The Question of Altar Girls...

Thanks so much to Fr. Richard Bona of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland for permission to post his article discussing the history and function of altar servers. It was first published in the St. Albert the Great News, Vol. 31, Issue 5; May 17, 2009. 

Honoring Altar Servers
by Father Richard Bona

As we remember in this issue Fr. Viall’s Golden Anniversary of his priestly ordination, I would like to highlight the service of Altar Servers who are closely connected to a priest’s ministry in the sanctuary.

First of all, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all our altar servers, whether past or present, who volunteered their time and service to our parish in these 50 years and helped priests offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. 

The role of altar boys evolved from the times when there were no seminaries. The mandate to establish seminaries - places for the training and educating of future priests - did not come until the Council of Trent in the middle of the 16th century. Prior to this “if a young man wanted to be a priest, he would be like an apprentice to the pastor in his local parish. The pastor would teach him how to administer the sacraments, and the young man would serve him at the altar. When he was ready, the candidate for the priesthood would be presented to the bishop for ordination. Then, when seminaries were invented, and young men destined for the priesthood no longer assisted the local parish priest in this way, their place was taken by men or boys. The tradition of having boys serve at the altar has continued since then for hundreds of years.” (Sermon of Fr. Pilsner, April 24, 1994)

At our parish we have a noble tradition (these are not mine, but Church’s words—see below) that only boys and men serve at the altar. From time to time it is asked why girls are not serving.

First of all, there are many ministries that girls (and women) can be involved. They can become Lectors, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, Cantors, Singers, and Ushers. Their faithful participation in these ministries shows that indeed they are very qualified to fulfill these roles and their help in the celebration of the liturgy is valued and appreciated. However, the difference between the above mentioned ministries and altar boys is that while the ministries outlined above serve and are oriented toward the people, the ministry of the altar servers is directed toward the priest. The functions of the altar server are to support the priest and help him to offer the Holy Sacrifice on behalf of the people.

Therefore, altar server’s “connection to the priest and what he does at the altar breeds a natural attraction to the priestly role. Yet the Church has always clearly taught and has recently affirmed in absolute terms that Christ intended priestly ordination only for men. For with Christ, as priests consecrate His Body and Blood, they give themselves as Bridegrooms to their Bride, the Church. Any young person directly assisting a priest at Mass is implicitly but surely invited to identify with the priest and so encouraged to aspire to a necessarily masculine priesthood.” (Fr. Kleinmann, pastor of St. Mary in the Diocese of Arlington). Indeed, it would be unfair and even insensitive to admit girls as altar servers and later tell them that they can never become priests. We as a church should never nourish false hopes and aspirations because they can never lead us in the right direction.

Some, however, might ask further: why do girls then serve at other churches in our diocese? When in 1994 the Holy See gave permission for local Bishops to allow girls to serve it was never intended that girl servers become a norm. The Church’s documents (e.g. Letter of the Congregation for Divine Worship, July 27, 2001) on this matter are very clear that the bishop’s decision to permit or not to permit the serving of altar girls is based on the pastoral need of his diocese. For example, if there are not enough boy servers, girls can be admitted. Also, the documents point out that even if the bishop allows girls to serve in his diocese that does not mean that all the parishes have to do it. It is up to the Parish Pastor to decide whether there is a pastoral need that would require altar girls to serve. At St. Albert the Great we have always had an abundance of boys who are willing to serve. Currently there are close to 170 servers in our parish.

Again, the reason why the Church prefers that there be only male altar servers is not because boys are better than girls. Many girls are much more responsible and mature and sometimes I wish some of our altar boys were like that, too. The rationale for our practice is in the connection of altar boy and the vocation to priesthood. The same document that gave local bishops permission to allow girls as altar servers also pointed out:

“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.”

One a personal note, when I was in the third grade I started to serve as an altar server at my home parish. Since in Slovakia, like here, we have only boys as altar servers, one day I asked my parents, “Does everyone who is an altar server later have to become a priest?” They said, “Yes.” I replied to them, “OK. What can I do? I will be a priest.” Later, I realized that my parents were kidding me, but the bottom line is that the notion of priesthood came to me and was nourished through my serving at the altar with other boys.

Finally, the experience has shown that where only boys serve usually there is an abundance of other willing boys to join the ranks of the altar servers. There is an opportunity for boys to be formed in male virtues and acquire healthy masculine identity all the while being formed by the fraternal activity (Fr. Kleinmann).

Once again, I would like to express my appreciation to our servers for their ministry. My hope is that they would continue to grow and become men of true faith in word and deed. I would like to invite our whole parish to say this short prayer every day: Lord, may at least one altar server from our parish become a priest. AMEN

*In writing of this article I relied on the sources mentioned above and I am grateful for their assistance.

Posted on September 21, 2009 and filed under "altar boys".