by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion
In a January 26 statement, Fr. Joseph Illo, pastor of Star of the Sea parish in San Francisco, announced a new policy whereby altar girls at Mass would be phased out and thenceforth only boys would serve at the altar.
Fr. Illo gives both practical and theological reasons for the move: “First, in a mixed altar-server program, boys usually end up losing interest, because girls generally do a better job.”
As a long-time parish priest, this has not been my experience. Altar servers–both boys and girls–are as good as the training they receive. I have never perceived that girls do a better job, or that boys lose interest when serving with girls.
Fr. Illo states: “A boys-only program gives altar boys the space to develop their own leadership potential.” In this age of gender equality, should we really be training boys to develop leadership skills in a world apart from girls and women generally?
He goes on to say that “altar service is intrinsically tied to the priesthood and serve[s] as [a]feeder program for the seminary.” As a sacramental theologian, I would flatly state that there is no theological basis for asserting that altar service is intrinsically tied to the priesthood.
Fr. Illo continues: “Nothing awakens a desire for the priesthood like service at the altar.” I know of no studies that would back this up. In the parish in which I serve, there are three young men considering the priesthood and none were or are altar boys.
He states further: “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.” Generalizations are a tricky business, and “I suspect” is hardly an adequate basis for a pastoral policy.
Fr. Illo asserts, “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.” I doubt that Catholic girls and women have assumed whole-heartedly the principles of deconstructionist feminism. If they have, they wouldn’t darken the door of the church in the first place!
Fr. Illo does plan to have girls read the scriptures at Mass. Surely there is a huge contradiction here. Is there not a greater connection between priestly ministry at the altar and ministry at the ambo than there is between the ministry of the priest at the altar and the ministry of altar servers? I see no reason why Fr. Illo would not also ban girls from reading at the Mass.
And what about women serving as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion? Is not the role of handling the Body and Blood of Christ of greater dignity than washing the priest’s hands” And how does Fr. Illo regard the fact that in some parts of the world women perform baptisms, marriages, and funerals, and lead Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest?
I serve in what would be regarded as a typical Catholic parish, neither overly “liberal” nor overly “conservative.” I have no doubt that there would be an uproar if we banned altar girls, not least because girls and young adult women are often said to be the most alienated groups in the Church.
Fr. Illo’s policy is, in my opinion, lacking in theological validity and pastoral prudence–and is just plain old-fashioned. The policy will appeal to some, but not to most.
Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.