form to a dalmatic in the Western church, but is usually longer.

And then, there was the matter of HOW the indulgence came about. What started out as the Holy Father being asked to rule on the interpretation of a point in canon law, ended with a form signed under duress, that failed to go through the due process. As a result, when the alleged "permission" was announced, the decree itself lacked what is called a "protocol number," which would have verified its licitness, having been published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (The Official Acts of the Apostolic See, the Vatican's equivalent of the Federal Register here in the States). A bit of face-saving was necessary to make it lawful, the genie being completely out of the bottle by then, and canonists around the world have been bewildered ever since. (Click here.)

When the Bishop of Arlington gave permission for female acolytes in parishes several years ago, most proponents of the change would have cited the wishes of younger, stiff-necked, misogynist, conservative priests as the ones who would prevent its implementation. Rather, it was more likely the boys themselves who were already serving. In parishes where they were asked, most said they would walk away from it. So, in a diocese of 68 parishes and 6 missions, there may be no more than a dozen which use altar girls. And even then, the local norms are written in a way that prevents the girls from becoming a majority. Thus the endorsement of traditional practice, enshrined even in the 1994 indulgence, is preserved in any case.

IMAGE: November 2010. The author as Senior Master of Ceremonies at St John the Beloved Church, McLean VA, holding a replica of the "Botafumeiro", a famous thurible found in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain. More information:

Every liturgical function performed by laity, save one, serves the assembly. Only the acolyte serves the priest. There is a relationship there that is unlike that of any other function. Small wonder that service at the altar has long been associated with fostering vocations to the priesthood. In my own parish work, I can attest to this, as to even attempt to encourage vocations with a mixed-gender group would have the unfortunate effect of treating boys and girls unequally. As to altar service being a means for vocations to the Religious life, this makes little sense, as functioning at the altar is an essential role of a priest, and since women cannot be priests ...

To this day, the parish where I grew up still refers to them as "altar attendants." It pains me to say this about people with whom I spent my childhood, but if they can fall for this, they can fall for anything, don't you think?

Or don't you?


Dad29 said...

I think that Pius XII (!!), when he decided to allow women to sing in church choirs (!!) opened the door to 'altar chicks.'

Wasn't his intention, but that was the effect.

Denise said...

Having lived all over the country I always assumed the altar server cadre would be coed. Then we moved to the Diocese of Arlington. I became a quick proponent of the all male altar server corps. Nowhere else have I seen a parish with over 120 boys signed up to be servers. Nowhere else have I seen every daily Mass, every funeral, and every wedding covered with at least three servers and every Sunday Mass has 6 servers. My 17-year-old son has been a server since 5th grade and has rarely served more than 2 Masses a month because there are so many boys serving. And as a CCD teacher, I love to have altar servers in the class because those are the boys that have already received a great deal of catechesis from our priests as part of their server training.

I do wonder who is tracking the number of girls serving in those few parishes in the Diocese of Arlington that do allow girls to be altar servers. The stipulation was that girls could never be the majority of servers. However, the few times I have attended a parish that uses female altar servers the girls outnumbered the boys. Is this just an honor system sort of rule or is anyone really keeping track?

David L Alexander said...

It was Pius XI, the year was 1925, and I believe that, by "choir", he was referring to Gregorian chant scholas, specifically in "choir sections" of a church (which are not common in North America), in which case he stipulated that women be separated from the men.

Women were permitted to serve as ushers in 1969. Wonder how many "altar girl parishes" still limit ushering to men.

David L Alexander said...


The norms state that, when girls constitute the majority, it is up to the pastor to make the correction. I imagine in most cases the pastors would be too intimidated by the local cadre of feminazis to deal with it. On top of that, if parents of a boy are told that "we have all the servers we need" in such a parish, and they make an issue of it, do those parents act as though it is a privilege or an entitlement? Do they petition the bishop for the pastor to correct the situation? Do the norms imply that the bishop leaves it to the pastor?

At the end of the day, it was a dumb idea to begin with, and I think he knows it. (I also think I know why he did it anyway, but I can't go on the record here).

By the way, last time I checked, they don't use them at the Cathedral.

Tom said...

Female servers for the Pope

Pary Tell
Aug 26, 2011

Freiburg im Bresgau, 8.26.11 (KIPA) The Vatican has given a green light for female altar servers for the papal visit to Freiburg (Germany). Nine female and eight male servers from the Freiburg Archdiocese will minister at the youth prayer and the closing liturgy on September 24-25, the diocese announced on Friday. It is customary that no female serves are used at papal liturgies in the Vatican. By contrast, there were female servers at the liturgies for Benedict XVI’s visit to Bavaria in 2006.

David L Alexander said...


The assumption most people make here, is that the Pope signed off on it. As a master of ceremonies for a parish TLM, I take care of details so the celebrant doesn't have to. It's the same for a diocesan bishop, as well as the Pope. People do try to slip things in on the guy in charge now and then. And if he tears each of his staff a new one for it, you won't necessarily hear about it (although sometimes I do).