Let’s Thank Our Altar Servers
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:
I’m a 74 yr old male, was brought up from a young age as a Catholic. As a young boy I didn’t understand why girls couldn’t be altergirls but I accepted it because I was riold girls couldn’t be priests so why should they be altergirls?? Ads I got older I just got more and more curious about it but never really got any answers that made non-religious sense. For the last 7 1,2 years I’ve been living in a care facility, have bad peripheral neuropathy and it is really hard to walk arounf. I called a local Church some years backm a priest came out and visited, I explained I had been out of the Hospital where I had said my confession anf a priest came by on Sundays and gave me Holy Communion. The priest had ne say confession and the on each Sunday a Eucharistic Minister comes by on Sunday Mornings and we say a few prayers and I receive Holy Communion. So far, all but one of the Eucharistic Ministers has been a women, Different age groups, but women -young and older. Only one time has a guy done it. I am assuming that they now have altergirls ?? Bottom line, we are all of God’s creation.
Dear Emmett, I’m close to your age, so my experience of Church has been similar. I didn’t fuss too much about not being able to serve Mass because neither of my brothers were servers. We lived in a rural area at that time and transportation was a problem. (I was more upset that I couldn’t be the Cleveland Indians bat boy!) But you remind us how many women today do minister in the church in all the ways we are “permitted.” Thank you for writing, Emmett! Melannie
When I was in grade school in the 60’s and early 70’s girls were not permitted to be servers. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but as I got older, in high school and college, I went through a time when I thought “that’s not fair!” We still had only male servers into the 80’s. My husband and I were on vacation in Canada in 1984, and the church we attended that weekend had girl servers! I was amazed and encouraged that some day our own parish would move into modern times. I have four children, three girls and one boy. My girls were servers at one time, my son had no interest in it.
I do think being near the altar makes one feel more a part of things. I was never a server, but I am a lector, and it is a special feeling to be able to help in this small. way.
Dear Kathy, Thank you for sharing your story with us. Yes, just being near the altar is a blessing. Melannie
Out of the mouth of babes…right on…
Yes… that’s what I said after my interview.. Thank you, Joy, for saying it! Melannie
In a 5-6 split classroom in the mid 50’s my teacher, a Sister, was the altar server trainer. Because of that I knew all the responses in Latin ! I never thought about being an altar server but was sure I knew the responses as well as or better than the boys. It’s good to see girls on the alter now, at least in most parishes.
Dear Ann, You reminded me: even when altar servers had to be males, the only exceptions were nuns in some of the convents. Thanks for your response! Melannie
When I was in Ireland in 2012 I went to Mass in Glenamaddy where there were 4 girl altar servers. I would have sworn they were quadruplets, same height, same long brown hair neatly held in a ponytail. I said a silent “alleluia” at that. Also, my mother trained the altar boys in our little parish in Nevada, and after her death I took over the reins until we got a new priest who wanted to take on this ministry. I remember seeing surprised looks on the servers faces when they were thanked for their participation, and lots of smiles when they were give a sort of “tip” when they served at a funeral or wedding. God does bless these servers, male and female; young and not so young.
Thank you, Mary, for sharing your experiences with us! We have to give credit to those parents who had to make sure their children showed up in time to serve mass! Melannie
As an altar server in the 60’s , I remember having to memorize the Confiteor in Latin. It was an honor and a blessing to be spokesman for the whole congregation as we asked for forgiveness. Unfortunately now all I remember from 4 years of high school Latin is : “Agricula est bona.” (The farmer is good.)
But look how good you turned out! It probably goes all the way back to your altar boy days.
Dear Jerry, Yes, I always admired those boys who had to memorize all those Latin responses–even though they didn’t know Latin. I too had 4 years of Latin in high school. Latin helped me understand English grammar better–and English vocabulary! Thanks for writing, Jerry! “Tu es optimus!” Melannie
A good example of how ancient superstition served to undermine common sense-right up until 1980?!? Wow, that is hard to believe! Change comes VERY slowly to the Church…
Dear David, Yes, common sense gets undermined by superstition, fear, and a host of other things! And yes, the Church does move slowly–but Pope Francis is certainly trying to speed things up, isn’t he? Melannie
As an adult, I have had a few opportunities to serve at Mass. The first time was when I was on retreat. It was something I had always wanted to do, and it was a blessing to have that wish fulfilled. Since then only a few times… Would serve often if I had the opportunity. Melannie, your pnephew is inspiring.
And by the way, the retreat was great. You crammed at least a whole day’s worth of grace into three short hours. Thank you!
And thank you, Betty, for making the retreat last Saturday. It was great seeing you again! Melannie
We have had female servers at St. Basil Parish in Brecksville for years at Saturday and Sunday masses, but daily masses continued to have only older adult gentlemen as servers. As these retired men began to pass away there was a need to add women to the roles. We now outnumber the men as servers during the week.
Dear Sunnie, How nice that adults–both male and female–serve the weekday masses. Circumstances often dictate change, right? Melannie
In our parish, we have both boy and girl servers.. Just two years ago, the liturgy committee decided that we should honor these students. If they continue to serve through their senior year in high school. they are given a scholarship. I think that it is very fitting. With college tuitions what they are every bit of money is appreciated.
Dear Jane, What a great idea! I wonder how other parishes show their gratitude for the servers? Thank you for responding! Melannie
Girls weren’t permitted to be altar servers when I was growing up. My youngest sister was an altar server, as was my brother. At one point I think there was some talk of not letting girls be servers anymore—maybe it was in the late 70s. But the pastor said to the whole congregation, “we need the girls to have enough servers and, quite frankly, they’re better at it.” 🙂
I was one of the first high school students to become a Eucharistic minister in our parish. I still serve in that role—and so does my sister who was an altar server!
Annie, Thank you for sharing your personal experience as one “caught in the transition to inclusivity.” Melannie
I would love to have a conversation with Alex!
Thank you for adding the videos and visuals that connect with your message. It connects head and heart.
Yes, Mary Fran, you would enjoy Alex–and he’d enjoy you! Glad you like the videos and visuals! Melannie
When I think of all the wonderful women in our church who unselfishly volunteer in Religious Education, I can’t imagine denying girls to be altar servers. Service to our Church begins at the early stages and how wonderful for girls to be a part of that. It nurtures that sense of service. I must say in my Archdiocese when you look at those who volunteer to share their faith, 90% are women. Bless them.
Dear Kathy, Yes, I know women greatly outnumber men when it comes to ministers in the Church here in the U.S. If it weren’t for women, most parishes would grind to a halt! Thanks for reminding us of this. Melannie
Alex is a wonderful young man. Thank you for sharing.
Dear Patty, I agree with your assessment of Alex–but (of course) I’m prejudiced! Thanks for writing! Melannie
I recently heard that our first girl altar server at St. Mary’s, a girl named Justine, is now a mom and is teaching PSR. So serving at Mass does promote vocations of service.
I also recall that there were a few years when boys could do the important serving parts and girls the lesser parts. So what did you do when the boy server had his sister substitute for him? The two girls would decide who was going to be the boy and who was going who was to be the girl! And the ceiling didn’t collapse.
Tom, Thanks for the further example of how being an altar server “promotes vocations of service.” I never realized there had been “levels of service” at the altar… I, for one, am glad we now have girl and boy servers! Melannie
Thank you for this delightful and informative information about altar servers. Alex is a wonderful young man and it is my privilege to have him as my great nephew as well. One thing is for sure, you never know what thoughts he is going to share, they usually reflect wisdom beyond his years. Time has shown that Alex and his family have been blessed in many ways. Thank you for giving him the opportunity to share a little of his relationship with God, his Church and its community! Elaine
Yes, you and I are both privileged to share Alex as our grandnephew. And yes, he “reflects a wisdom beyond his years.” I’m so glad I got the idea to interview him. That interview was a real blessing for me! Thanks for writing! Melannie
I grew up in the transition period when it was up to the local bishop to determine if girls could be altar servers. My bishop was opposed, so I decided to send him a letter asking him to reconsider. I never received a response. Fast forward many years and I had the opportunity last month to watch my 3rd grade daughter altar serve for the first time. It was a special day for both of us. 🙂
Dear Sherri, What a great story! I’m so glad you’ve had the blessing of seeing your child serve at the altar! Thank you for responding to my blog! Melannie