The case for a boys-only policy for altar servers
by Rachel Campos-Duffy
Sometime in the 1970’s the long-standing male-only policy for altar servers changed. Here I am in 1976 in a picture with my sister, Leah, after Mass with Fr. Nadine, a pastor who welcomed both girl altar servers and colorful Hawaiian vestments.
Thirty-five years later, many pastors and dioceses are having second thoughts about the presence of girls on the altar. Some cite tradition; others the Church’s teaching on the differentiation and complementarity of the sexes. But many more are pointing to vocations.
According to the Communications Office of the Diocese of Phoenix, there is growing evidence to support the claim that where altar service is limited to boys, priestly vocations increase. The best example is the Diocese of Lincoln Nebraska, the envy of all dioceses when it comes to vocations.
Why? Because serving at the altar was always considered an apprenticeship for the priesthood. Prior to the modern seminary, it was the primary means by which boys discerned their interest and calling to become priests.
For starters, there’s the surprising fact that the participation of boys in altar service programs decreases with the inclusion of girls; likewise it increases when it is boys-only.
My 10 year-old son is an altar server in a boys-only program he loves and I can attest that the inclusion of his 8 year old sister would, well, annoy him. He’s not a sexist. He’s a typical 10 year-old boy and that is the age that boys begin considering altar service. Our priest is a role model to our son and it’s common sense if the Church wants the experience to feel like a priest-in-training experience, then it ought to be limited to boys.
Despite the positive effects male-only altar service has on participation and more importantly on vocations to the priesthood, many priests are reluctant to implement the policy in this hyper-sensitive, war-on-women era. But changing the policy doesn’t necessarily have to be contentious or cause hurt feelings for girls who desire to serve the Church in its most central sacrament. One way to ease the pain that comes with any liturgical change is by implementing a sacristan program for girls.
There is a long-standing Catholic tradition of nuns and women serving as sacristans. Now girls can follow in this tradition and experience and learn more about the Mass and this awesome responsibility. In many cases, these programs are designed and run by religious sisters. Not surprisingly, parishes that offer a sacristan program for girls report increases in religious vocations for women.
In pondering the wisdom of a male only altar service policy and a girls only sacristan program, it would be good to consider Matthew 7:20:
“Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”
Published: August 25, 2011
“Apprenticeship for priesthood”
No more altar girls at Phoenix diocese’s cathedral
(The following statement was issued Aug. 22 by the Communications Office of the Diocese of Phoenix.)
Experiencing personally the consequences of the priesthood shortage and noting the absence of strong fatherly presence in society in general, and religious practice in particular, Fr. John Lankeit, rector of Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral, recently restructured the program for boys and girls who serve at Mass. At the Cathedral, boys can train to serve at the altar, and girls can train to serve as sacristans.
The decision was made in order to encourage young men and women to honor their God-given differentiation and complementarity, and to discern more clearly how such differentiation points to specific vocations in the Church.
Boys' service at the altar has roots in Church history prior to the creation of the modern seminary system where men are formed for priesthood. Before seminaries, serving at the altar was part of an apprenticeship for priesthood. Fr. Lankeit's decision was made primarily in response to the shortage of priestly vocations, since serving at the altar points very clearly to the specific vocation of priesthood.
He cites examples where limiting altar service to boys in the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., and in Ann Arbor, Mich., has borne the fruit of many priestly vocations. The Diocese of Lincoln is considered a vocations "powerhouse." In a single parish in Ann Arbor, in 2008, there were 22 new seminarians and five women in formation for religious life. The same parish is also home to 16 sisters in the Servants of God's Love religious community.
The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, also based in Ann Arbor, are receiving so many inquiries from young women interested in entering the order that they cannot build facilities fast enough to accommodate the surge in vocations. Their order offers clear evidence that when the God-given differentiation between male and female is honored, both men's and women's vocations flourish.
The first girls to train in the Cathedral's sacristan program are learning quickly, serving well and enjoying the important responsibility of sacristan. The parish is coordinating with a contemplative women's religious order to provide these young sacristans with a "come and see" event at their monastery and to learn from one of the sisters who served as the official sacristan of their mother house in Alabama.