|ROME, 8 SEPT. 2009 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: Is there any definitive answer available regarding the use of female
servers at celebrations of the extraordinary form of the Roman rite?
A.J., Pontypridd, Wales
A: Although a clarifying instruction on several such questions was
frequently described as "imminent," a long time has passed and it would
seem that it is still in the pipeline.
All the same, it is important to remember that, even in the ordinary
form, the use of female altar servers is in virtue of a specific
permission and is not automatic. As the Holy See has explained on
several occasions, the local bishop may permit the use of female servers
but may not oblige the pastor to use them.
Also, the Holy Father's motu proprio granting permission for the
celebrations of the extraordinary form was for the Roman Missal
according to the edition issued under Pope John XXIII. Since the rubrics
of this missal in no way contemplate the possibility of female servers,
then it must be surmised that only altar boys or adult men are allowed
as servers in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite.
To help us to understand the underlying logic behind this we can reflect
on a particular situation.
It appears there was at least one case in which women were allowed some
functions habitually carried out by the servers. In the preface to the
1936 first edition of H.E. Calnan's guide for altar servers, he mentions
the following circumstance: "In most parishes, a dozen influences
combine to restrict the supply of efficient Mass servers. Layfolk must
be asked to serve at short notice, or without warning. A woman with
knowledge of Latin may venture, because she has only to answer and not
to move about."
The case foreseen here is when there were no assigned altar servers
present. In such a plight a woman with knowledge of Latin could do the
A woman could carry out this role because it was properly speaking a
role of the assembly. In making the Latin responses the altar boys in a
way represented and substituted the assembly, who frequently did not
know the liturgical language. One of the challenges of being an altar
boy (and a source of legitimate pride to his parents) was memorizing the
Latin texts to be recited.
However, years before the conciliar reform there was already a
liturgical movement that encouraged the whole assembly's recitation of
these parts, and not just the server. This practice is relatively common
today among communities that habitually celebrate the extraordinary
Father Calnan's mention that the woman "has only to answer and not move
about" makes it clear that she did not carry out any of the other
functions of the altar boy in serving the Mass. Since in these roles the
altar servers substituted some of the functions of those who had
received minor orders (and who were thus canonically numbered among the
clergy), only males could carry out these functions.
In the ordinary form the clerical minor orders have been replaced by the
lay ministries of lector and acolyte. However, even though they are lay
ministries, only males may be instituted as lectors and acolytes. Since
instituted lectors and acolytes are uncommon in most parishes, other lay
readers and servers may be delegated. At this stage the rubrics allow
either men or women to be chosen as readers and, were permitted, as
In the extraordinary form, though, the minor orders and the liturgical
logic behind them still exist. For this reason I would say that in this
form the rule reserving altar service to boys or men remains in force.
* * *
Follow-up: Female Servers in the Extraordinary Form
In the wake of our Sept. 8 reply on the use of female altar servers
in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite, we received two very
interesting comments from our readers.
A Canadian correspondent, an expert canonist, wrote: "I read your
recent response concerning use of female altar servers at Masses
celebrated according to the extraordinary form with great interest. I
recently prepared a similar reply to this same topic in the 2008 edition
of Roman Replies and CLSA Advisory Opinions, published by the Canon Law
Society of America: C.J. Glendinning, 'Use of Female Altar Servers in
Liturgical Celebrations using the Extraordinary Form,' in S. Verbeek, et
al. (eds.), 2008 Roman Replies and CLSA Advisory Opinions,
Washington, Canon Law Society of America, pp. 77-79.
"I reached a different conclusion, based on CIC/83, cc. 6, 20 and the
authentic interpretation of c. 230, §2, 6 June 1994 (AAS, 86 , p.
"You state: 'Since the rubrics of this missal in no way contemplate
the possibility of female servers, then it must be surmised that only
altar boys or adult men are allowed as servers in the extraordinary form
of the Roman rite.'
"The reasons why the rubrics 'in no way contemplate the possibility
of female servers' is because female servers were restricted by the 1917
Code (c. 813, §2). The 1917 Code is now completely abrogated, along with
the prohibition on female altar servers, in virtue of the promulgation
of the 1983 Code (c. 6). This was confirmed by means of an authentic
interpretation of c. 230, §2. Such interpretations have the same force
as the law itself (c. 16, §2).
"Due to the above juridical considerations, I concluded: 'If female
altar servers are employed in other celebrations of the Mass according
to the ordinary form, there is no reason to restrict the use of female
altar servers when utilizing the 1962 Roman Missal on the basis of
abrogated liturgical discipline. Of course, the liturgical setting of
the extraordinary form, and the sensibilities of the faithful would be
especially important to consider when deciding whether to permit the use
of female altar servers when celebrating according to the extraordinary
form of the Roman rite. Nevertheless, the same disciplinary laws
the ius vigens
govern these two usages of the one Roman rite' (p. 79)."
An Irish reader also wrote: "Father, I must respectfully disagree
with something from your column. You wrote, 'In the ordinary form the
clerical minor orders have been replaced by the lay ministries of lector
and acolyte,' and 'In the extraordinary form, though, the minor orders
and the liturgical logic behind them still exist.'
"I don't think this is accurate. Subdiaconate no longer exists as an
order (though the title and role may be retained by acolytes, as is the
case, I think, in Greece) and there are no minor orders. There is no
provision for someone to enter into minor orders for use in the
"There is a danger of confusing rubrics, role, function and office.
I've heard of priests reluctant to allow permanent deacons to exercise
their functions at high Mass because there were no permanent deacons
before Vatican II. This is nonsense. Today we have instituted acolytes
and lectors and, as always, ordinary laypeople. The rubrics of the
extraordinary form have to be interpreted to take account of those
realities. For example, the Holy See has determined that an instituted
acolyte may carry out the functions previously assigned to subdeacon but
he doesn't become a subdeacon. You can't say the extraordinary form has
subdeacons and the ordinary form doesn't. Neither form now has
subdeacons because they don't exist.
"As regards female servers, I think they're bad for vocational
promotion reasons. But if the bishop allows them, and the pastor has no
objections, I cannot see how the rubrics can be used to prevent their
use in the extraordinary form.
"I am very happy that the Pope has allowed and encouraged the use of
the two forms, but it cannot be understood as creating two churches or
two rites —
the Pope warned very much about that danger."
As I have stated before, I am not a trained canonist and must defer
to the experts in canonical interpretation. In investigating my reply,
however, I found different opinions and was more convinced by the
argument that Pope Benedict XVI's authorization was specifically to
celebrate Mass according to the texts and rubrics of the missal
promulgated by Blessed John XXIII.
Since the Holy Father's motu proprio is also law, its
prescriptions to follow the rubrics of the 1962 missal could also be
considered as binding. Likewise, as the most recent law, it could also
be interpreted as the actual ius vigens which by mandating the
use of the 1962 missal establishes an exception to the general principle
established in the 1994 authentic interpretation of Canon 232.2. We
should also remember that this decision was taken in the context of the
new liturgical books and new Code of Canon Law and need not be
retroactively applied to the rubrics of a rite that moves in a different
canonical and theological context.
The canonical implications of the motu proprio are admittedly
murky; however, and, while awaiting a definitive clarification from the
Holy See, I would still tend to consider that female altar servers are
not allowed in the extraordinary form.
In response to my fellow countryman, I would agree with him that the
instituted acolyte can carry out the functions of the subdeacon. I also
agree with him that it is wrong to impede a permanent deacon from
serving in the extraordinary form, because there is no difference in
orders between a permanent and transitory deacon.
I would not quite agree with him that the order of subdeacon no
longer exists. It certainly exists and is fully approved by the Church
for those congregations, such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP),
dedicated to the exclusive celebration of the extraordinary form.
Likewise there is no fundamental reason why the Holy Father could not
restore it for other seminarians outside the ambience of those
Since the Church has approved the use of the subdiaconate for the
extraordinary form, there is no danger of creating two Churches or
That the Church can live with the two forms of the Roman rite with
distinct orders of ministers
one with minor orders and the other with only lay ministries
shows that it can also get by with one form having the possibility of
female altar servers and the other without it.