My mom never claimed to be a feminist, and growing up, I never really considered myself a feminist, either. I just knew that, when given the choice, I always gravitated toward more stereotypically male activities (think tug-of-war at recess). It didn’t cause me to question my gender that much, because my parents always supported my interests and education. I also saw that female outliers existed even in Scripture, and I found solace in Deborah of the Old Testament and Mary, Martha’s sister, in the New Testament. As hard as it was to be a girl who felt like she didn’t fit in with the rest of the girls, at least I wasn’t alone.
All of these distant memories have come to mind recently, because I have a beautiful daughter who — fortunately or unfortunately — is quite similar to her mother. She’s had an easier time of it than I did while growing up, because girls today are allowed to exhibit a wider range of interests. For example, my daughter is one of the only girls who volunteers to be an altar server at the small local parish we attend for weekday Mass. Until recently, this wasn’t anything remarkable. However, a newly assigned priest announced his wishes to only have male altar servers. This priest is pastoral, and he agreed to sit down and discuss before making any formal announcements.
As the mother of the only girl altar server, I suddenly faced a hot-button question: How do I feel about girl altar servers, and why can’t my daughter do anything else at Mass? Get ready to discuss by next Tuesday!
I have never expected priests to encourage girls to be altar servers to fulfill some 50/50 quota. At the same time, I believe that preventing girls from altar service is a great disservice to them and to the Church. It removes yet another place for girls like my daughter to serve God in a way that may be slightly different from the norm.
I have never expected priests to encourage girls to be altar servers to fulfill some 50/50 quota. At the same time, I believe that preventing girls from altar service is a great disservice to them and to the Church.
So, how do we respond to arguments against girls being altar servers? We can turn to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Pope John Paul II, and the Catechism for clarity on why girls can, in fact, be altar servers.
The Path to Priesthood
Some argue that altar service should be reserved for boys because it is a form of “trying on the priesthood.” As a convert to Catholicism, I’ve made peace with the male-only priesthood, because I understand the arguments for complementarity. I studied it in depth both in a college course on Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and when I taught the subject in RCIA during my time as a campus minister. While still affirming the teachings about complementarity and the male-only priesthood, we should tread lightly in how much we encircle the altar with a “no girls allowed” zone. Women in the early Church had integral roles of service as leaders in ministry. They were deacons, servers, and disciples. They were not part of the named 12, but they were everywhere else.
While still affirming the teachings about complementarity and the male-only priesthood, we should tread lightly in how much we encircle the altar with a “no girls allowed” zone.
Furthermore, altar service is not an ironclad, entry-level position on the well-oiled promotion track toward priesthood. The USCCB Guidelines for Altar Servers state that:
“Although institution into the ministry of acolyte is reserved to lay men, the diocesan bishop may permit the liturgical functions of the instituted acolyte to be carried out by altar servers, men and women, boys and girls. Such persons may carry out all the functions listed in no. 100 (with the exception of the distribution of Holy Communion) and nos. 187 - 190 and no. 193 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal” (emphasis added).
Another (albeit more extreme) argument against permitting girls to be altar servers claims that doing so is demoralizing to boys and would devalue the role. Some have even gone so far as to blame girl altar servers for the decline in priestly vocations. The decline in vocations is a problem that we need to address, and it will not be solved by an oversimplification of a complex problem. During my years in college and ministry, I had numerous conversations with young men discerning the priesthood. Not one cited female altar servers (or women’s serving in any other role in the Church) as something that delayed them from joining seminary or kept them from becoming a priest.
St. John Paul II’s View
In 1994, Pope John Paul II gave permission for women and girls to be altar servers. Some say the Pope made a grave error, a concession in the ever-draining attack from a postmodern world. However, the Holy Father’s official spokesman on the matter at the time, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, noted that “the church’s ruling was not a drastic change in church law, but rested on applying equally to both sexes existing laws on the participation of lay people in Roman Catholic rites.” Furthermore, he said, “This decision has nothing to do with the priestly ordination of women ... This is, as is known, a topic of doctrinal and juridical nature that is completely different.”
Continuing with the theme of the common priesthood of the lay faithful, the Catechism says the following:
“For the purpose of assisting the work of the common priesthood of the faithful, other particular ministries also exist, not consecrated by the sacrament of Holy Orders; their functions are determined by the bishops, in accord with liturgical traditions and pastoral needs. ‘Servers, readers, commentators, and members of the choir also exercise a genuine liturgical function.’” (CCC 1143)
The time for my meeting with the priest arrived, and my heart was beating out of my chest. How was I going to advocate for my daughter effectively? We talked for some time, both stating that the pastoral care of my daughter was our main concern, but it was difficult for us to not slide into a little tit for tat, arguing for and against girl altar servers. Finally, we decided to talk to my daughter and ask her why she liked altar serving and whether there was any other role she saw herself in.
When my 11-year-old daughter joined the discussion, she did what I could not do. I was so proud of her as I listened to her heartfelt answers. What ultimately convinced the priest was her description of what she saw, what she felt, and how connected she was to the Mass by being an altar server. She is passionate about this work, and, fortunately, there is someone in a position of authority who values that passion.
What ultimately convinced the priest was her description of what she saw, what she felt, and how connected she was to the Mass by being an altar server.
She has since been trained as an altar server in the parish.
I hope that more priests are open to conversations with the young women in their parishes. I also hope that more priests will listen to the subtle guidance of the Holy Spirit so that they can recognize those young women who have a particular connection to the Mass and a passionate desire to serve at the altar.