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Vatican may prohibit female alter service

Michaels, Amanda | Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Only nine years after the Vatican gave women permission to serve beside their male counterparts at the altar, a new proposal threatens to force them back into the crowd.

On Sept. 23, the Italian Catholic monthly, “Jesus,” released advanced text of an article featuring excerpts from a draft document, or directive, written by the Vatican congregations for Divine Worship and the Sacraments and for the Doctrine of the Faith. Distributed on June 5, the document was an expansion on the papal encyclical published in April that cut down on abuses during Mass, specifically during Communion.

According to reports, in addition to banning applause and dancing at Mass – both of which often occur at papal services – the document specified that the use of female altar servers should be avoided “unless there is a just pastoral cause,” and that “priests should never feel obliged to seek girls for this function.”

However, both the Catholic News Service, the media extension of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) stated that the directive was almost immediately sent back for revisions.

“On June 29, the cardinals in charge of the two offices working on the document had a meeting and rejected it,” said John Allen, Rome correspondent for the NCR. “The final version is expected by Christmas, and at least for now it says nothing on altar girls.”

Though the news of the proposal’s rejection is cause for much relief among female acolytes, the mere suggestion of restricting their use has stirred up controversy all over the United States and Western Europe, where the practice has become commonplace.

Since 1994, the USCCB has held that each individual bishop has the power to decide whether or not females within their diocese should be altar servers – a verdict based on the interpretation of 1983 Canon Law 230.2, said Sheila Garcia, USCCB Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth. To this date, very few dioceses across the country have prevented women from serving.

Though the language of the draft document was only marginally more restrictive than current standards, many fear its appearance signals a possible shift toward conservatism within the Vatican.

“There are apparently still many chauvinists in the Vatican who think that males are inherently superior to females in the eyes of God,” said Father Richard McBrien, professor of theology and Crowley-O’Brien Chairman of Theology at Notre Dame. “[But the reversal of Vatican II] has already been established in many other ways over the past 25 years. This latest matter is merely a speck on the window pane in comparison with many other examples of reversals.”

Traditionalists have often argued that allowing women to be altar servers brings them one step too close to priesthood, and that the position should be used only to encourage boys to consider a vocation in the Church – a tradition that the directive reportedly aimed at reviving. However, this presented a problem for the Vatican because, as Garcia pointed out, Pope John Paul II has presided over Masses where women were servers.

Kelly Hager, coordinator of servers at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and an altar server herself said, “I do not serve because I want to be a priest. I serve because it’s a personal choice to participate in liturgy in a way that I feel called to participate. I hardly think that any woman gets involved with the sole intent to try to become a priest.”

“Women will eventually be ordained as deaconesses, and then as priests,” McBrien said, countering the directive’s goals. “But those changes won’t come about simply because girls are allowed to serve at the altar. There are far more powerful forces at work in the Church and in society at large that will bring about these changes sometime in the new century.”

Though concern on campus over the implications of this directive is high, especially among females, Father Peter Rocca, rector of the Basilica, said that, in terms of pastoral application, the proposal would not have changed practices at the Basilica, and that female altar servers will always be needed.

That sentiment was echoed in the community, as well.

“Little Flower Church continues to have female altar servers, as it has for 25 years. It is committed to family ministries, of which girls, of course, are included,” said MaryAnn LaPlante, pastoral associate of liturgy and music at Little Flower Church in South Bend.

The struggle to get females to the altar extended long past the liberal reforms of Vatican II, and a reversal now would signal a huge setback for women in the Church.

“We [female altar servers] get older ladies coming up to us all the time, saying how marvelous we look up [on the altar,] and that they live vicariously through us … The idea of taking that away? It’s just disturbing,” Hager said.