What follows is a letter I sent to families with girl altar servers this week. I thought it would be helpful for all to see it.
Greetings in Jesus Christ! With this letter I would like to make known to you my intention to discontinue the use of female altar servers at our parish. Knowing how convinced I am about the vocational benefits of an all-male program, and knowing we can enhance the use of altar servers in our Masses, I thought it best to tell you – sooner rather than later – about this. I didn’t want to go on for months with training and then announce the change.
I must first express my gratitude to our girl servers and their families for all of their service under our previous pastors. I am sure this service was undertaken by our girls with great care and devotion. My guess is also that our girls can “give the boys a run for their money” when it comes to serving at the altar. My decision has nothing to do with thinking the girls cannot do as good of a job as the boys. The decision is really about creating a culture for priestly vocations in our parish. Once girls are admitted to the altar server program we break the connection between serving at the altar and discerning a call to the priesthood. The Church has always understood this connection, and it is still treasured. An exclusively male server program is an obvious component to a vocations culture.
The past six years at the parish of St. Joseph’s Toledo, I have experienced the dynamic fruitfulness of a large 35-or-so member strong, exclusively-male altar server program. Saints Hedwig and Adalbert was a much smaller program, but the vocational element was strong there as well. I have also seen all-male programs yield great fruit at other parishes around the country. One vocation director of a diocese told me he longed for the day when his bishop would require that only boys serve at the altar in that diocese, because so much fruit would be borne of such a decision.
In March of 1994, Rome gave permission for altar girls, after years of pressure coming especially from the United States, from parties lobbying for a female priesthood. Rome’s eventual permission came only after two prior occasions of denying permission: In 1970, the Holy See issued an instruction under Pope Paul VI that said women are not permitted to act as altar servers. The same was restated in 1980 under John Paul II. [See attached Adoremus Bulletin article.] Somehow in 1983 a commission for the interpretation of liturgical texts found a loophole, and permission was granted [still under John Paul II]. No reason was given for the sudden change. The permission, however, was still quite restricted. A bishop may permit altar girls in his diocese, but he cannot require them in his diocese. The decision remains with individual pastors. Contrarily, a bishop may forbid the use of altar girls in his diocese entirely; and then no parish in the diocese would have girl servers. And there are some dioceses in the United States that have never permitted girls… particularly because the majority of priestly vocations come from serving at the altar.
Along these lines, the 1994 decree permitting altar girls says: “The Holy See respects the decision adopted by certain bishops [to allow altar girls] for specific local reasons… At the same time, however, the Holy See wishes to recall that 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.”
Note that the decree even refers to supporting altar boy programs as “an obligation”. The Church needs places that have male-only server programs. In our parish–especially given the dire lack of priestly vocations in our diocese–I want to maintain the noble tradition of an all-male altar server program.
I have enclosed three documents for your own study: the Vatican communication on female altar servers from 1994; an Adoremus Bulletin article providing Rome’s July 2001 response to a bishop who asked if altar girls could be required in his diocese; and an Adoremus Bulletin article from March 2002. These documents provide some context for understanding the permission that Rome gave for altar girls, and some of the critical discussion that ensued.
Of course my decision will lead some people to ask, “Then what will our girls do to feel they are participating in the parish?” First, let’s be very careful not to belittle what it means to attend Mass sitting in the pew! The “active participation of the laity” in the pew is an awesome thing! We want to be careful not to lead our youth to believe that they are not participating fully if they are not serving as lector, cantor, musician or choir member, or altar server. Second, note that there are girls already serving in all the ministries just mentioned; i.e., it is not the case that girls have somehow been left out, and there will be nowhere for them to serve if they cannot serve at the altar.
I do see another need, however, that our young women might be able to fill quite effectively: an organized system of sacristans. Ideally, a sacristan’s job is not simply taking care of linens and watering plants. In a finely tuned sacristy, the priest is able to walk in before Mass, and everything is in place for that specific Mass. Somebody has read the official guidebook to figure out what pages ought to be marked in the Roman Missal. The correct vestments are laid out on the sacristy counter in a symbolic manner, waiting for the priest to vest, saying the traditional prayers for each vestment he puts on. The vessels are all arranged correctly on the liturgical tray, with the appropriate burse and veil over the priest’s chalice. Water, wine and a bowl of hosts are set on the gifts table. Homily notes and petitions are in place on the ambo. An intentions card is on the altar and at the priest’s chair. The priest is consulted regarding any special changes to the norm for the day. Then after Mass special care must be taken storing all of the liturgical items used. Couldn’t we organize a system of female sacristans, trained, guided and scheduled by some adults to be present at each weekend Mass? I think this would greatly assist the deacons who now handle such things.
Girls serving as sacristans will certainly learn more deeply to sentire cum ecclesia (sense/feel with the Church), because they will be able to read official books regarding the seasons, the liturgical colors, the various levels of feast days, etc. (Might this lead to more female religious vocations from our parish?) Over the span of a liturgical year, one learns through sacristy work so much about the Tradition of the Church. The sacristans who served my parishes over the past several years would readily vouch for how their service deepened their understanding of the Church’s Tradition. And I was always amazed at how competently they prepared everything, once they knew how to use the resources.
So that is my suggestion for how we could involve the girls who might want to find something to replace their service at the altar. On Wednesday, July 23, I will have an initial sacristan training session to help those people who currently are involved in our sacristies. If you would like to attend this meeting, please call the office to let us know. The idea of a girls’ sacristan program is very new, so we will have to begin the discussion and see how it develops; i.e., Do we have some adults who are willing to become trained in the liturgical books and procedures, such that they can guide the program?
If anyone receiving this letter would like to meet with me to discuss this further, you could call the office for an appointment. If there is need, I could even have a general meeting with parents of altar girls to address questions. I hope and pray that you would desire with me to create a culture that leads young men to discern a priestly vocation – especially since we have all experienced firsthand parish closings, twinnings and mergers that are largely due to a lack of priests.
Again, let me acknowledge the dedication and servant-heartedness that have characterized service at the altar these past years on the part of our young women. Thank you for that service!
Sincerely in the Hearts of Jesus and Mary,