What Altar Boys Can Do That Altar Girls Can’t


This past week the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released the findings from the 2014 Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood. Prepared by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) for the USCCB, the survey was completed by 365 ordinands, which constitutes a 77 percent response rate. At nearly 30 pages, there is a great deal of data to digest.

While the USCCB press release focused on areas such as the ethnicity and median age of this years ordinands, something far more interesting was tucked in at the bottom of the release.

Of the 365 men surveyed this year, a whopping 80 percent had been altar boys during their formative years. In comparison, only 52 percent of ordinands had been lectors, less than a third had been youth ministers and only 15 percent had ever attended a World Youth Day or a Steubenville Youth Conference.

Don’t just read that and move on. Truly ponder the implications of this statistic: eight of ten ordinands surveyed were altar boys growing up. 80 percent. This is the stat everyone needs to know. In all honesty we must acknowledge the very real correlation between serving and discerning. The survey has revealed this to us in the past, and confirms it yet again this year.

Now consider this. In August 2010, Rome hosted the International Pilgrimage for Altar Servers, an event organized by Coetus Internationalis Ministrantium and held every five years. For the first time ever, the 2010 turnout had more girls than boys attending. Much like the statistical representation found in many parishes today, the pilgrimage of servers resulted in a 60:40 ratio of girls to boys.

Now here is another number to consider: zero. That’s the number of altar girls who will go on to become priests in the Catholic Church.

As I have written about before, the exclusive use of altar boys serving at Mass is helping to facilitate discernment and vocations within many parishes, often where both forms of the Roman Rite are reverently offered. This is in many ways one of the fruits of Summorum Pontificum, and it must continue.

As stated earlier, we must honestly acknowledge this correlation between altar boys and vocations to the priesthood. Understanding this, shame on us if we do nothing to reverse the trend in parishes where fewer and fewer boys are serving.

80 percent or zero? Think about it.

Posted on May 17, 2014, in liturgy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 146 Comments.

  1. 80% of priests were altar boys DOES NOT mean that 80% of altar boys will become priests, which is what your article implies. And even though girls cannot become priests, they can serve the church in MANY ways, including consecreted life. If serving at Mass increases a young boys desire for Christ, wouldn’t it do the same for a young girl???

    • Christine, by that same illogic we should have boys dress in habits and wimples and spend time in convents with nuns.

    • The tradition of altar boys and girls serving as readers and commentators and leading choirs has been some form of a tradition. It does not make sense to have altar girls where the present mindset is based on an equality that if men can do it so can women is a false positive. The attitude towards my faith is based on me educating my daughters and my sons accordingly and appropriately.

      Given the present mindset that most people are either Sunday Catholics or methodical Catholics seems to override the basic attitude to being a good Catholic. We can debate until the cows go home but a bit of fair common sense can solve the issues.

  2. The answer is obvious … 80% of all the female servers could become priests!!! Reducing or eliminating the number of female servers will NOT encourage more boys to join this ministry. Ordain women. (The obvious solution is staring us all in the face).

  3. Ralph Sullivan

    How many Altar Girls will give birth to future priests?

    • Ralph, always good to hear from you. I have always enjoyed our conversations from my days at St. Matt’s and respect you very much. Regarding your question, of course the first altar girls began serving in 1994 (not counting disobedient pastors and parishes who started earlier). Therefore those young women would not have any sons old enough for seminary yet, since it has only been 20 years.

      What we do know is what the survey of ordinands has revealed year after year: alter serving is a consistent experience shared by the men ordained to the priesthood. 80% of this this year as I stated in the piece.

      Karl Keating of Catholic Answers and noted artist and Pro-Life activist Nellie Edwards both bring up an excellent point earlier in the comments thread: boys from 7-12 don’t want to serve co-ed. In addition, it’s hard to get the boys to serve later if they haven’t started earlier…by teen years the boys are already getting into such non code sports as Football or Basketball.

      Since our faith is founded upon centuries, no…millennium, of tradition we often only have to look to our history to recover what always worked. Up until 1994 no one was very confused about this. We had holy priests and holy religious sisters, by the tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands, and girls serving the altar had nothing to do with either.

      Our modern culture often makes the grave error of believing that equality means pretending there aren’t differences. So, some push for “gay” marriage because they see no gender differences or do not understand the purpose of marriage. Others seek to make girls “little clergymen” (as they call altar boys in Italy) because they cannot imagine girls having equally worthy and sanctifying roles that may actually differ from boys.

      As a father of four girls I have nothing but love and the desire for our young women to grow closer to Christ and to serve Holy Mother Church. The Church has shown us how this is done for century after century, and girls serving in roles historically reserved for men, and later boys too, is not the way.

      Some great dialogue. The com box is full of solid, reasoned, explanations of the noble tradition of boys & men serving the altar. It is also full of people with their opinion which is completely divorced from tradition, statistics and even at times logic. Truly some wonderful catechesis from the readers. What a blessing!

      Take care Ralph, God bless, and hope to see you at a future Men’s Conference or Eucharistic Congress here in Charlotte!

  4. Love this article. I belong to a traditional parish that still has it high altar, no table altar, and communion rail. We have the Novus Ordo on Saturday and the Tridentine Mass on Sunday, Our pastor formerly taught Biblical Studies at a Pontifical seminary. We have only altar boys, only men lectors and no Eucharistic ministers, as there is no need for them because of the communion under only the one species and the use of the communion rail.
    I used to be both a lector and Eucharistic minister at my former parish. When they started using girls servers, and my daughter was one, I noticed many boys weren’t becoming servers any longer. My daughter was 18 and still serving because they were always short on servers.
    Our pastor maybe called old fashion, but we have 9 servers at every mass. In fact I wish I could send you a picture of all the boys that came to serve our retired pastor’s funeral. We have many boys that are considering the priesthood and one currently in the seminary and our parish is small, less than 500 families.
    Jesus choose men to lead His Church for a reason, to serve as spiritually fathers to the members. God made men and women in His image, but He gave us each different roles. Men are to be fathers. Women are to be mothers.
    As one priest once said” Women can be mothers but not priests. I can’t be a mother. You don’t see me carrying a sign saying “Unfair, I can’t be a Mother”. I am what God wanted me to be and we all need to be satisfied with His choices and not try to be something or someone He never intended us to be!”

  5. Do we go to Mass to pray and adore or do we go to see the pagentry of the liturgy.Of what importance is it really if it is a boy or a girl who presents to the celebrant a cruet,navette or who holds the missal.Liturgy translated means ‘the work’we are present to adore our LORD PRESENT IN THE SAINT SACRAMENT !

  6. I left a similar comment on a different site but I maintain the same answer, if the number of women that serve on the alter really throws men off, then they probably are not shall we say “proper material” for a vocation i.e a vocation is not for them. If you are really worried about the proportions of women to men on the altar, then this is a different problem and has nothing to do with the church or the number of women serving at the altar.

    • Hello Albert,

      “if the number of women that serve on the alter really throws men off, then they probably are not shall we say “proper material” for a vocation i.e a vocation is not for them.”

      “We have heard with sorrow of the great contempt [mépris] with which the sacred mysteries have been treated. It has reached the point where women have been encouraged to serve at the altar, and to carry out roles that are not suited to their sex, having been assigned exclusively to those of masculine gender.” _ Pope St. Gelasius I, 494 AD, cited in Michel Sinoir, La Question de L’Admission des Femmes au Service de L’Autel, Paris, Pierre Téqui, 1994, p. 28

      Apparently, I’m left to conclude that Pope St. Gelasius probably was not “proper material” for a vocation.

  7. I still don’t understand why some people can’t accept altar girls.Do they believe that the parents have some agenda to advocate change in church teachings.We assist at Holy Mass to adore,thank and beg for pardon for our sins,and the graces we need to amend our lives.It seems some who are posting need too reflect on this.The TLM seems to draw alot of people who seem to regard this venerable rite in a superstious vein or consider Vat.2 to be full of faults.The celebrant offers the Mass the priest is the valid appointed successor of the apostles,the servers are the representives of the community assembled to participate in the liturgy.Be they boys or girls makes no difference.I remember our teacher in second grade Sr.Regina Michael ssj telling us that her brother was an altar boy and she practiced latin reponses with him and she was better of the two.If applicants for our seminary’s are put off by girl altar servers than they are not material for serving the people of God.We don’t have a caste system in the Catholic Church,

    • “Do they believe that the parents have some agenda to advocate change in church teachings?”

      Man of them clearly do. Alas.

    • And let it be clear: Some of the greatest advocates of girls serving at the altar are part of the women’s ordination movement:

      “I am a Catholic, but I am equally a feminist. I can point to moments as an altar server, as a Girl Scout, and with women religious that pointed me to the beauty of the divine and my worth as a girl. This knowledge, of the dignity of women before the divine, is subversive knowledge – it is the knowledge that calls me and many others to demand equality in both the church and the world. It is this knowledge that informs my conscience as I work for women’s ordination in an inclusive Roman Catholic Church.”

      – Johanna Hatch currently serves as Co-President of the Women’s Ordination Conference Board of Directors. She lives in Verona, WI with her family.

  8. Mary Paul Forsyth

    Here is a link to a letter from the Congregation of Divine Worship on the subject of altar servers. Many seem to believe that female servers became the norm immediately following Vatican II. The truth is that it developed and this letter, dated 1994, addresses the issue from the standpoint of Canon Law. Among other points, it states that a bishop may choose to include women though no bishop is obligated to do so. It stresses that “the obligation to support groups of altar boys will always remain, not least of all due to the well known assistance that such programs have provided since time immemorial in encouraging future priestly vocations”. And goes on to remind the bishops that “the non-ordained faithful do not have a right to service at the altar, rather they are capable of being admitted to such service by the Sacred Pastors. Therefore, in the event that Your Excellency found it opportune to authorize service of women at the altar, it would remain important to explain clearly to the faithful the nature of this innovation, lest confusion might be introduced, thereby hampering the development of priestly vocations.”

    It would seem that the Holy See also supports the idea that vocations are impacted by the presence of male servers. I hope those who see this argument as misogynist or based on some superstition will defer to the opinions of the Congregation of Divine Worship.


  9. Ralph Sullivan

    Think of the table at the Last Supper as the altar upon which Jesus celebrated His first Mass. Present in addition to the Apostles were Mary His Mother and Mary Magdalene who served. Yes, the first Altar Servers were women. True, they did not become priests. So . . . should they be banned?

    Apparently girl altar servers have not hurt vocations at St. Matthew. Simplistic answers to the vocations problem can be counter productive.

  10. I don’t see the value of young persons as altar servers. The reason that boys were made altar servers in the first place was as a kind of page boy to the priest. It was a a priest assistant, or apprentice if you will. From the research, this strategy has been working.If we are going to continue to have members of both sexes serve in this role it should be open only to adults, or to those confirmed, like extraordinary minters or lectors.

    • Altar servers (layman) were admited to participate in the celebration of the Mass to take the place of subdeacons.With time boys were admited as they were chaste the subdeacon took vows of celibacy or chasity if a religious.Senoir servers were and are mostly married,the Eastern rites use both as the adult servers serve as cantors.We’ve had both boy and girl ad adult servers in our parish over the years,and eveyone is pleased with this.One of the girls later became a Carmelite nun ,and another teaches cat.and our food pantry.

      • Luke, I would ask you to reread the post, the very many explanations for the traditional practice of male only servers (including from the CDW), and read my other post “Altar Boys and the Priesthood”. The com box alone on this post argues for boys only quite persuasively. I am blessed to have many readers of this blog far wiser and more articulate than I am. I do, however, sincerely thank you for taking the time to read the blog and offering your feedback.

  11. Agreed girls cannot be priest but they can be nuns and in most Catholic Churches women are more involved in the various ministries and also the BEC. We have a good. Example – Mother Teresa.

    • Thank you for reading my blog Lily, and for your comment as well. I know there are a lot of other comments on this post, but when you have a moment please read through them. We have discussed that argument already. There is no supportive data which shows a connection or even correlation between girls serving at the altar and their later discernment of the religious life. This would make sense, of course, as the greatest booms in vocations for women religious were well before the secular understanding of “equality” crept into the Church. It also makes sense that the more traditional communities do not struggle with priestly vocations or female religious, since they celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass, which does not permit for such contemporary innovations as female servers, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion or Communion in the Hand…all of which do harm to the ministerial priesthood and vocations.

      God bless and thank you again for your comment.

  12. Dolores Caldwell

    More then anything I wanted to altar serve. I went to Catholic schools my entire education. But the priest was dead set against it…I have more then encouraged my children to altar serve both my sons and daughters served in this ministry. There is something abolutely holy about being that close to the priest, altar and Jesus during the sacred liturgy.
    Where are the statistics that a girl who has served has entered religious life? Or that a mother who altar served in her youth, motivates and prays for her children to become a priest or enter religious life with a sucessful outcome?
    Try looking objectively and ask more questions+

    • Thank you for reading my blog Dolores. Your questions are excellent. While there are nearly 150 comments on this specific post, time permitting, you should read through them. A good many questions, and supportive data, are addressed and provided.

      Specific to your question of girls serving and women religious:

      Below is a link to the 2014 CARA study of men and women religious who made their perpetual vows in 2013. Of the women surveyed, only 15% had ever served altar. Compare this to teaching faith formation (54%) and singing in choir (48%), and you can see that serving the altar effects boys differently. Those surveyed in 2012 (15%) and 2011 (10%) responded in a similar manner.

      The Italian word/slang for altar boys is chierichetto, which means little clergymen. That about says it all. Vocations boom now as they did in the past where the Catholicism is authentic and where truth, beauty and goodness are demonstrated. This tends to be where the sacred is winning over the secular. Girls effectively discern their vocation (marriage or religious life) today the same way they did when marriage and female orders flourished: through personal piety and authentic role models.

      God bless!


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