Altar Girls, Altar Boys and the Priesthood: Connecting the Dots


It has been twenty years since the Catholic Church officially permitted the use of altar girls at Mass. While extending this permission for girls to serve, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS) was also careful to state that:

“The 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.”

Two decades later, there is still a great deal of emotion encountered when discussing the topic of altar servers. I have written about this in the past, only to be surprised at the level of confusion and misunderstanding regarding the subject. Many who enthusiastically endorse altar girls simply ignore the fact that Rome has always recognized the connection between boys serving at the altar and priestly vocations.

In a 2001 letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments the topic was further clarified:

“With respect to whether the practice of women serving at the altar would truly be of pastoral advantage in the local pastoral situation, it is perhaps helpful to recall 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.”

In reviewing both the initial statement released in 1994, as well as the 2001 follow up, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf provided a succinct summary of the parameters governing the practice of allowing girls to serve at the altar:

  • Diocesan Bishops can choose to authorize, or not, service at the altar by females.
  • Just because another diocese has service by women, that doesn’t mean any other diocese has to have it.
  • Priests cannot be forced to have females serve their Masses.
  • Pastors cannot be forced by bishops to have female servers.
  • There is an obligation to support the service at the altar by boys.
  • There is a connection between service at the altar by boys and vocations to the priesthood.
  • No lay person has the right to serve at the altar for Mass or any other liturgical worship.

The video segment below was produced by CatholicTV out of Boston. It features Bishop Christopher Coyne, auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis:

Unfortunately, Bishop Coyne attacks a straw man when he argues that during his time teaching in seminary he did not know anyone who decided to become a priest because he had been an altar boy. To my knowledge, no one has ever claimed that the one inevitably led to the other. The relationship between serving at the altar and following a call to holy orders is one of correlation, not causation. But this correlation is strong. The argument has always been that involving boys in altar service during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass facilitates an important part of the discernment process, and contrary to Bishop Coyne’s implication, this has been a common denominator shared by most seminarians.

This isn’t mere speculation. We have the data. As I have previously written:

“…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, an impressive 77 percent response rate…

“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.”

This is consistent with prior surveys conducted by CARA. The percentage of ordinands who had been altar boys for some portion of their formative years were 70%, 71%, 75%, and 67% respectively for the years 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Based on the repeated statements and clarifications released by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments over the years, and the statistical findings reported to the USCCB itself by CARA, one can’t help but ask, “What is there to left to debate?”

The end of the video clip above gives us the answer. Bishop Coyne states that to discontinue the practice of female servers now would be telling girls that they are “second class citizens” instead of “welcoming them to the table.”

This of course is also the sort of language employed by those who try to impose a secular and misguided understanding of equality and participation into the liturgy. In our contemporary culture many fail to understand that serving in different ways does not reflect being any more or less important. To acknowledge that males and females are different — and have different roles — is healthy. People have been conditioned to think that if anything is “off limits,” someone is being denied their “rights”. The Church recognizes the dignity of the individual precisely because it extols the beauty of the differences between the sexes.

Finally, the claim that excluding girls from altar service negatively impacts the Church — or their role in it — doesn’t add up. An increasing number of parishes have already eliminated the use of female servers. The Extraordinary Form of the Mass, following the rubrics of the liturgical books in effect in 1962, does not permit for altar girls. More and more traditionally-minded parishes have sought consistency in the two forms by not permitting girls to serve at the Ordinary Form either. In most cases, parishes that embrace liturgical orthodoxy are experiencing increased attendance and participation. Their pews are packed with large families. If the sons of those families are serving at the altar, it’s not with envious looks from their mothers or sisters. If anything, there’s a sense of appropriate pride, and perhaps even the hope that one day, the family may see one of its own members join the priesthood.

In the end, this issue requires careful consideration and honest dialogue. To tackle this topic means we must look at the guidelines the Church has already issued, the origin and effects of the practice, and the data we have showing a connection between altar service and priesthood – which is, and will always be reserved for men. It is interesting that those who so vigorously defend a twenty-year-old practice — a recent innovation for a two-thousand-year-old institution — appear disinterested in actually studying its impact upon discernment and vocations. Instead, we are presented with arguments about “rights” and “feelings.” There is also anecdotal information that points to a loss of male altar servers when females are allowed. If the effect that the practice is having is detrimental to vocational discernment and ultimately the future of the priesthood, it can and should be reconsidered.

We can’t afford to ignore the signs. The next generation of Catholics — who will be deeply affected by the continuing decline of vocations to the priesthood — deserve better than that.


Originally published on September 17, 2014.

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