Altar Girls?

Author: Rev. Peter R. Pilsner

ALTAR GIRLS? Sermon given by Rev. Peter R. Pilsner on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 24, 1994

The letter from Cardinal Antonio Javierre Ortas, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship in the Vatican, recently instructed the bishops of the world, that girls as well as boys may be permitted to serve at the altar. The letter also said that this decision to allow altar girls should be carefully explained to the people. That is what I will try to do this morning.

The tradition of altar boys comes from a time in the Church when there were no seminaries. If a young man wanted to be a priest, he would be like an apprentice to the pastor in his local parish. The pastor would teach him how to administer the sacraments, and the young man would serve him at the altar. When he was ready, the candidate for the priesthood would be presented to the bishop for ordination. Then, when seminaries were invented, and young men destined for the priesthood no longer assisted the local parish priest in this way, their place was taken by men or boys.

The tradition of having boys serve at the altar has continued since then for hundreds of years. There was no official ministry given to altar boys, nor is there today. The permission to allow girls to serve at the altar is not, by anyone's reckoning, a change in Church doctrine or in the essential structure of the Church. (These can never change.) It is, as the Vatican news reports point out, a matter of pastoral discipline. But even so, the tradition of having boys serve at the altar was a good tradition -- to use the words of the Vatican Statement, "a 'noble tradition' that has led to priestly vocations and must continue to be supported." It was good for the priests, and good for the boys.

How was this tradition good for the priests? To answer that, I must first make a controversial statement, namely this: boys and girls are different. That is not to say that one is better than the other. It's just to say that they are different. It may seem like stating the obvious. But I can't take that for granted, especially in a city like New York, in which differences between male and female are dismissed as purely cultural, and school board officials want all first graders to be taught that having "two daddies" or "two mommies" is no different from having a daddy and a mommy. No, Rainbow Curriculum notwithstanding, boys and girls are different, and there is nothing wrong with treating them differently when reason so demands.

All of you know this. In our families, we treat boys and girls differently all the time, without in any way favoring one over the other. For example, many of you parents have had a sweet-sixteen party for your daughter. Does that mean you don't care about your sons? Do your boys complain because you didn't give them a sweet-sixteen? Of course not! Coming of age means something different for a girl than it does for a boy, so we treat it differently. You fathers -- when your daughers get married, you will dance with them to the tune of "daddy's little girl." Why? Because there is a special relationship that a father can have only with his daughter. She is "daddy's little girl." A father would never talk that way about his son. He would never say to the guests at his son's wedding, "I'm sure going to miss having my little boy around." If he did, the little boy would be looking to have a talk with his old man.

And just as there is something special about the relationship between a father and a daughter, there is also something special about the relationship between a father and a son. A father's great task in his life is to teach his son how to be a man, and he does this by passing on to his son something of himself, or, to put it another way, by reproducing himself in his son. Every father knows what a joy this is, the sense of fulfillment that comes with "being a dad." You fathers know the feeling you get when your son hits a double in his little league game, just like you taught him to, or catches a fish just like you taught him to, or defends his ideas with the arguments he learned from you. It's a good feeling, isn't it? You say, "He's chip off the old block."

And, in a healthy family relationship, the son responds to the attention he gets from his father. He sees his father as his hero, and tries to be like him. As the saying goes, "like father, like son." I remember once walking down a street near my parent's home on Long Island. A man was mowing his lawn. And behind him walked his son, a boy about five years old, pushing a toy lawn mower. That's great, I thought to myself. A boy who wants to be just like his dad.

Now, as all of you know, I will never be married, and I will never have a son. But in my ministry I do at times get a small taste of what a proud father feels, especially, if not exclusively, when I work with my altar boys. When I train and rehearse them, I try to pass on to them something of myself. I try to give them my love for the Mass, my sense of reverence for it, my conviction that the Mass is the most important event ever to take place on any given day. I give them skills which make them able to participate in what I do, and thus make them one with me, as I make present on the altar a great mystery that they can only begin to comprehend. And I hold in my heart a hope -- a hope that applies only to boys -- that one or more of them, taking to heart what they learned from me, and observing the care with which I celebrate Mass, will be inspired to give his life to God as a priest. In other words, I have the hope that I will be a father to a vocation. This is by no means a groundless hope. Most priests were altar boys when they were young. And I know from personal experience how good it was for my vocation to have frequent, positive interaction with priests, at an early age as an altar boy.

The tradition of altar boys was also a good thing for boys. Let me tell you something else about the differences between boys and girls. Girls tend to be more religious. They step forward more readily to serve the Church. Do you doubt the truth of what I say? Just look at the ministries in you own parish. In the children's choir at St. Rita's, girls far outnumber boys. Is there something particularly feminine about singing? No. Does the children's choir recruit girls and neglect boys? No. It's just that girls more naturally show an interest participating in Church activities. I'll give you another example. Earlier this year we began having teen lectors for the 9:30 mass. We opened it to volunteers, both boys and girls. Right now, we have about ten girls and one boy. Is there anything feminine about reading at Mass? Not at all. It's just that girls, as a rule, are more ready and willing to step forward to participate actively in Church.

So what can we do to get the boys to participate? We give them a little incentive. One of the things we know about boys is that they are attracted to things that are "for boys only." That's how they are at that age. They don't like to be with girls. They prefer to be with each other. They will hang a sign that says, "No girls allowed" on the ladder of their tree house. And that is not altogether a bad thing. Of course, we teach them not to be unkind or unchristian to girls, but their desire to be among themselves is a normal part of their stage of development. We need not worry about it. They won't be like that forever.

Indeed a day will come all to soon when their parents will be climbing the ladder of the tree house to make sure there are no girls up there.

But in the meantime, the Church has done a lot of good for boys by taking advantage of this attraction they have to things that are just for boys. A boy might sit in Church on a Sunday, and squirm in his seat, and daydream about riding his bike, and not understand or care too much about what is going on. But make him part of a group for boys only, create for him a sense of camaraderie with other boys, put a cassock and surplice on him, sit him in the front of the Church, and give him a little responsibility for what happens during Mass, and believe me, you will see quite a transformation. He may have become an altar boy because it looked like fun and because it was something only for boys, but by the time he graduates grammar school he will know more about the Mass than many adult Catholics, and have a personal sense of reverence for it.

The tradition of having altar boys has done a lot of good for the Church. And frankly, I'll be sad to see it go. Why is that? Well, for one, I would like it clearly understood that it's not because I have anything against girls. I have great respect for girls, and I have done a lot for them in this parish as well as for the boys. Since I have come here, I have held three retreats for girls. I worked hard on those retreats, and was very glad to have organized them. There is also a group of young parishioners who go to Mass every first Saturday of the month. After mass, I hear their confessions, and then I take them to breakfast. Nearly all of them are girls, and I don't mind that at all. I would also point out that of the 16 parishioners who went with me to Denver to see the Pope, 13 were girls. And I am glad that I took them. Girls are very important people. They are the future mothers in our society and they will have the most influence in handing on the faith to the next generation. I consider any time I take for them to be well spent.

My reason for being sad or dismayed at this change is that I am going to miss being a spiritual father to my altar boys. I will miss that joyful experience of trying to pass on to them something of myself, my love for the mass, and especially my priesthood. As I said, I have great respect for the girls. But boys and girls are different. And just as there is a special kind of relationship that a father can have only with a son, there is a special kind of spiritual fatherhood that I can exercise, not with girls, nor with a mixed group, but only with a group of boys. It seems that this will be taken away from me now, and it does make me sad.

"Oh, Father," some of you may say, "why do you say such things? You will still have altar boys. The only change is that now you will have girls too." The reason I say it is that, at the risk of making a self-fulfilling prophesy, I am afraid that if the American bishops mandate that girls must serve together with boys, we may not have many altar boys left. As I said before, girls tend to be more ready and willing than boys to step forward and participate in religious activities. I am sure that if we open serving at the altar to girls, many of them will volunteer, and they will do so with the most noble motives -- their love for God and their heartfelt desire to serve Him. However, since serving will then no longer be something for boys only, it will lose its attraction for the boys, and they simply won't want to do it anymore. This is not idle speculation on my part. In parish after parish it has happened that when the altar girls come, the altar boys go. If you have been reading the papers or listening to the radio, you may have heard about a parish in Manhattan that introduced altar girls twelve years ago. The media reported with glee that now girls outnumber boys. A week ago Friday, I spoke to a priest who was assigned to a parish with both male and female altar servers. When he arrived, there were three boys and fifteen girls. Then the parish went back to a policy of altar boys only. Now this priest has fifty altar boys. I hope that with the addition of girls we won't lose our altar boys, and I and a number of other priests have signed a petition to the Cardinal asking him to look into ways to prevent this from happening, but I am very much afraid that it will happen all the same.

Why then is the change being made? I have not found any explanation in any of the news reports. I suppose the Holy Father simply wishes to allow each bishop the freedom to do what he thinks is best for his diocese. The statement from the Vatican says that each bishop must make a judgement based on pastoral needs, and do what is best to promote "an ordered development of liturgical life in his own diocese."

However, I think we should also understand clearly what are not the reasons for this change. For one, the Vatican does not see this decision as rectifying an injustice toward women. If it were a matter of justice, then justice would demand that everywhere in the Church girls must be allowed to serve at the altar. However, the Vatican merely giving permission to each bishop to allow altar girls, or not to allow them, according to the needs of the diocese. If a bishop is of the opinion that the benefits of having only boys serve outweigh whatever inequities some people may perceive, he may choose not to have altar girls, and if so, he should not be looked upon as being insensitive to the rights of women. This is not a question of rights. No girl has a right to serve at the altar. For that matter, no boy has a right to serve at the altar. Serving is a privilege, and a bishop can grant that privilege or restrict it so as to bring about the greatest benefit to all the people of his diocese.

Also, I think we should realize, as the Vatican press secretary stressed, that this change was not made to prepare the way for the ordination of women to the priesthood. The two issues are very far removed from each other. A man becomes a priest because he receives the sacrament of holy orders. A boy becomes an altar boy, not by virtue of any sacrament, but simply because he is taught what to do and given the privilege of serving at the altar. The practice of ordaining men only to the priesthood is based on the example of Jesus Himself, who, according to Church teaching, intended to set a precedent for the future. The practice of having boys serve at the altar, as helpful and noble as it was, came from customs and traditions which were of human origin. The roles of priest and altar boy then are so distinct and remote that allowing girls to do the job of altar boys has absolutely no bearing on the question of the ordination of women. Even though the practice of having only altar boys can change and has changed, the Church's practice of ordaining only men to the priesthood is something we should not expect to change soon, or in a long time, or ever, because it is the will of Christ Himself for his Church.

There is one final point I would like to make. In the past, some of you may have gone to other parishes and were surprised to see girls serving at the altar. Perhaps you wondered how another parish could have altar girls when your own parish did not. I think this decision of the Holy Father should clarify the matter a little for you. Common sense should tell you that if it is only now that the Holy Father is giving permission for girls to serve at the altar, then any parish that has instituted altar girls up until now has done so without the Holy Father's permission, and in disregard of Church law. Perhaps the priests and people of such parishes think that they have very progressive and modern ideas, and that having such ideas gives them a right to do what seems best to them no matter what the Church says. My friends, there is nothing wrong with new ideas, when such ideas don't compromise the faith. Nor is there anything wrong with people asking for change in the Church in those matters that are open to change. But no one has a right to disobey the Church. Perhaps the priests and people of parishes that have instituted altar girls are very proud of themselves, and feel that they have been proven right, and that the Church has caught up with them at last. They will get no pat on the back from me. I don't think disobeying the Holy Father is anything to be proud of. Perhaps people in such parishes have made you feel ashamed that your parish does not have altar girls, and that your parish must be very backwards and your priests too conservative. I don't think we have any reason to feel at a loss because we have not had altar girls up until now. We have nothing to be ashamed of. As for myself, I have never been ashamed to obey the Holy Father, and I am not ashamed to obey him now. Obedience has held the Church together for two thousand years, and is always generously rewarded by God. As I said before, I am not happy about this change. And perhaps you don't agree with me. But all of us, who wish to call ourselves Catholics, must be obedient to the Holy Father.