Virginia Diocese Expands Permission for Altar Girls

ARLINGTON, Va.America’s 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.

Caitlin Howarth of Arlington 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.”

But Howarth’s 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.

Vocation Field

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 Lincoln’s stance.

“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?”

Feminist Plot?

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.”

Father Dimock 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 Columbia.