The case for a boys-only policy for altar servers

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.”

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110 thoughts on “The case for a boys-only policy for altar servers

  1. Nicole says:

    I AGREE!!!! No girls allowed!

  2. Nick says:

    As a 10-year altar server and assistant altar-server coordinator, this article strongly intrigued me. What I find most interesting is that, while there may more may not be correlations between male-only programs and vocations (citations would be appreciated as I am personally familiar with many counter demonstrations) what is the warrant behind these correlations? My best friend in the ministry is a solid Catholic who will be attending CUA to study theology on his way to the seminary, and I’d be hard pressed to find a reason why our co-ed altar server program has in any way diminished his call or willingness to accept it. I’m not wholeheartedly for or against boy-only programs, but I agree that altar serving flourishes as a family ministry as demonstrated by those masses in which my siblings and I (including my sister) can serve together. We’ve had consistent expansion for all my years to the point where our struggling diocese couldn’t afford all our albs! Good points made in the article, but why not just increase our focus on vocations than bet on a shaky, indirect connection? God Bless

  3. Kurt says:

    At a time when the family is under attack and babies with Downs Syndrome are mostly aborted, I was pleased to recently visit a church where the servers were a family — traditional married couple, a daughter and a son with Downs Syndrome. None would be allowed to serve under a policy of priestly candidates only. Yet I found it wonderful and enhancing of my worship.

  4. Kimcanni0@att.net says:

    This is madness!! Am I the only person with a daughter that’s an Altar Server that’s read this article? Taking my daughter off the altar would crush her, she loves serving. I showed her the headline without reading the article first and to quote her, “well that’s stupid!” I have a second daughter that will train to serve next summer, my son however, has no desire whatsoever to be a server. If God’s going to give a boy the “tap” to become a priest, it’s not going to be because he’s the only boy on the altar. Adult laypeople that have worked in the public sector have left that sector and become priests, it has nothing to do with a girl on the altar. My brother in law-catholic school, catholic college & catholic seminary, decided at age 26 that the priesthood wasn’t for him. I’m sure when agonizing over the decision he didn’t say, “If only we didn’t have girls servers–I would have stayed!” Vocations come from the heart and a deep spiritual discerning. Our church has boys only and girls only serving at once, they never mix boys and girls on the altar, we don’t seem to have more vocations than mixed servers at other churches in the area. The strength of our future church comes from the children, taking the girls off the altar will only hurt us. I think we’re pretty full on Catholic bashing, why are we doing this? Not all churches have Nuns, we do and they do nothing with our children at mass, I’m not really sure what they do at our school. We need to have kids involved as much as we can at mass & serving is the youngest place to start. This seems to be a distraction (like changing the verbage of the mass)from the true problems that the Church has, I think we have more important things to address than who pours the water on Father’s hands. It’s just going to tick off more people-don’t we have enough of that?

    1. Maria says:

      I’m a young adult. I’ve been an altar girl since high school and being forbidden to serve at Mass would also crush me. It’s like someone saying, “You are not allowed to serve Jesus.” And those are such horrible words to hear!
      If the good desires of our heart come from God, then isn’t a girl’s desire to serve Him at Mass also a gift from God. To stifle such desires would only damage our relationship with Him. Serving at Mass has drawn me (and I’m many other girls) closer to Him. I can’t describe the awe I’ve felt that Jesus was right there in front of me as I stood near the altar at Mass. How can that be a bad thing?

      1. Kim says:

        I wonder what they’re going to tell my daughters when they take them off of the altar. “Well, you were good enough to serve God then, but suddenly, now you’re not-boys are better.”

  5. Sal says:

    Rachel, Three observations:

    1.) I do not understand the reason why you shrink the comments of person who disagree with you. Come on, you are better than that.

    2.) I am puzzled by the implication that John Paul II was some sort of wild-eyed liberal because he allowed female altar servers. Really? The Pope who is called “John Paul the Great?”

    3.) I would offer a personal obervation that this subject hardly ever comes up. For 99% of Catholics, the issue of altar girls, female lectors, female Eucharistic Ministers is not even on their radar. My diocese in Spokane is hardly a bastion of liberal Catholic thought, and yet it NEVER comes up. If this were a hot issue, one might see extensive conversation in the pews or at meetings of Parish Councils. Even among Catholic media like NC Register or EWTN, I can only think of 2 times in 6 months where this has come up. (Fr. Z and this column). I have a feeling that this is sort of like the parishioners who did not want to take Holy Communion from anybody but the Priest, and would switch lines to avoid a Deacon. Eventually those folks went to their reward and nobody makes an issue of it anymore.

  6. Sony says:

    Just out of curiosity, has anyone looked at how faith formation plays a very important role through childhood and adult years for the formation of priests and religious. I understand the point that by making altar serving a boys only club, young boys find it more attractive early on, but as years go by those very same boys will find girls attractive and will not be hesitant to serve if they find a nice cute gal they are interested in, why, because they are boys. I also think that until you really formed them well through their school years and through college I doubt they will take up religious life as a vocation. I am sure we all agree that God has a call for all of us, but I doubt God’s call varies whether one serves in a parish with all boy altar servers or girls too. God’s call for each individual I think will remain the same, it is only a matter of whether the individual is trained to listen.

    I know abt the diocese of Lincoln Nebraska churning out priests, but so does the diocese of Austin . The similarity I see between both is that the clergy in invested in the formation of kids more and it does not end at high school, it goes on through college years in various forms. It is by no accident that the diocese of Lincoln also has one of the most active young adult and adult ministries too. I went to school at Texas A&M and the campus ministry there which is one of the most active campus parishes keeps churning out Priests and Nuns every year and yes they have both guys and gals serving as altar servers. If we were to blame the lack of priests to the change in both boys and girls being altar servers, then I think we are missing a bigger picture. To me it is not the biggest contributing factor.

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