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.”