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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Catholic Church Defends Move to Ban Girls From Being Altar Servers

Posted By on Tue, Jan 27, 2015 at 3:38 PM

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By now, you've read the news (or seen incendiary comments on Facebook) about this new Catholic priest at San Francisco's Star of the Sea Church who has decided that girls are no longer allowed to be altar servers — only boys. 

Well, Father Joseph Illo spoke up today, defending his unpopular (and rather archaic) decision to reverse church policy and no longer permit girls from doing the same job as young boys.

Here goes:

On November 7, 2014, Fr. Patrick Driscoll and I decided to transition the altar server program at Star of the Sea parish from both boys and girls to just boys. Although girls are still serving at the parish, we will train only boys in the future. Girls have been permitted to serve Mass since 1994, but for 1900 years before that generally only males were permitted to serve at Mass. Today this decision is up to the local bishop; Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone has given Star of the Sea permission to train only boys in the future for service at the Mass.

We are moving to a boys-only program for two reasons.

First, in a mixed altar-server program, boys usually end up losing interest, because girls generally do a better job. A boys-only program gives altar boys the space to develop their own leadership potential. In the past ten years a significant number of schools are returning to single-sex education for this reason, and male-only organizations like the boy scouts or college fraternities exclude female membership to allow the boys to develop specifically male gifts. We support female-only programs like all-girls schools, sororities and the girl scouts for the same reason.

Second, and much more importantly, altar service is intrinsically tied to the priesthood and serve as feeder programs for the seminary. If the Catholic Church ordained women, altar girls would make sense, but the Catholic priesthood is a male charism. Nothing awakens a desire for the priesthood like service at the altar among the brotherhood of young men. At the risk of generalizing, I suspect young men serving with young women might just distract them from the sacrifice of the Mass, and perhaps even from a priestly vocation.

I want to emphasize that we are not discontinuing altar girls because females are somehow incapable or unworthy. Girls are generally more capable and certainly just as worthy as boys (because God makes us worthy). The news media has portrayed our decision as discrimination. It is not. It is simply giving boys a role they can call their own, and more importantly recognizing the priesthood as a specifically fatherly charism rather than a motherly charism. If this altar boy policy bothers us, we must ask ourselves if we have not unconsciously accepted the errors of the current age; specifically, that the differences between men and women have no more spiritual significance than “plumbing” arrangements. Do you think Mary, the Mother of God, would want to serve the Mass or be a priest, and even if so, why did Jesus not include her at the Last Supper? Is it not because she, as a woman, has a distinct, an even more exalted role than the Apostles?

Altar girls is a common practice only in Europe and North America; in countries that have high numbers of vocations and flourishing Catholic communities, girls do not generally serve the Mass. At Star of the Sea many girls read the scriptures at Mass, help prepare the altar before and after Mass, and participate in a girls-only group called the Daughters of Mary. Some parishes and even two US Dioceses do not have altar girls, and so we are not that unusual in this regard. We hope that by strengthening the link between altar service and the priesthood, and providing supportive groups for young men and women, we will strengthen our parish community in the long run. 
So there you have it. Father Illo has a blog, too. 

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About The Author

Erin Sherbert

Erin Sherbert

Erin Sherbert was the Online News Editor for SF Weekly from 2010 to 2015. She's a Texas native and has a closet full of cowboy boots to prove it.

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