"It is...Our will that Catholics should abstain from certain appellations which have recently been brought into use to distinguish one group of Catholics from another. They are to be avoided not only as 'profane novelties of words,' out of harmony with both truth and justice, but also because they give rise to great trouble and confusion among Catholics. Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected: 'This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly; he cannot be saved' (Athanasian Creed). There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim 'Christian is my name and Catholic my surname,' only let him endeavour to be in reality what he calls himself." -- Pope Benedict XV, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum 24 (1914)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

UPDATED: Statistics Concerning Male Altar Servers

      On This Rock

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

There's been a lot of discussion on whether it is better to have male altar servers or to allow both girls and boys to serve at the altar.

Most of the discussion ends up being people offering their opinions

"I think it helps girls discern religious life"
"I think it fosters vocations to the priesthood"
"I think boys are more likely to serve if girls don't serve"
"I think boys are just as likely to serve whether or not girls are allowed to"

and the opinions continue to pass each other like missiles mid flight

I like statistics, so I solicited some. I'd love to have more, so if you know of a parish, drop their stats in as a comment, and I'll add them.

I asked for parishes that made the switch to all male altar servers what their server numbers were like before the switch and what the number of servers was about a year after the switch.

Here we go:

That's hard to argue with. The average parish surveyed, when switching from co-ed servers to male-only saw their server numbers grow 450%


As this has spread a bit across the internet, the statisticians have come out of the woodwork. I was a math major, and so let me say, first of all, that I understand that correlation does not imply causality. I had it beat into my brain in high school and college. Correlation does not imply causality, but it certainly can SUGGEST causality, and 450% change is certainly GIGANTIC change.

Secondly, some of the statistical hounds have pointed out that "the sample size is too small."
a) I never said this was scientific
b) one person has noted that I would need 200 parishes and another noted I would need at least 32 parishes. I agree it would be great to get more parishes, but I'm not sure 32 parishes in the USA have had co-ed servers and have since switched back to only male servers.
c) If you want a "statistically relevant" study, feel free to go conduct one yourself. I don't have time. My limited research has told me all I needed. If you want more, feel free to go get more. I'm busy pastoring a parish.
d) You may also want to ask yourself why you are attacking the above graphic - is it because you have a concern that every piece of data, even one not claiming to be "scientific" actually meat scientific standards...or do you struggle with the data presented because it upsets your personally held belief on the matter?

Thirdly, one commenter has put it beautifully - "I don't understand why one side in this thread is expected to justify and extend the data it provides while the other gets to trot out unverifiable claims about unsampled groups and their "feelings"."
- I couldn't agree more! People are falling into the exact pattern that I described in my original post, even in the face of the stats above.

Look through the comments on this thread, and all you see from the "other side" is people throwing out their own theories and beliefs. It is amazing how quickly we dismiss statistics when they upset our beliefs on a subject.

People are saying things like "Have you thought of following these young men and women through adulthood to see if there is correlation of their staying in the Church, or even having their children baptized in the Church. You may ask the parents, especially the mothers, whether they intend to stay in Church."

and "An interesting list, for sure. I'd be curious to see other statistics about those parishes, namely their population size, the number of children, and compare those fields to the before & after numbers. I'm also curious if there were any where the numbers dropped."

and "there is no qualitative data about how this affected young girls' feelings towards themselves or the Church."

and "maybe it is the lack of strong role models that cause boys not to want to altar serve. Maybe it is indeed that boys psychologically do not tolerate a mixed crowd when it comes to altar serving. Perhaps there are other reasons such as world view differences that lead to the actual cause being obscured."

and "I can't help but feel that at altar serving age, I would have felt very turned off by a switch such as this. I am curious to know what the females in this age group at these parishes feel about not being allowed to serve."


Here's my response - heck, it could be that each of these parishes had interstellar star dust sprinkled on them by aliens and that is why the numbers grew. I don't know the cause, and people can throw out their theories all day long.

I would also to say to such comments: feel FREE to go and study these theories with research of your own. I will not be doing any such research, but would love to hear about it if you research your personal theories as to why the numbers are what they are.

I'll end where I began - Every parish that I've heard from who switched from co-ed servers to all male servers saw, one year after the switch, an average increase of FOUR HUNDRED AND FIFTY PERCENT! That's pretty incredible.

What is the Church’s position on the use of female altar servers?

Fr. Rick Heilman | Feb 14, 2011

In my last post on Extraordinary Ministers, I announced that I had taken the plunge and moved to no longer use EMHCs, as I could not, in good conscience, state that there was genuine need, especially since a very full church took me less than 9 minutes to distribute Communion by myself (I also realize that time would be reduced if we had Communion rails).

Now, I am making a public confession of my cowardice as I am not ready to dive into this second “Catholic Third Rail Issue:” Only male altar servers. It was the combination of these two issues – EMHCs and girl altar servers – that put the Society of Jesus the Priest in the National Newspapers.

I’m chicken - so you need to pray for me, please. In the meantime, here is a great teaching on the topic: What is the Church’s position on the use of female altar servers?

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum:

From the point of view of liturgical law, an official interpretation of Canon 230, Paragraph 2, of the Code of Canon law on the possibility of delegating certain liturgical offices led to a 1994 letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments clarifying that girls may serve at the altar. But bishops are not bound to permit them to do so, nor could the episcopal conference limit the bishop’s faculty to decide for himself.

A further clarifying letter published in 2001 said priests are not compelled to have girls serve at the altar, even when their bishops grant permission.

The 1994 letter states: “It will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue.”

The letter also recommends to bishops to consider “among other things the sensibilities of the faithful, the reasons which would motivate such permission and the different liturgical settings and congregations which gather for the Holy Mass.”

Therefore the Holy See’s recommendation is to retain as far as possible the custom of having only boys as servers. But it leaves to the bishop the choice of permitting women and girls for a good reason and to the pastor of each parish the decision as to whether to act on the bishop’s permission.

It is important not to focus this debate using political categories such as rights, equality, discrimination, etc., which only serves to fog the issue. We are dealing with the privilege of serving in an act of worship to which nobody has any inherent rights.

The question should be framed as to what is best for the good of souls in each diocese and parish. It is thus an eminently pastoral and not an administrative decision, and this is why it should be determined at the local level.

Among the pastoral factors to be weighed is the obvious yet often forgotten fact that boys and girls are different and require different motivational and formative methods.

This difference means that both boys and girls usually go through a stage when they tend to avoid common activities.

Preteen boys in particular are very attracted to activities that cater especially for them, and they tend to reject sharing activities with girls.

They also tend to have a greater need for such structured activities than girls who are usually more mature and responsible at this stage of life.

As a result, some parishes have found that the introduction of girl servers has led to a sharp drop-off of boys offering to serve. Once the boys have left and enter the years of puberty, it is difficult to bring them back.

Some pastors say this phenomenon is less marked where serving at Mass forms part of a wider Catholic structure, such as a school, or when siblings serve together.

It is also true that groups of boy servers have fostered vocations to the priesthood. But to be fair, this usually happens within a broader culture of openness to a vocation in which other elements come into play, such as the example and spiritual guidance given by good priests, and family support.

Follow Up: On Politicizing the Issue …

… while the rights enjoyed by every Catholic are spelled out clearly by canon law, and include among other entitlements a right to the sacraments (see Canon 214), which is certainly not political, this fact has little to do with the question of a “right” to serve at the altar.

Serving at Mass, unlike the Catholic’s right to assist at Mass and receive Communion, is a privilege and in some cases a vocation. But it can never be called a right. Therefore, I repeat that no one has a right to do so and to frame the question in these terms is to use political categories to seek to demand what can only be humbly accepted.



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.”

No comments:

Post a Comment