ROME, 3 FEB. 2004 (ZENIT).
Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor
of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.
Q: What is the Church's position on the use of female altar servers? May
all of the servers be female, or must at least one be male? Do you feel
that the use of female altar servers detracts from the building of
vocations among young males?
M.C.S.N., Catonsville, Maryland
A: Female altar servers are permitted in all but two U.S. dioceses. They
are also common in most English-speaking countries, and in Western Europe.
The situation is patchier in the rest of the world, going from total
absence to the occasional diocese that allows them.
From the point of view of liturgical law, an official interpretation of
Canon 230, Paragraph 2, of the Code of Canon law on the possibility of
delegating certain liturgical offices led to a 1994 letter from the
Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments clarifying that girls
may serve at the altar. But bishops are not bound to permit them to do so,
nor could the episcopal conference limit the bishop's faculty to decide
A further clarifying letter published in 2001 said priests are not
compelled to have girls serve at the altar, even when their bishops grant
The 1994 letter states: "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."
The letter also recommends to bishops to consider "among other things the
sensibilities of the faithful, the reasons which would motivate such
permission and the different liturgical settings and congregations which
gather for the Holy Mass."
Therefore the Holy See's recommendation is to retain as far as possible
the custom of having only boys as servers. But it leaves to the bishop the
choice of permitting women and girls for a good reason and to the pastor
of each parish the decision as to whether to act on the bishop's
It is important not to focus this debate using political categories such
as rights, equality, discrimination, etc., which only serves to fog the
issue. We are dealing with the privilege of serving in an act of worship
to which nobody has any inherent rights.
The question should be framed as to what is best for the good of souls in
each diocese and parish. It is thus an eminently pastoral and not an
administrative decision, and this is why it should be determined at the
Among the pastoral factors to be weighed is the obvious yet often
forgotten fact that boys and girls are different and require different
motivational and formative methods.
This difference means that both boys and girls usually go through a stage
when they tend to avoid common activities.
Preteen boys in particular are very attracted to activities that cater
especially for them, and they tend to reject sharing activities with
They also tend to have a greater need for such structured activities than
girls who are usually more mature and responsible at this stage of life.
As a result, some parishes have found that the introduction of girl
servers has led to a sharp drop-off of boys offering to serve. Once the
boys have left and enter the years of puberty, it is difficult to bring
Some pastors say this phenomenon is less marked where serving at Mass
forms part of a wider Catholic structure, such as a school, or when
siblings serve together.
It is also true that groups of boy servers have fostered vocations to the
priesthood. But to be fair, this usually happens within a broader culture
of openness to a vocation in which other elements come into play, such as
the example and spiritual guidance given by good priests, and family
If, for example, a long-established program of boy servers has proved
successful in promoting vocations or has been useful in helping boys avoid
bad company and maintain the state of grace, then the good of souls
obliges pastors to weigh heavily the spiritual risks involved in
When girls do serve, it is probably best to aim for a mixture of boys and
if only to avoid giving the impression to the congregation that
Catholicism is above all a female activity. On some occasions, however, it
might be best to separate boys and girls into different groups.
It is very difficult to lay down precise rules in a matter like this since
the situation may vary widely between parishes. And it is not unknown to
have sharp differences among the faithful who assist at different Masses
at the same parish. ZE04020323
* * *
Female Altar Servers [from 02-17-04]
Regarding the column on female altar servers (Feb. 3), a priest from
Illinois asked if it were possible to place the issue in a theological
He suggests several arguments against their use and asks: "based on the
same theology of the body that Pope John Paul II has so profoundly
explained, how can girls serving at the altar not be perceived as a move
towards women's ordination? The role of the altar server is not just
functional. Also, actions speak louder than words; by the Pope allowing
altar girls in the context of the cultural politicization of the liturgy
and the role of women, he does send the message that women's ordination
will come about despite statements to the contrary."
Personally I do not think it is wise to try to establish doctrinal grounds
for every aspect of liturgical discipline. The very fact that the Holy
Father approved of this change clearly shows that he does not consider
this issue to have serious doctrinal implications.
While our correspondent is correct in saying that the role of altar
servers is not merely functional, I think it is necessary to distinguish
between minister, either ordained (bishop, priest and deacon) or
instituted (acolyte and lector) and those who may be delegated in some
cases to substitute for them.
Thus the formal ministries of the Church are open only to males, while
altar servers, readers and extraordinary ministers of Communion, whose
function is to substitute for the lack of proper ministers, may be
delegated to Catholics of either sex.
Even when these functions are carried out frequently, or even daily, they
will always be essentially delegated and substitutive. In this context the
canonical decision to open service at the altar to girls was logical since
every other delegated ministry had already been opened up.
This is certainly a break with a very long-standing custom of having only
males serve at the altar even in substitutive roles. But it does not
appear to be an issue of doctrine.
Nor does the Holy Father's decision open the way toward women's
ordination. The papal declaration in "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" that the
Church has no power to ordain women is no mere statement of opinion but,
as confirmed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an
exercise of the gift of infallibility and therefore binding.
Another reader, also from Illinois, asked if there were any norms
regarding adults serving at Mass.
All instituted ministers (acolytes and lectors) are adult men, most of
whom receive these ministries in their early 20s. Adult servers are very
common all over the world especially in daily Masses or very early Sunday
One or two female readers took exception to my comments that this debate
should not use political categories such as rights, equality and
One correspondent from Boston writes: "Since when have human rights and
human equality become a 'political category.' Any brief survey of Church
documents would reveal that such rights and equality are part of morality.
Too frequently, it sounds as if the Church doesn't have to worry about
breaking the moral law because it follows a higher liturgical law. Also,
the last time I checked, by virtue of baptism, the Code of Canon Law says
that every Catholic has a right to the sacraments. Does liturgical law
also override canon law?"
Perhaps my choice of examples might have been better, but I think our
correspondent read too much into my words.
She is totally correct, of course, in suggesting that rights, above all
human rights, are essentially rooted in morality and thus should be beyond
politics. I would also observe that there are other classes of rights less
closely tied up to morality, such as the right to vote at 18 instead of
At the same time, many of these rights have a political dimension and in
this way are also political categories.
The social equality of women, for example, was not caused by a sudden
surge of male morality sweeping away all discriminatory laws. Rather, it
was eked and pried out by dogged, determined and sometimes heroic
political action by women themselves.
Likewise, who can deny that the supposedly unalienable right to life has
not tragically become the stuff of political activity?
Getting back to our subject, while the rights enjoyed by every Catholic
are spelled out clearly by canon law, and include among other entitlements
a right to the sacraments (see Canon 214), which is certainly not
political, this fact has little to do with the question of a "right" to
serve at the altar.
Serving at Mass, unlike the Catholic's right to assist at Mass and receive
Communion, is a privilege and in some cases a vocation. But it can never
be called a right. Therefore, I repeat that no one has a right to do so
and to frame the question in these terms is to use political categories to
seek to demand what can only be humbly accepted.
Finally, a reader from Kenya suggested that St. Margaret Clitherow could
complement St. John Berchmans as patron of altar servers. This English
wife and mother was martyred in 1586 because she kept the forbidden
vestments, chalices, books and bread in her home and arranged that priests
could secretly celebrate Mass there. It is an interesting suggestion and
may prosper. ZE04021720