I recently came across a column[i], by Michael Clancy, wherein he reporting on the fact that the rector of the cathedral in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, Rev. John Lankeit, had made a decision to only permit boys to serve at Mass. “The girls will be offered the role of sacristan, the person who prepares the church and the altar area before Mass.”
Rev. Lankeit explained that: “The connection between serving at the altar and priesthood is historic. It is part of the differentiation between boys and girls, as Christ established the priesthood by choosing men. Serving at the altar is a specifically priestly act.”
Michael Clancy, who heads up the diocesan men’s group, said: “girls never were supposed to be allowed to serve”.
Prior to 1994, the rule was that only males were permitted to be Altar Servers. After Vatican II, both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II re-imposed this rule. Pope Paul VI did so in 1970:
“In conformity with norms traditional in the Church, women (single, married, religious), whether in churches, homes, convents, schools, or institutions for women, are barred from serving the priest at the altar.”[ii]
Pope John Paul II in 1980 also emphasised this:
“There are, of course, various roles that women can perform in the liturgical assembly: these include reading of the Word of God and proclaiming the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful. Women are not, however, permitted to act as altar servers.”[iii]
So when did the change come? In 1994, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts[iv] gave room for this novel practice of female Altar Servers in its interpretation of Canon 230[v]. In communicating this, the Congregation for Divine Worship felt it necessary to qualify it with the following:
1. Canon 230 #2 has a permissive and not a preceptive character: "Laici . . . possunt." Hence the permission given in this regard by some Bishops can in no way be considered as binding on other Bishops. In fact, it is the competence of each Bishop, in his diocese, after hearing the opinion of the Episcopal Conference, to make a prudential judgment on what to do, with a view to the ordered development of liturgical life in his own diocese.
2. The Holy See respects the decision adopted by certain Bishops for specific local reasons on the basis of the provisions of Canon 230 2. At the same time, however, 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.
3. If in some diocese, on the basis of Canon 230 #2, the Bishop permits that, for particular reasons, women may also serve at the altar, this decision must be clearly explained to the faithful, in the light of the above-mentioned norm. It shall also be made clear that the norm is already being widely applied, by the fact that women frequently serve as lectors in the Liturgy and can also be called upon to distribute Holy Communion as Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist and to carry out other functions, according to the provisions of the same Canon 230 #3.
4. It must also be clearly understood that the liturgical services mentioned above are carried out by lay people ex temporanea deputatione, according to the judgment of the Bishop, without lay people, be they men or women, having any right to exercise them.
It should be noted that, in this announcement, the Congregation of Divine Worship felt it necessary to highlight the opinion of Pope John Paul II by stating 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.”
It should also be noted that, while Bishops may not impose a rule on priests to permit female Altar Servers to serve at Mass, the Bishop could instruct the priests not to use female Altar Servers.
There are people who are of the firm opinion that the Church buckled under the pressure of radical feminism when it made the decision. They feel that this decision was a huge mistake, claiming that the lack of priestly vocations may well, to some degree, be a consequence of this decision to permit female Altar Servers.
Many feel that the mere fact that the Pope does not permit females to serve at Mass, when he is the celebrant, is a clear sign of where the Church is heading. Many people are urging the Church to do what will inevitably be necessary.
Repair the damage, which has been done and continues to be done, by stopping the practice of female Altar Servers now, is the call. Priests and bishops are urged to lead the way immediately by making the change now, as they are legally permitted to do, and as Rev, John Lankeit has already done.