TOLEDO, Ohio — For 12-year-old Greg Metcalf, being an altar server is “a guy thing.”
And he and his fellow servers at St. Joseph Parish here want to keep it that way.
Although other parishes in the Toledo Diocese — like most of those in the rest of the United States — have girls serving at the altar, Greg likes the fact that his parish maintains the long-standing tradition of an all-male altar server corps.
“I feel very uncomfortable [serving with a girl] because as soon as one girl starts serving, there's going to be a lot of them,” he said, adding that he thinks the more girls serve, the fewer boys are likely to be around. Other servers at St. Joseph agree and say if girls started serving in their parish, they probably wouldn't be interested in continuing.
The question of altar girls has been in the news again after a leaked draft document on liturgical abuses suggested the Vatican would be ending the provision it made almost 10 years ago for bishops to extend permission for girls to serve Mass.
But the bishops of England and Wales said Oct. 21 after meeting with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments that the Vatican was not about to ban altar girls.
According to a 1994 letter from the congregation issued to clarify the question of girl altar servers, girls may serve at the altar, but bishops are not bound to permit them to do so. Another letter in 2001 said priests are not compelled to have girls serve at the altar, even when their bishops grant permission.
“It will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar,” the 1994 document said. “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.”
Only two dioceses in the country place restrictions on female servers: Arlington, Va., which allows them only in certain settings; and Lincoln, Neb., which prohibits them in all instances.
For many in the Church, the prevalence of girl altar servers is cause for concern. They say the 1994 document never intended to alter the tradition of male altar boys so that altar girls became the norm, and they worry that the practice is having an adverse effect on the Church and priestly vocations.
Among those who are troubled by the trend is Dominican Sister Mary Augustine, president of the Australian Association for the Promotion of Religious Life and author of the 2002 article “Girls Serving at the Altar and the Vocations Blight.”
In the article, Sister Mary Augustine said the 1994 document makes clear that the Church is not advocating girl altar servers.
“It affirms the strong, time-tested link between the practice of serving at the altar and the emergence of a priestly vocation,” she wrote, adding that the document allows a bishop to permit female altar servers only for special reasons.
Sister Mary Augustine said the Church allows female altar servers for the same reasons extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist are permitted: “to cover exceptional situa-tional exigencies.” She cites as an example a religious sister assisting an elderly priest during Mass at a retirement facility.
In an interview, Sister Mary Augustine said she would like to see bishops reverse the trend toward girl servers.
“The [1994 document] puts firmly on the shoulders of the bishop the responsibility of encouraging boys as altar servers — and of fostering vocations to the priesthood, which the [document] points out have so often been the fruit of faithful service at the altar,” she said. “The fact that girls serving along with boys dilutes the significance of the boy's role in this matter also dilutes the chances that boys will want to continue serving and see the priesthood as a vocational ideal that may follow from service at the altar.”
Father Paul Check, a priest in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., where girls are allowed to serve, voiced similar concerns. He said having girls as altar servers could contribute to the impression that the sanctuary and religion are predominantly the enclave of women.
“Let's face it, in a lot of sanctuaries today the only man there is the priest,” he said. “And that's a vocation killer. What high school boy who is a football player and is otherwise a good, solid young man looks up at that scene and says, ‘I could see myself there’?”
At St. John the Evangelist Parish in Stamford, Conn., where Father Check is parochial vicar, only boys comprise the altar-server corps and serving is so popular with them that the parish never has to schedule servers.
“We find that particularly for major ceremonies, they all want to serve,” Father Check said. “We can have as many as 18 to 20 for Holy Week.”
He said he believes boys find the all-male server ranks appealing because young men, particularly those in the preteen years, don't want to do things they perceive to be activities for girls.
When girls serve at Mass, he said, “It is quite possible that in many cases [they] are going to be better and more attentive altar servers than boys are, so they wind up chasing the boys away.”
Father Stephen Majoros, pastor of St. Joseph in Toledo, agreed.
“When women enter into a particular area that has been previously male only, there's a tendency to drive the men out,” he said.
Father Majoros added that he also believes serving at the altar develops in boys a sense of responsibility.
“At that age — junior high school age — they need that development, that somebody's depending upon them and they are making a positive contribution to something bigger than themselves,” he said. “Girls don't seem to need that, but boys seem to need training in this direction. ... It has a maturing effect on them.”
Father Check said he also believes allowing girls to serve is an injustice to them because they can never be priests.
“It puts them in the position of being in a profession where they can be an apprentice but never the master,” he said.
Although Lincoln, Neb., Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz has been in the forefront of continuing the custom of using only boys as altar servers, he declined to talk about his diocese's policy.
“The bishop really doesn't see the benefit of making a big deal out of it,” said Father Mark Huber, secretary to the bishop.
Father Huber said the question of whether girls can serve at the altar is not an issue in the diocese, which has a high priestly vocations rate for its size. Thirty-five men are currently in formation, he said, and the diocese had 13 new seminarians this year.
In the Arlington Diocese, Bishop Paul Loverde has said he is open to extending the permission, granted by his predecessor, Bishop John Keating, for women to serve in liturgies on college campuses, in convents and home Masses, and at retreat houses, hospitals and nursing homes.
Father Robert Rippy, chancellor of the diocese, said Bishop Loverde is seeking an approach that will cause the least amount of hurt and disruption, especially in light of directives that seemingly allow each priest to decide whether he wants to use female servers.
Father Rippy said priests and lay people have frequently expressed opposite preferences regarding the altar girl issue with some wanting the present policy retained and others seeking an expansion.
“People who come to this diocese from nearby dioceses and from those far away find it confusing to have had both men and women serving in those places and to have here only a very limited number of places for women to serve at the altar,” he said.
Those who favor continuing the current policy, he said, cite their belief that vocations thrive when altar servers are boys and point out that other ministries are open to women. Those who want the policy expanded claim that vocations are flourishing even in places where female servers are allowed. They also say that serving can deepen women's love for the Mass and that service at the altar could even inspire vocations to the religious life.
“There are arguments on both sides — those that want this expanded and those who want the current policy maintained,” he said. “There are strong feelings on both sides of the issue.”
Judy Roberts writes from Millbury, Ohio.
- Nov. 9-15, 2003