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BY STEVE WEATHERBERegister Correspondent
second-to-last bastion of male-only altar servers has fallen.
Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde has announced that women and girls will be allowed
to serve at all Masses, leaving only the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., to reserve
the acolyte’s role to males.
The Congregation for Divine
Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments opened service at the altar to
females in 1994 by leaving it up to the local bishop, while urging that boys
continue to be encouraged to be servers. Some bishops, in turn, left it up to
individual pastors, while Arlington
limited altar girls to service in such settings as hospitals, university
campuses and nursing homes.
But in a March 21 letter to the
diocese, Bishop Loverde announced he was “expanding
our previous permission to include our parish communities and high schools” on
the grounds that serving could “facilitate a young woman’s discernment of the
Lord’s call to religious life” as well as a young man’s to the priesthood. The
bishop is leaving the matter to the discretion of each pastor.
In the same letter, perhaps in an
effort to placate traditionalists who oppose altar girls, the bishop announced
that two more parishes would be allowed to offer the Tridentine
Mass on a weekly basis.
recalls how her parents switched her to a primary school in an adjoining
diocese so that she could serve at the altar.
“I’m delighted the bishop has
reversed that decision,” she said. “It was such a wonderful experience for me.
It helped me engage in the Mass at a deeper level.”
awareness of the ban on girl servers in Arlington,
when she returned for high school, contributed to her alienation from the
Church. “I’m still a Catholic and I wouldn’t be anything else, but I do feel
disconnected,” said Howarth, now a junior at the University of Virginia.
Meanwhile, Father Mark Huber,
chancellor of the Diocese of Lincoln, issued a statement on why his diocese
wouldn’t be following Arlington’s
example any time soon. First observing that the male-only tradition “continues
to be the rule and order of the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church,” the
statement went on to link the robust response of Lincoln’s boys to the call to
the priesthood with male-only altar service.
“The diocese has been blessed with
an exceptional number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and
these vocations appear not only not to be unaffected by maintaining ancient
liturgical custom, but to be enhanced thereby.”
Lincoln has held many activities to help girls grow spiritually,
the statement also noted. Finally, it cited a two-year-old instruction from Rome, Redemptionis Sacramentum, which encouraged the “noble
custom” of altar service by boys.
Catholics United for the Faith’s
President Leon Suprenant agreed with the Diocese of
“It’s entirely the bishop of Arlington’s call as to
whether altar girls are allowed. But I’d like to know what the pastoral reasons
are that have led to this. Arlington has been a
real leader in vocations along with Nebraska.
One could sort of do a correlation between having only altar boys and success
at bringing young men to the priesthood.”
Suprenant said he worried that “boys will
not be quite as interested” in altar serving when girls also do it. Moreover,
“There is a symbolic value in having only males serve
at the altar” in which they provide an iconic representation of Christ in much
the same way a priest does. “Sure,” said Surprenant,
“anyone can do the serving, but
should anyone be a server?”
But the Arlington Diocese is not
worried that female servers will discourage male servers or religious
vocations, spokesman Soren Johnson told the Register:
“We don’t expect that to happen. Service at the altar is just one of many
opportunities for a young man to consider the call to the priesthood. Other
factors include a robust vocations program, a bishop like Bishop Loverde who takes a personal interest in promoting
vocations and in working with seminarians, an orthodox presentation of the
faith and healthy parish life with spiritual guidance given by good priests.”
Johnson didn’t know how Arlington ranked nationally in terms of vocations but said
that there were 27 women in religious formation and 24 seminarians in Arlington. Seven
ordinations are planned for this June.
Helen Hitchcock, editor of the
liturgical journal for Adoremus, which calls itself a
“society for the renewal of the sacred liturgy,” said her organization has
taken no position on altar girls since the Holy See approves of it. But she
recalled that when she led the group Women for Faith and Family, it opposed
altar girls prior to Rome’s
approval of it, partly because feminists were so supportive of it.
“They saw it as a first step they
had to achieve towards women priests,” she said. Hitchcock expressed regret
that girls were not recruited into altar guilds, as she once was, where
devotion was taught to the Eucharist in the preparation of vestments.
Father Giles Dimock,
a liturgist based at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.,
said that the reservation of altar serving for males was probably intended to
encourage boys to enter the priesthood, although in his own case it worked the
other way around.
“I always had an interest in being
a priest,” he said. “That was one reason I became an altar boy.”
suggested that Pope John Paul II may have expanded altar serving to girls and
women as a way to show his and the Church’s openness to their contributions and
their importance and to mitigate the contrary impression that might have been
created by the Church’s reiteration at about the same time that only males
could be priests.
Steve Weatherbe is based in Victoria, British