If you attend Mass regularly, you are familiar with altar servers, those individuals (often children and teenagers, but sometimes adults) who assist the priest with the liturgy. They perform a wonderful service, yet sometimes we take them for granted. In today’s post, I’d like to give a little history of altar servers—including the practice of having female servers. I’ll conclude with an interview of a real, live 12-year-old altar server named Alex.
Altars servers perform a variety of services: They light the candles, carry the cross and candles, hold the liturgical book, carry incense and the censor, help set up the altar, present wine and water, assist with the offertory gifts, wash the priest’s hands, and respond to all the prayers along with the congregation.
In the early Church many ministries were held by both men and women, for example, deacons and deaconesses. But in the Middle Ages some of these ministries became “minor orders,” or steps to the priesthood. One of the steps, acolyte, referred to the altar server. So for centuries, altar servers were young men studying to be priests. But over time, due to changing circumstances, the role of altar server was opened to all males in the church. But not to females. In fact, in 1755, Pope Benedict XIV, formally forbade females near the altar. In doing so, he was reiterating earlier papal proclamations. We might ask: Why weren’t women allowed even near the altar? Such prohibitions were rooted in the ancient belief that women were “ritually unclean.” (See Lev. 15:19-30 for more details). Another reason for not permitting female altar servers was because, in earlier days, priests often said Mass alone. This setup meant a priest would be alone with a woman or girl.
In 1965, following Vatican II, Germany introduced female servers. But the Vatican reaffirmed the prohibition against female servers in 1970 and again in 1980. But the revised Canon Law of 1983, more specifically Canon 230, 2, opened the door for female servers. In 1994 the Vatican stated that bishops could decide whether or not to have female altar servers in their dioceses. Some bishops left that decision to their pastors. Today, most dioceses in the U.S. and western Europe have female altar servers.
Why do some people still want to restrict altar servers to males? One argument is that, historically, male altar servers were a “pipeline to the priesthood.” A 2014 U.S. survey reported that 80% of the 500 priests interviewed said they had been altar servers. Another argument against girl servers was voiced by a priest from Illinois: “Allowing female servers will be perceived as a move towards women’s ordination.”
But there are many people today who welcome female altar servers. In her article entitled “Why the Church Needs Girl Altar Servers” (US Catholic, January 29, 2015) Mary Kathleen Cahill gives several reasons for including girls as servers. She speaks from personal experience, for she herself was an altar server from fourth grade through high school. Cahill claims that being a server influenced her decision to attend a Catholic university (a Jesuit one) where she majored in Math and Theology. After college she also trained altar servers in her parish. She sees altar service as a “key way of getting children involved in the Mass.” It also helps “to get kids and teens to take ownership for their faith.” She asks: Why would we deny this opportunity to half our young parishioners—simply because of gender?
My “research” on altar servers led me to interview an actual altar server, Alex, my grandnephew. Alex is 12 years old and in the seventh grade at his parish elementary school. He became a server in fourth grade. I asked him why he decided to become an altar service. He thought for a moment and then said, “I wanted to help my parish and help God…I wanted to take on this responsibility because I thought it would expand my knowledge of things.” (I kid you not! Alex really said this!)
I asked him what the hardest thing was about serving? At first he said, “Nothing is hard.” But as we talked he said, in the beginning he was nervous. He also acknowledged that you have to pay attention when your serve. If you get distracted, everyone knows it because you’re in full view of all the people. He added that sometimes you are asked at the last minute to serve Mass—as he was last Easter. But he didn’t mind that really, because “I like to serve.”
I asked him, “Did you know that at one time girls were not allowed to be altar servers?” He said, “No, I didn’t know that.” I asked, “What if someone said that you could no longer have girl servers at your parish. What would you think about that?” He didn’t hesitate. “I wouldn’t like it. That’s being exclusive. And aren’t we supposed to be inclusive?”
And finally I asked Alex what he likes best about being a server. He replied, “It just feels right for me…I’m helping my church…I get to be with my friends…I get to talk to the priests before and after Mass…Sometimes after Mass people come up and thank me for serving…And when I serve at Mass, I feel closer to God.”
Today’s song is “Make Me a Servant” sung (appropriately) by children.
Have you ever been an altar server? If so, what was that experience like for you?
Have any of your siblings, children, grandchildren been servers?
Do you have female altar servers in your diocese and/or parish?
Any other thoughts on altar servers that you’d like to share with us?
PS: Thank you for your prayers for last Saturday’s mini Advent retreat in Cincinnati. We had about 40 wonderful people, mostly women but also a few men. The retreat was live-streamed to a group of Franciscan Sisters in Warwick, New York. Amazing!
PS: On Dec. 8th, Pope Francis will formally inaugurate the Year of Mercy. For more details (including his letter on mercy, pictures, and videos) you can click the official Year of Mercy website below: