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Maintaining the Tradition of Altar Boys

On Girls Serving at the Altar and On Creating an Environment most Conducive to Discerning God's Call in the Life of Young People

A Parents' Guide
by Fr. Marcus Pollard - Pastor
 

Why is the issue of altar girls being discussed in the parish at this time? 

On March 21, 2006, Bishop Paul S. Loverde extended to each pastor in the Diocese of Arlington the capacity to authorize the use of girls and women serving at the altar during Mass.

Since a decision needed to be made for St. Veronica parish, I have:

  1. reviewed the pertinent decrees from the Church;

  2. reviewed other related documents from the Vatican;

  3. looked at the information publicly available about the life and health of the Church in the United States;

  4. consulted with other priests;

  5. read about what other priests and people have said about this issue; and

  6. prayed.

For the time being, I have decided to maintain the current tradition and practice of having only boys or men serve at the altar during Mass. 

Aren't you being disobedient to the bishop? 

The bishop made it clear to the priests that this is a matter that the pastor is free to decide. In addition, the Vatican has said: Canon 230 #2 has a permissive and not a preceptive character ... 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. (from the Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conference, Rome, 15 March 1994). 

What does this mean for my daughter who wanted to be an altar server?

It means first and foremost that I respect and want to encourage her desire to be more involved in the Mass, in the life of the parish and in her desire to be closer to the Lord.

However, it also means that I believe: that her serving at the altar may well create confusion in her relationship with the Lord; that it may ultimately make it harder for her to discern God's call to her to a particular state in life; and that it will probably make it harder for boys to discern a call to the priesthood. 

How can you say this if the Vatican and the bishop have permitted it?

Let me answer this question in five ways.

  1. Benefit to girl altar severs without verifiable evidence

    First, there is no measurable evidence from the last twenty years of girls being altar servers that this practice has been beneficial to the girls serving at the altar.

    I have found no surveys that girls who are altar servers are more likely to go to confession or to continue the practice of the Faith when they leave home and go to college.

    Nevertheless, I know this may be argued both ways based on subjective and anecdotal evidence.

  2. Pastoral benefit of girls who serve at the altar: discerning a religious vocation is without foundation

    One of the most common pastoral benefits cited for having girls serve at the altar is that it may well facilitate their ability to discern a religious vocation, just as this practice has for centuries helped boys discern a call to the priesthood.

    In fact, according to the surveys done by CARA (Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University), the rate at which women have been discerning and responding to the call to religious life over the last twenty years is at an all time low in our country's history.

    Not only that, but the rate at which the number of women religious is declining in the United States over the last twenty years is occurring is twice as fast as compared to the decline in the number of women religious the Catholic Church world wide.

  3. The more girls serve at the altar, the less likely boys are to serve

    Across the country, over the last twenty years, one of the consequences of girls becoming altar servers has been a proportionate decline in the number of boys serving at the altar.

    I have never heard of or read about a parish that instituted the practice of girls serving at the altar, where the overall number of young people serving at the altar has doubled or even significantly increased.

    In fact this is even a concern of our bishop. He has already said to the pastors that if their number of girl servers exceeds the number of boy servers, he may have to intervene in the parish in question.

    One reason this situation is unfortunate is that it perpetuates a prejudice. Specifically, the decline in boys serving at the altar reinforces the prejudice in our culture that faith and Church are primarily a female and feminine domain and activity. Whether you realize this or not, Church life on the parish level is already dominated by women.

  4. Girls as altar servers is seen by some as a small but meaningful step toward the eventual ordination of women

    Some people don't have an objection to the female domination of Church life, because they see the increasing presence of women in the Church and in positions of influence in the Church as a prelude to the eventual ordination of women.

    In fact, this position, that girls serving at the altar is a way of moving toward the ordination of women, is problematic. The Church has clearly taught that the limitation of holy orders to men is by divine decree. It is part of the irreformable and infallibly taught doctrine the Church has received from Christ.

    As a side note, much of the desire in the country for the ordination of women has come from seeing the Church and the priesthood primarily in political terms. In other words, the all-male priesthood is seen as an exercise of power and part of a systematic oppression of women in the Church and a denial of justice on their behalf. Unfortunately, the oppression of women has been part of the culture within the Church in the past. Nevertheless, an all-male priesthood is by Christ's design.

  5. The decline of boys serving at the altar is part of the overall decline in men offering themselves to the priesthood

    During the same twenty year period that altar girls have become a part of the fabric of Church life, both the number of men getting ordained in the United States and also the number of priests has continued to decline.

    This is while at the same time:

    1. the population of Catholics in the United States and in the world has risen;

    2. the number of men being ordained to the priesthood worldwide has risen;

    3. the number of priests in the world has risen; and

    4. the number of priestless parishes in the United States has tripled.

    This decline in the population and ordination of priests is of great concern to our bishop, the bishops of the United States and the Pope.

If all this is true about altar girls, what about women serving as lectors and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion?

I will paraphrase Fr. Dennis Kleinmann, the pastor of St, Mary's parish in Old Town Alexandria: the difference between women or girls lectoring or distributing Holy Communion vs. serving at the altar is that the lectors and extraordinary ministers serve the people of God, while the altar servers directly serve the priest. They have a liturgical connection to the priest not shared by other ministers. 

If you made up your mind not to permit altar girls, why not just so say so and be done with it? Why the long explanation?

I have offered this explanation for a number of reasons:

First, if this parish is going to be different than most of the parishes in the diocese and in the world, I felt that I should let you see my thinking. I think I should be publicly accountable for both my decision and my reasoning.

Second, it is important to me that you be able to see that there are sound pastoral reasons behind this policy decision.

Third, the Vatican has said to the bishops that if they are going to permit altar girls, they need to explain why they are undertaking this innovation and how it will not be detrimental to the ability of boys to discern a vocation to religious life. I felt the need to address this question. 

So, how do I explain to my daughter that she is not a second-class citizen in this parish?

I can tell you that I have a moral obligation to you and to the Lord, to create a parish environment that is most conducive to helping all people, especially young people, know and love Jesus, i.e., discern and cooperate with His presence, power, grace, love and truth.

This is essential if we are going to help them also discern the state in life God is calling them to. The process of discernment is vital to helping young people cooperate with the unfolding of God's will in their lives.

Most people are called to the state and sacrament of matrimony. Unfortunately, most people also enter into this state in life without reference to God's call to them. Hence, we have a 50% divorce rate and untold sadness and heartache in unhappy marriages.

Instead, young people need an environment that is more wholesome, more pure, and more focused on the pursuit of goodness than the pursuit of pleasure and success in the world.

This is also true of those called to the celibate life, a life of service for us - the people of God. They do so more easily in a family and parish environment that is:

more pious than the norm*

more stable than the norm*

more doctrinally sound than the norm*

more liturgically traditional than the norm*

more rooted in the Scriptures than the norm*

more active in the works of mercy at home and in the community than the norm*

more effective in teaching them the Faith than the norm*

more effective at drawing men (dads) to practice their faith than the norm*

If this is the environment of the parish, no child will feel like a second-class citizen. To fail in this task due to political pressure, a desire to please people, the pursuit of more money for the parish, or a desire to not stand out and be different would be for me a disservice to your daughter and a grave sin.

* By the "norm" I mean the state of most parishes across the country. 

Where do we go from here?

Now is the time to heroically and cooperatively pursue the above ideals. 

What is the availability of the documents and surveys you used as your source material?

I have available the principle documents from the Vatican in the back of the church and in the parish office. In addition, the statistical data I found is at:  http://cara.georgetown.edu/index.htm

I am upset and I would like to contact you or the chancery. How do I do so most effectively?

My e-mail is: faddah@stveronica.net.

The Bishop's address is:

    The Most Reverend Paul S. Loverde, DD, JCL, STL
    Bishop of Arlington
    200 North Glebe Road, Suite 914
    Arlington, Virginia 22203

 

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