The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Altar servers visit Rome — and most of them are girls

John Allen has the scoop:

According to an old Italian saying, only cani e americani move in Rome in August – dogs and Americans. The sweltering heat, however, did not deter an estimated 50,000 altar boys and girls, mostly but not exclusively German, from descending on the city this week for a massive rally with Pope Benedict XVI.

The gathering was billed as an “International Pilgrimage of Altar Servers,” part of an event organized every five years by a group called Coetus Internationalis Ministrantium.

“You are not only creating a festive environment in the square, but you are also filling my heart with joy,” Benedict told the youthful crowd in German. He went on to briefly explain the history of Saint Tarcisio, who was an altar server himself.


Two things about the event seem worthy of note.

First, for the first time this year, the female altar servers in attendance outnumbered the males. According to organizers, the balance was roughly 60-40 in favor of females. The official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, pointed to the turnout as a symbol of “the massive entry in recent decades of girls and young women into a role once reserved exclusively to males.”

That’s striking given that in some quarters, the very idea of altar girls remains controversial.

The practice has been banned in a handful of dioceses around the world, usually by bishops or pastors who worry that it might seed confusion about church teaching on the reservation of priestly ordination to men. (In related fashion, some argue that because altar service functions as a kind of “feeder system” for vocations to the priesthood, it should be exclusively for boys.)


In 2003, the use of altar girls was briefly part of a draft Vatican document on liturgical “abuses,” though that document was softened after strong internal criticism.

In that context, the celebratory tone in Rome this week about altar girls would seem to signal clear Vatican support for the practice.

Second, Vatican sources seemed eager to bill the gathering of tens of thousands of devoted young Catholics with Pope Benedict XVI as a kind of counter-point to the sexual abuse scandals of recent months.

Check out more right here.

Meantime, a video report, below:

Comments read comments(15)
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posted August 5, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Am glad to hear that the girls are getting a chance to help out in the Mass. Girls, IMO, should know that they are an important part of the Catholic Church.

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Ray Marshall

posted August 5, 2010 at 9:50 pm

In my opinion, boys don’t like to serve at a Novus Ordo Mass because there is nothing to do. Somebody else sets up the altar and lights the candles, you all process in and sit down, and then that’s pretty much about it until the end when you process out.
Back in the olden days, the first server to arrive got to light the candles (fire is GOOD!), he got to ring the sanctus bells, he got to hold the paten under the chins of the kneeling communicants, etc. If there was a processional crucifix he would get to lead with the crucifix.

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Deacon Norb

posted August 6, 2010 at 5:24 am

A few observations — mostly for Ray Marshall:
–You must live in a very different area of the country. We do not use the server’s paten nor do we use the bells but our entrance processions are still led by a server carrying an ornate (and heavy) cross, our servers still light the candles (in some places,they carry them in the procession as well), hold the Sacramentary for our presider and they also do a lot at the offertory — including help me greet the gift-bearers and set up the alter.
–My problem is that our guy-servers are no where near as reverent, as serious about their ministry, nor as well-prepared as our girl-servers. If I have a group of late-grade school guy-servers on duty at a Mass I am assisting at, they always cause me problems.
–A bunch of years ago, our former pastor found he had a group home for developmentally challenged young men near our church and he also found that a lot of them were baptized as Catholics. He promptly set about to train them as alter servers and we had a team from that group-home on duty for at one Mass every week-end. They all did super. The program died when the group-home relocated outside our boundaries.
–Recently, the new pastor has adopted the idea of father-son servers. We have maybe seven sets of these already on duty. They also do super. Being mentored by your dad seems to be an important inspiration for these guys.
–One other idea, which went by the wayside but maybe needs to be revived: Many years ago the staff at a regional minor seminary somehow got the idea that priestly vocations come from grade school and high school servers. So they developed a training program that they took to the parishes. Graduates of those fairly tough programs were rewarded by sharp looking t-shirts (which they were encouraged to wear in their parish grade school) and if the servers came back for a second round of refresher training, they got a free day pass to our local nationally known theme park. When that minor seminary was closed (by a former bishop), that plan died as well.

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Deacon Greg Kandra

posted August 6, 2010 at 8:00 am

We have about 100 altar servers at my parish, evenly split between both boys and girls. We typically have five or six at every mass — sometimes more. They have plenty to do: carrying the processional crucifix, incense and torches; ringing bells; setting up the altar; assisting the priest (and deacon) in a multitude of things during mass and other liturgies. Significantly, being a part of the Altar Server Society is more than just showing up on Sunday for mass. It’s also being part of a fun group of young people who like being together (and like staying out of trouble.) Many of these kids join in fourth or fifth grade and stay through high school. For them, being an altar server at my parish is the coolest thing around. They have a real sense of community and comraderie.
And the highlight of every year? The annual trip to Six Flags. We make announcements at mass, and ask the people of the parish to donate, and the response is overwhelming — typically, around five thousand dollars, to pay for buses and admission, to reward these kids for their great service throughout the year.
Dcn. G.

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posted August 6, 2010 at 12:17 pm

I wrote here ( about watching my son carry the cross up the aisle at our regular Mass (yes, yes, we carry crosses, light candles, use incense, have sacred books at a Novus Ordo Mass — always have in my parish).
We have a roughly even mix of boys and girls and the reward for work well done is a promotion to weekend sacristan (a paying job, replete with chances to set things on fire – incense, candles).
The group of young men who would have become altar servers about the time that girls were allowed to do so in this diocese are of the age to enter the seminary now. We have a bumper crop this year. Worries about losing boys to the priesthood by allowing girls this minor service are probably not based in any reality.

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posted August 6, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Observations such as how well the girls do or whether the boys flee when girls are admitted are all secondary. The key point is that maleness in altar servers underscores and reinforces the significance of maleness in the priest. Maleness of the priest is important because it directs us to Jesus Christ, who reminds us repeatedly that God intends his relationship to his people to be seen as spousal. You can’t obscure this or brush it aside without obscuring and brushing aside the sacrament of Holy Orders.

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posted August 6, 2010 at 3:56 pm

I can’t help wondering how much the all-pervasive sexualization of children which is shown by Romulus’s all-too-common “arguments” fostered the sexual abuse of children in the Church. They are children, Romulus, not sets of genitals with meat attached.

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posted August 6, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Dear cathyf: “male and female he created them”. This includes children. If you still have objections, I suggest you bring them to the responsible party.
PS: Apart from its being downright creepy of you, not to mention gratuitous, to introduce talk of children’s genitals, no one’s sexuality can be reduced to his or her “parts”.

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posted August 7, 2010 at 1:31 am

Maleness in sacristans underscores and reinforces the significance of maleness in the priest. Maleness in catechists underscores and reinforces the significance of maleness in the priest. Maleness in church cleaners underscores and reinforces the significance of maleness in the priest. Maleness in cooking funeral luncheons underscores and reinforces the significance of maleness in the priest…
Oh, yeah, right… Those things are all done overwhelmingly by females.
By drawing a male/female line between service done in front of the assembly and service “behind the scenes” you “teach” something about “maleness” alright — you teach that males are shallow prima donnas in it for the recognition who couldn’t figure out what “service” or “selflessness” mean if their lives depended on it. Ok, so I’ve met a few priests like that — but to extend this human failing that a few men have to all males is slander, and blasphemy when you extend it to Jesus Christ. Who, if you remember correctly, was quite happy to be attended by that group of women at the foot of the cross.

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Ceile De

posted August 7, 2010 at 10:56 am

Bitter, party of one?

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Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

posted August 7, 2010 at 10:57 am

Cathyf – thank you for saying what you have said.
Deacon Norb- your comment reminds me of an altar server at our parish who is developmentally disabled. He is, without question, the very best server and the most reverent. The second best server is a younger boy who is so attentive and focused. So many of the kids seem to be there with reservation, despite their gender. It makes me sad, but my spirits are always buoyed when one or both of the other two that I mention are present.

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posted August 7, 2010 at 11:04 am

The key point is that maleness in altar servers underscores and reinforces the significance of maleness in the priest. Maleness of the priest is important because it directs us to Jesus Christ…

A valid theology — if you are Mormon! Priests act in persona Christi by virtue of their ordination. Being male is a necessary condition to being ordained, but it is certainly not sufficient — all of the billions of men in the world who are not ordained are not ordained. Only the ordained act in persona Christi — unordained men put on Christ in baptism certainly, but then so do women. By linking the maleness of the unordained altar servers to the maleness of the priest you are denying the vitality and necessity of the priest’s ordination, and the most central and essential character of our Church as sacramental.
As for your various creepy sexual analogies of Christ’s relationship to the Church… *shudder*. Look, Romulus, your arguments are pretty clearly mildly autistic, so I appreciate that you do not perceive analogy or context in the same way that the neurotypical do. The Church’s teachings on the spousal relationship of Christ and the Church are quite subtle. Arguing about them with you is like arguing the aesthetics of Christmas decorations with someone who is red-green color blind. We aren’t going to get anywhere. But I will take this moment to note that I’m pretty creeped out by what you say. Look, my primary spousal relationship is with my husband. To say that Christ is spouse to the Church and that priests act in persona Christi does not mean that I’m supposed to commit adultery with my pastor!

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posted August 7, 2010 at 1:44 pm

I have girls and they do not want to be alter boys.They have said to me only boys should help at the alter. I ask them why??? My girls said the boys need to learn how to priest. Boys learn how to be men by the dad/father. Men need to stand up and be more faithful to Christ Jesus true God & man. Many people are falling away from God. End the maddness of modernism vactican II has been warped by many mislead people. I love my girls but they don’t want to be priest. Playing like they might be priest is a lie that only the devil wants to happen. Christ placed the priesthood on to men. Did Our Lady seek to be a priest. Hell no!!! Let us wake up!!! Time to send the devil down to hell!!! The Good Lord JESUS CHRIST SHALL return. Let us REPENT while we still have time.

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posted August 9, 2010 at 1:13 am

My son was an altar boy in high school. That experience was a part of the spiritual evolution of his vocation. He was ordained five years ago. My thirteen year-old grandson and his buddy went to the orientation meeting for altar servers last year. It was 80% girls. Both boys opted out. Not many family’s actually produce a priest these days. This was our experience for what it’s worth.

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Cathy Z

posted May 12, 2011 at 9:08 pm

I think we need to trust the Holy Spirit. You are all entitled to your opinions, but that is all they are. If the Church is allowing female altar servers – then who are you to say that practice is wrong? The Vatican has made it crystal clear that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women to the priesthood. Females serving at the altar is not going to change this or the number of men entering the priesthood. The low numbers of persons entering the priesthood did not begin with Vatican II – it actually started after WWII with the advent of the GI Bill, when men had other options available to them other than the seminary.

I think you all need to get used to the idea that the Holy Spirit is in charge of the Church – not you. It appears that there will be significant changes for women’s role in the Church. The Church has in its recorded history women serving as deacons, and some Orthodox Churches have restored that sacred ministry to female members. The same restrictions to ordination to the priesthood do not extend to the ordination to the permanant diaconate. Pope Benedict has recently made changes to Canon law making it clear that the priesthood and the diaconate are distinctly different ministries from each other. Pope Benedict is also considering the possibility of extending installation of the ministry of lector to women – something at present that is only offered to men – and ordinarily, it is a step taken by men in the seminary on the road to ordination. Prior to the changes to Canon Law in 1983 by John Paul II, the minor orders included the ministry of lector. This does not mean women will advance to the priesthood. But these recent developments point to the Church being inspired by the Holy Spirit – not Satan – to embrace the gifts that women have to offer in the sanctification of the Church. Perhaps one of the causes for the sexual abuse scandal is not an issue of human sexuality as much as the way power is misunderstood and abused in the Church. The Pope wants to provide a space for women to serve the Church in significant ways.

I myself possess a BA in Roman Catholic Theology and a Roman Catholic Master of Divinity Degree, and I am also a hospital chaplain. I serve my parish as an altar server and a Eucharistic Minister to the homebound. I can assure you that I could have easily left the Catholic Church to seek ordination as an Episcopal priest, but I decided to remain Catholic. I in no way see myself on the road to the priesthood in the Catholic Church, and I would never join any groups that publically challenge the Church’s authority on this issue. Serving at the altar is a privilege, because I see myself as in instrument to help our community be closer to the Eucharist – because I represent the laity as a lay minister at the altar.

I believe that we need to trust the yearnings and the leanings of the Holy Spirit through everyone in the Church. We need to trust that the Magisterium is faithfully listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in this particular time in our Church history. We are merely instruments of any changes the Holy Spirit breaths into our Community.

This is why I have a huge problem with persons who argue with one another concerning traditional and more liberal views on liturgical practices in the Church that Rome has approved. If you want to be a Catholic, then unity must be more important to you than factioning off from one another because of your divergent viewpoints. There is a value for both viewpoints. However, we still need to trust in Christ’s promise to the Church – to us – that He would be with us through the end of time and that He would send the Holy Spirit to us to guide the Church.

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