The altar servers at Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Louis Park, Minn., are a sight to behold. In their white surplices and black cassocks — red for special feasts like Christmas and Pentecost — six carry candles, while others process in with the cross, Sacramentary and incense thurible and boat. Between 12 and 20 altar servers assist at every Mass, every Sunday. On special feasts, the head count jumps to more than 30.
And the most astonishing facet of the scene: All of the altar servers are boys.
It’s a sight that must put a smile on the heavenly face of St. John Bosco (1815-1888), the great priest-mentor who promoted the banding together of boys in religious activities. The Church celebrates his feast on Jan. 25.
Holy Family Church is one of a number of parishes that, after deciding to go with an all-boy corps of altar servers, have seen a notable increase in the number of boys participating in the life of the parish.
At Holy Family, the decision was made 10 years ago, when only a few boys were servers. The surge was on immediately. Today, more than 60 boys stand at the ready.
“What’s happened is: The younger boys can’t wait to get on the altar,” says parishioner Bob Spinharney. “And the older boys, to their great credit, stay on even beyond high school age. So the younger boys always have role models to look up to.”
Spinharney and fellow parishioner Mark Rode got the approval of their pastor, Father Thomas Dufner, for the altar boy program. Then they built key elements, like a hierarchy of services and names for each position.
Starting at age 10 as “leads” (beginners who observe from the altar), boys can stay as servers into their early 20s. Along the way, they progress to “torchbearer,” holding one of six candles for processing and during the Gospel reading and consecration; “mains,” serving the priest and ringing bells; “cross” and “book” with Sacramentary duties; and “thurifer” and “boat,” assisting with the incense during consecration. At each Mass, an older boy is designated “master of ceremonies” to lead and supervise the “troops.”
What drove the two men to suggest the experiment a decade ago? Two observations.
One: “When boys and girls are mixed on the altar, the boys tend to be less participative. They defer to the girls,” explains Spinharney. And two: “Many priestly vocations come from the altar. We’re trying to drive new vocations.”
Father Dufner expounds on those points. “Girls tend to be more reliable and get jobs done more effectively,” he says, “so the boys tend to drop out.” At the same time, he notices that boys are excited about being part of an all-male group that is hierarchical and advancement-oriented.
“And, clearly, reverent worship of God the Father through Jesus Christ in the liturgy is a calling card for vocations,” adds Father Dufner. In fact, one of the two current seminarians from this parish — from which four men have been ordained in the last 10 years — was an altar server. Both seminarians come back often to help the youngsters on Sundays, as do server alumni like Spinharney’s college-age son Jordan. The alumni become mentors.
“Boys 7 and 8 are glued to the Mass, watching their friends and brothers,” says Rode. “They can’t wait.”
According to Spinharney, no parent has complained about the absence of female altar servers. Instead of a dramatic immediate shift, the girls were allowed to phase out by age and were reminded of the many other services they could provide.
“The last two girls became some of our finest lectors,” points out Father Dufner.
St. Michael Parish in Annandale, Va., also has an all-male server corps. Father Jerry Pokorsky, the pastor, says that when altar girls were permitted, they became the norm. The boys stopped volunteering.
“Lay readers and extraordinary ministers serve the people,” he says. “The altar boy serves the priest. He’s the hands of the priest. He would be an apprentice, either in a real or symbolic way, for the priesthood.”
When parents ask why their daughters can’t become altar servers, “they may not agree, but they do understand,” Father Pokorsky says.
With help from the parish’s Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters, this new pastor is working on a Helpers of Mary ministry for girls to visit nursing homes.
When discussing the question of female altar servers, “It is important not to [use] political categories such as rights, equality, discrimination, etc., which only serve to fog the issue,” wrote Legionary Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, on the Zenit news service website. “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.”
The Church opened the altar service position to girls in 1994 in a letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments. “The Holy See’s recommendation is to retain as far as possible the custom of having only boys as servers,” explains Father McNamara. “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.”
Positive Peer Pressure
At Holy Family, Jean Prather sees nothing but positive effects in her son and daughters from the all-boy altar-service policy. Nick is 16 and has risen through the ranks. Oldest daughter, Emily, also in high school, has been a lector since fourth grade.
“They both have their place to contribute in the Mass. Emily wanted to do that after she saw an older teenage girl lector. It really is a positive peer pressure thing.”
“I always like to tell Nick what a special job he has to be so close to Jesus and serve him,” continues Prather. “He has learned such reverence. He really listens and brings things up that Father talks about in his homilies.”
Prather, too, believes participating in the liturgy can open boys’ hearts to hearing a call to a priestly or religious vocation.
But she stresses what the change has done for the parish as well as the servers in lifting people’s hearts to God. The surplices, cassocks and reverential pageantry are “what King Jesus deserves,” she says. “The reverence and beauty and example brings people into the reverence and glory of the Mass by having these altar boys not only as servers but as examples.”
As young as they are, says Rode, they understand there’s something really special going on at the altar: “We truly have the Real Presence.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, was asked about the Church’s position on female altar servers. The following is excerpted from his response.
A 1994 letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments [clarified] 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.
The 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.”
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.
Preteen boys … 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.
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.
It is very difficult to lay down precise rules in a matter like this since the situation may vary widely between parishes.