Fighting back for female altar servers

Just a few months after the cathedral of the Diocese of Phoenix caused an uproar over its decision to restrict altar service to boys only, parents in Virginia are taking a stand against another parish's decision to eliminate girls from the altar.

Corpus Christi Parish in South Riding, Virginia, quietly announced in its bulletin recently that the ministry of altar servers would be open only to boys. But parishioners didn't exactly take the news in stride. One mother of two girls told the Washington Post that she "burst into tears" upon reading the announcement in the parish bulletin and literally ran from her pew. That may have been a slight overreaction, but she wasn't the only parent who objected.

The Post published follow up letters from readers taking both sides in the debate, and is conducting a poll on its website to determine whether readers support the inclusion of girls as altar servers (as of this writing, more than 6,000 people have voted in the poll, with roughly two-thirds saying they are against allowing girls to serve).

But the parents from the original Post story decided to launch a full scale campaign called "Let Them Serve," which held a vigil last Sunday in support of girl altar servers and has urged local Catholics to flood the bishop's office with calls and letters. They've spread the fight beyond their own parish boundaries, noting that more than half of the diocese's parishes don't allow girl altar servers either.

Yesterday, the diocese issued a written response, which essentially says that women are allowed to serve in a number of roles within parishes and there is no requirement that they be included in the ministry of altar servers. It is up to the local pastor, in consultation with parish leaders, to make that decision, the diocese stated.

There's no sign, however, that the parents are going to give up. It seems that the wave of male-only altar servers is spreading, and though not everyone seems to mind, hopefully more parents will speak up and "Let Them Serve" will become a national effort.

Yes, women do serve in a variety of roles within the parish, including as lectors and extraordinary ministers of holy communion, but allowing them to be altar servers also has an important purpose. The main argument put forth by the church against girl altar servers is that altar service is the first step on the path to ordination, and that allowing only boys to serve will increase vocations to the priesthood. But is the possibility of encouraging boys to serve really worth the damage caused by discouraging young girls from having a role in the Mass?

I've seen a number of parishes where girl altar servers have taken strong leadership roles. I was a member of one parish where a teenage girl not only led the altar servers, she was, outside of the pastor, the go-to person for questions about the liturgy. Any time we had a major liturgical celebration, she was sure to be on the altar, and we knew that everything would run smoothly. Even the pastor would likely say that she was one of the most trusted and reliable members of the parish, regardless of age or gender.

That girl, who has now gone off to college, will likely become a prominent woman in her future parish community. She may even decide to pursue a religious vocation of her own, which may not help us increase the ranks of the priesthood, but would be of great value to the church. And undoubtedly, she learned many important lessons from her years of service and set an excellent example for other young people–both boys and girls–within the parish community.

If parishes continue to eliminate girl altar servers, there is a chance that it could help promote vocations to the priesthood. But there's a greater chance that it will prevent many young women from making valued contributions to their parish and, down the line, will result in fewer strong adult women who are committed to serving their church. In the short term, it will likely alienate more women like those in Virginia, and drive away the lay people who are in many cases the backbone of parish life.

As more pastors consider the question of eradicating female altar servers, they should ask themselves if the potential gains are really worth the likely costs.

About the author

Scott Alessi

Scott Alessi is a former managing editor of U.S. Catholic.