The Deacon's Bench

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:

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