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Altar Boys and the Priesthood

Altar Servers

Next year will mark twenty years since the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments formally permitted girls to serve the altar at Mass. There are few topics which can generate as much discussion and debate as this one.

For years the faithful have been told that altar girls do not negatively impact priestly vocations. Indeed, far too many have approached this simply as a matter of “gender-equality” for young girls. Some even argue that the Church has spoken and it is time to accept this decision and move on. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Born Out of Dissent

First we need to clarify that this is strictly a discussion of Church discipline and not an issue of doctrine. As with several other contemporary crisis, the practice of girls serving the altar was born out of dissent. Despite clarifying statements from Rome in both 1970 and again 1980 the liturgical abuse still continued. With the revision of the Code of Canon Law in 1983 the opportunity for change presented itself.

From the point of view of liturgical law, an official interpretation of Canon 230, Paragraph 2, of the Code of Canon law…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…
(Zenit News Agency. “Female Altar Servers”. 3 February 2004)

It is also important to note, however, that the same 1994 letter from the Congregation also stated that:

(T)he Holy See wishes to recall that 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.

Much like the excessive use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, which I have blogged about previously, it is astonishing just how quickly altar girls serving at Mass became the norm. To date only the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska has never implemented the use of altar girls at Mass in the United States.

Priestly Vocations

Regardless of what anyone contends this is not an issue of gender equality. Indeed, no one has a right to serve at the Mass. As a father of five, four of whom are girls, the equality argument rings hollow to me. To discuss altar girls under the banner of equality is to impose a false, secular, notion of participation into the sacred and eternal realm of the liturgy. We all participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, regardless of what our role is or isn’t.

There are two vitally important questions that we need to be asking:

First, shouldn’t we do all that we can to assist young men discern a possible calling to the priesthood?

Secondly, if we determine that young men are more likely to discern a vocation to the priesthood by being an altar server, shouldn’t we seek to increase their participation?

I have often heard that there isn’t much data to support the argument that altar serving leads young men to the priesthood. This is uniformly untrue.

For several years now the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) has conducted an annual Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood with typical response rates between 65-75 percent. Questions address such topics as ordinands age, ethnicity, siblings, education and participation in parish ministries.

Of these hundreds of men surveyed (who have since been ordained to the priesthood) an overwhelming majority were altar servers during their formative years. Surveys over the last four years provide the following numbers:

In the 2010 survey 70 percent of the 339 respondents had been servers.

In the 2011 survey 71 percent of the 329 respondents had been servers.

In the 2012 survey 75 percent of the respondents had been servers.

Finally, in the 2013 survey 67 percent of the 366 respondents had been altar servers.

This is incredibly relevent data which should receive much more attention when discussing this topic.

(Pictured above: Altar Guild of St. Stephen the First Martyr Catholic Church, Diocese of Sacramento)

A Return to the Noble Tradition

In July 2005, Catholic World Report published priestly vocation statistics from the previous year for the United States. Conducted 10 years after Rome officially permitted girls to serve altar, it is interesting to note what the survey revealed. The previously mentioned Diocese of Lincoln, NE (who had never implemented girl altar servers) led the entire nation with one seminarian per 2,625 Catholics.

In the intervening years we have begun to see a modest, but consistent, increase in parishes reverting back to a boys only policy for altar serving. The basic reasoning goes something like this:

Boys want to serve with other boys.

Returning to the noble tradition of only boys serving at the Mass facilitates greater participation by young men.

These young men, through their years of service, are then assisted in their formation and discernment for a possible calling to the priesthood.

From this we then see a steady and consistent growth in men entering the seminary and eventually more men ordained to the priesthood.

Father John Hollowell over at his On This Rock blog has done a great service by conducting a survey of several parishes which have made the switch from co-ed servers to male only. The below chart and data are courtesy of Fr. Hollowell’s research. While the sample size is small it is still difficult to argue with an average increase of 450 percent in boys serving altar.


Another Success Story

I would like to conclude with a success story close to home for me. My own parish of St. Ann’s in Charlotte, North Carolina. When current pastor Father Timothy Reid arrived in 2007 the parish had approximately 25 total servers (boys and girls). Beginning the very next year he did not permit any new girls to serve, only grand-fathering in those who were already serving. So what happened next?

In 2008 St. Ann’s began to see a sharp increase in the numbers of servers. From 25 co-ed servers the year before the parish increased to about 35 male only servers. Since several girls had quit as well, the 35 servers reflects a near doubling of male servers that very first year.

Additionally, Father Reid began offering the Latin Mass that year, for which there was added 10 more boys to exclusively serve at that Mass.

Since 2009, with both Novus Ordo and Latin Mass servers combined, the parish typically has between 40-50 boys serving at a given time. Simultaneously St. Ann’s has seen a consistently high level of young girls who participate in the St. Maria Goretti Altar Guild.

Father Reid recently reflected on some of the blessings St. Ann’s has experienced since reinstating male only altar servers:

I think what’s interesting for our parish is that since we’ve separated the boys and girls, both are happier in their duties.
Moreover, we’ve had two girls who’ve participated in the Maria Goretti Altar Guild go into religious/consecrated life, and three young men head off to the seminary.
We’ve got another young man slated for the seminary next year. And I’m quite sure that many of my (current) altar boys are considering the seminary.

In the coming years it is my sincere hope that more parishes, and even possibly dioceses, take a serious and prayerful second look at their policy for altar serving. Let us remove the emotions, polemics and agendas from this discussion and simply seek what is best for the priesthood and for Holy Mother Church.

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