Different Vesture for Male and Female Servers?

A Pray Tell reader writes (edited for publication):

 A priest in a neighboring parish has established a new practice, that girl servers must dress differently than boy servers. And now my pastor, who is wonderful (but retro-inclined), informed the parish staff that since girls can’t become priests they are not permitted to wear cassocks. The neighboring priest had advised him that the girls have to wear the albs, while the boys will wear the cassocks and surplices.

So that’s the plan. Even as I type this, I am way beyond upset. We need all hands on deck for the church now more than ever. And we don’t need to be reminding women and girls that, in many ways, they are second class citizens in the Church, especially by making girl servers wear “lesser” clothing.

When this Pray Tell reader wrote to express concern to the pastor, he replied in part:

Cassocks and surplices are growing in popularity for various reasons. It seems to add something beautiful to the liturgy. Since a cassock is clerical attire, females wouldn’t wear them. The plan is to purchase new albs as well because the current ones aren’t in good shape. Other parishes have implemented similar things and they have received great compliments about what it has done for the liturgy. I don’t think we need to be overly cautious about distinguishing between males and females. God gave us distinction. It doesn’t mean one is better, it means that we are different.”

Maybe some clarification will be helpful here.

First, the role of server is not a clerical role. By reception of the diaconate, a person becomes a cleric (Canon #266), and is thus permitted to wear ecclesiastical dress.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal for the U.S. says at #339:

In the dioceses of the United States of America, acolytes, altar servers, lectors, and other lay ministers may wear the alb or other suitable vesture or other appropriate and dignified clothing.”

“And other lay ministers” is the key phrase here – it makes clear that the U.S. bishops, with the approval of Rome, understand altar servers to be lay ministers.

Second, the U.S. bishops understand cassock and surplice to be clerical attire and not lay attire. This is made clear in Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, which is speaking about music ministries:

33. Cassock and surplice, being clerical attire, are not recommended as choir vesture.
36. Cassock and surplice, being clerical attire, are not recommended as vesture for the psalmist.
40. Cassock and surplice, being clerical attire, are not recommended as vesture for the cantor.

Third, the U.S. bishops have addressed this issue, and they state that the vesture should be the same for boy servers and girl servers. Their “Guidelines for Altar Servers” from 1994 are still very much in force, having been revised slightly to concur with the most recent General Instruction.

These guidelines say at #2:

No distinction should be made between the functions carried out in the sanctuary by men and boys and those carried out by women and girls.”

Crucially, the guidelines say this at #6:

“All servers should wear the same liturgical vesture.”

So much for the official documents and guidelines. I have a hunch they won’t solve this issue for everyone. There is too much of the culture wars and the Catholic Church’s factionalism at play. And I suppose some clergy sincerely believe they are doing the Lord’s work by stirring up new controversies and causing more divisions.




  1. “In the face of stupidity, there is no defense”…….Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Nice to see a fact based reply to another *liturgical mis-step*

  2. 33. Cassock and surplice, being clerical attire, are not recommended as choir vesture.
    36. Cassock and surplice, being clerical attire, are not recommended as vesture for the psalmist.
    40. Cassock and surplice, being clerical attire, are not recommended as vesture for the cantor.

    Hmmm. Wonder if anyone told the Sistine Chapel Choir, Not only do they wear cassock and surplice, they even sport a fake Roman collar!

    1. Lex registered non tenet. The law does not bind the lawgiver. One of the most disturbing principles of Canon law

  3. Too funny. It seems the only time priests that I know wear a cassock and surplice is when they are headed to the Vatican, and then they have to borrow one!

    I think the girls win this round of stupidity. More lay folk associate the alb with ministry, priestly or otherwise than they do a cassock which they rarely, if ever see. This pastor should be careful, lest he tempt young women to the steps of the altar as future priests by the wearing of the alb, which they see on a weekly basis, than the cassock they only see the bishop wear on occasion.

    I would like to see the vesture, honorific titles and benefits for clergy all updated, and for the most part suppressed. Having had the entire Body of Christ dragged through the mud by the clergy, perhaps a clean white alb should suffice for everyone. Radical, I know.

  4. Why should this not surprise me. While the church is avoiding rape of children by cardinals bishops and priests they play around with sill things that do not matter because that is the only authority especially moral they have left. Not to say that it simply is sexist. Maybe legal and illegal should wear different or how but different gesture for whit black Hispanic. Of course the white has to be the best and most expansive. I am kidding of course, but why not!

  5. The parochial vicar at my parish actually suggested this very arrangement (cassocks and surplices for boys, albs and scapulars for girls) when we were looking for replacements to our old albs. Both the pastor and director of liturgy weren’t sold on the idea, nor am I, not the least because the bishop’s instructions have spoken negatively about it, but that sort of gender specific vestments for the same ministry just seems silly to me (lest we confuse our altar girls for Cistercian postulants). At least a few parishes though in my area have still done this, I suspect as pretext to eventually phasing out coed altar serving programs in favor of just boys clad in c’s and s’s.

    A note on cassocks and surplices for servers, while GIRM #339 specifically lists albs as suitable for lay ministry, a charitable reading of “other suitable vesture” does not exclude cassocks and surplices. Sacred music ensembles are another matter though.

  6. Wikipedia:
    The cassock or soutane is an item of Christian clerical clothing used by the clergy of Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed churches, among others. “Ankle-length garment” is the literal meaning of the corresponding Latin term, vestis talaris.
    a full-length garment worn by certain Christian clergy, members of church choirs, and others having an office or role in a church.
    mid 16th century: from French casaque ‘long coat’, from Italian casacca ‘riding coat’, probably from Turkic kazak ‘vagabond’. Compare with Cossack.

  7. Is the illustration at the top of the article supposed to be so evocative of Harry Potter?

    I think all the servers should wear the same thing so it doesn’t look sloppy. I tend to associate the use of albs for servers with the more silly end of “progressive” liturgy, as I’ve only seen them used a couple times in that context. All the average parishes I’ve ever been to use cassock and surplice for both genders and have since I was a kid.

    1. Your experience is far too narrow. Since the declaration that the alb is the ordinary venture for vested ministers, countless parishes clothed their servers accordingly. If you would like verification you might inquire of religious goods providers. It is true, however, that with the advent of self designated “John Paul II priests, during the 80’s and 90’s, many of them declared their belief that dressing altar boys as clerics would encourage priestly vocations justified the junking of albs for fresh cassocks and surplices. Last year we replaced albs that wearing out after 20 years and purchased some beautiful new albs at condiserable expense.

  8. This is disappointing on so many levels that it is difficult to wrap my head around it. Very disappointing power grab by a no doubt ‘reform of the reform’ manic that is divisive at best, and contrary to the GIRM and the US Bishops at worst, and for what? Because it seems to add something to the liturgy?

    All three of the churches I currently attend use albs (and have done so for at least the past fifteen years) except one parochial vicar – since transferred – instituted a cassock/surplice attire for selected older (college age) males. That same parochial vicar liked to wear a maniple, if you can imagine that.

    I said it before on another topic: we need shepherds, not imperialists.

    1. Imperialists beget imperialists. Division begets division. Reform of the reform and maniples have nothing to do with it in and of themselves, and certainly didn’t start the cycle.

  9. I tend to associate the use of albs for servers with the more silly end of “progressive” liturgy, as I’ve only seen them used a couple times in that context.

    This might be a regional variation. In my experience, albs are quite common in all sorts of parishes.

    1. Agreed. I have not seen a cassock/surplice on anyone in about 50 years save last Ash Wednesday when a priest distributing ashes had on a very expensive, very lacy surplice such as a Cardinal might have worn about 1955. Quite odd.

  10. “First, the role of server is not a clerical role.”

    Yes, it is. Specifically, a role associated with a “minor cleric.” Even in Italian, an altar server is referred to as a “chierichetto,” or “little cleric.” And “custom is the best interpreter of law.” (CIC 27)

    Historically, only one who was tonsured and who entered into minor orders (then a part of the clerical state) had the privilege of serving the priest and functioning within the sanctuary. It was over time that boys and men in the lay state would serve as surrogates for minor clerics, to the extent that such has been the norm within living memory. The post-conciliar era has diminished the distinction between “minor” and “major” clerics, but inasmuch as the cassock is associated with the clerical state, even if only in the broader historical sense, it would rightly be considered male attire. The pastor who responded to PrayTell was justified in his position.

    All that being said, decorum would seem to recommend that, when both males and females serve, all wear albs, which is a proper liturgical garb, and that when only males serve, they have the option of wearing cassocks with surplices.

    1. This is factually false. The post-conciliar era has not diminished the distinction between minor and major clerics. The distinction cannot possibly exist any longer because the minor orders have been eliminated.

      “The above-mentioned ministries (porter, lector, etc.) should no longer be called minor orders; their conferral will not be called ordination, but institution. Only those who have received the diaconate, however, will be clerics in the true sense and will be so regarded.” -Ministerium quaedam, 1972.


      1. It is unfortunate that Ministeria quaedam has not undergirded the development of lay ministry emanating from baptism (rather than episcopal recognition or extraordinary delegation). I realize that gender was an issue for instituted ministries in 1972, but if the expansion of this category into other ministry areas were to be tested I would think there would be a canonical possibility of opening up the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte, for instance, if they were not exclusively tied to the transition to Holy Orders.

  11. I suppose the goal is to encourage more boys to step up and be servers. Wouldn’t it be far simpler to rotate teams of boys and teams of girls in the server schedule? I’ve had more than one choirmaster tell me that boys and girls come alive quite a bit when they are separated from each other and not worried about looking cool around each other.

  12. Galatians 3:28 New International Version (NIV)
    28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

    1. It’s a bit like uniforms in parochial school. If everyone dresses the same, class distinctions go away, and concerns about ostentation are reduced. I know a few parishes go as far as providing slippers for acolytes, too, so that even the shoes are identical.

  13. And then there is the new youth organization for young men in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, the Knights of Tarcisius. A rather rigorous process of formation results in the reception of a one’s own cassock and surplice, which one supposedly has the bishop’s permission to wear at whatever parish at which one serves. When one achieves some high rank, one receives a red cassock. At our parish, both boys and girls wear cassocks and surplices (hand-me-downs from the founding of the parish 20 years ago), while the choir and cantors wear albs. Every now and then a server shows up in a red cassock.

  14. Of course, none of this explains why seminarians in many dioceses, from the beginning of their studies, are compelled by their superiors to wear cassock, surplice and Roman collar, when they are still clearly laymen, not clerics.

    1. When I was in, we weren’t “compelled” we did so enthusiastically. I wore my cassock most of the time we were to be in clerics; shirt, suit and collar only when I had to. It’s a great garment, no shirts to come untucked or vests to ride up and look dumpy. You can have lots of layers or minimal layers depending on the season. I wish I could still wear something like that and not look like I’m LARPing.

      While in law the clerical state proper does indeed begin at the diaconate, there is still a sense that a seminarian is a “minor cleric”, again not by law but by custom.

      1. My father never progressed beyond junior seminary, and yet among the memorabilia at the back of a cupboard I found a biretta with ONE flange. (England, Westminster, about 90 years ago)

  15. Our parish now has “senior” servers (more experienced) wear cassock and surplice while younger ones wear the alb.

  16. Has anyone ever asked whether girls want to be dressed the same as boys? I know of a priest who inherited a very lively controversy from his predecessor, in which the girls objected vehemently to dressing the same as the boys, and where the girls’ parents were threatening to withdraw their children if they were made to do so. His solution was to put the boys in blue cassocks and cottas (so as emphasise that they were not clerics) and to put the girls into albs covered with tabards of the same shade of blue. It may not have strictly in accordance with official guidelines, but it met with the approval of the girls and their parents, and averted what could otherwise have been a difficult pastoral situation. He got the idea from Salisbury Cathedral, where the boy and girl choristers are vested differently, with no apparent difficulty.

    1. I’ve seen a variation of this at a few parishes where servers wear cassocks and boys wear square collared “Roman” surplices (like that of clerics in choir) while girls wear round collared “English” surplices. IMHO it’s a nice way to introduce more formal vestments to coed programs, while the distinction is subtle enough to probably evade the bishops’ instruction on this matter (we’ve had to mix styles out of necessity before with just boys when there weren’t enough ‘Romans’ to go around).

    2. I confess I once facilitated this concept. Server albs were relatively few, and the ones left were mostly on a final repair. I asked about a dozen older servers, a mix of boys and girls, to consult on the new acquisitions, for which we’d been given a generous gift. The girls swung the vote to cassock and surplice for boys and albs for themselves. After I left the parish, the pastor (a bit more conservative than I) had cleaned shop and everybody was in maroon cassocks and surplices.

      I would favor casual dress, but I can live with good albs.

  17. Cassock and surplice are clerical garb. Children and choir members should be dressed in albs (obvious exception for choirs of religious). There is NO good reason to designate male/ female garb. Booties or slippers sure takes care of the gym shoe issue but it’s one more thing to maintain. As for the Knights of Tarcisius, a special pin would be more appropriate or maybe a more fancy version of the alb used at their home parish.

  18. In my parish (a cathedral), servers of both sexes have worn albs for as long as I can remember. The albs look just as good on the women as on the men.

    The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says nothing at all about cassocks and surplices. So why are they being reintroduced in some places?

  19. For the same reason that some priests have reintroduced the ringing of bells because “it’s part of Catholic tradition” or they think the sounds add solemnity. The Tradition, of course, was to ring bells to alert the inattentive to the upcoming consecration. The principles of the reform, especially the call to full, conscious, and active participation, obviated that need and the rubric calling for ringing bells was removed from the Eucharistic prayer. So if the priests likes cassocks and surplices let the Girm be ignored.

    1. GIRM 150: A little before the Consecration, if appropriate, a minister rings a small bell as a signal to the faithful. The minister also rings the small bell at each elevation by the Priest, according to local custom.

      1. Note that the Latin has “ostensionem,” parallel to “ostendit” when he shows the consecrated elements to the congregation, so it is a “showing” and not an “elevation.”

    2. GIRM #339: “In the dioceses of the United States of America, acolytes, altar servers, lectors, and other lay ministers may wear the alb or other suitable vesture or other appropriate and dignified clothing.”

      To repeat an earlier thought, a charitable reading of “other suitable venture” would not exclude cassocks and surplices, lest we only attack some perceived violations of the rubrics while excusing others.

      As for altar bells, the canon being in the vernacular doesn’t eliminate the temptation to let one’s mind drift like you’re in a boring freshman English class (at least if your professor was as unenthusiastic as mine was).

  20. Without wading into the controversy – nobody yet has pointed out that if the lay state is not lesser than the clerical state, only different, that albs thus cannot be “lesser” clothing than cassock and surplice, as the original reader wrote. For those parishes that use different vesture for boys and girls, then, the girls should not be regarded as having any lesser role than the boys. In the same vein, traditional men and boys choirs can be promoted, while also having equally demanding girls’ choirs with adults, as happens at the Madeleine Choir School in Salt Lake.

  21. Our local cathedral has all servers garbed the same. Albs except during purple seasons when they all wear the more severe looking cassocks and cottas. But for some reason the MC only ever wears cassock and cotta.

  22. I am seeing this a few days late, but am so glad to see it discussed. My parish does this – a cassock and surplice for boys, and an alb with a black apron-like garment over it for girls. They’re sort of mirror images. I have always found it very odd, but tried to focus on being grateful there are girls serving at all (and that no apparent distinctions being made when it comes to the responsibilities they are given).

    I think the CDW invited this kind of thing when it confirmed that the role of altar server is a lay ministry, and thus not restricted to men – but at the same time allowed bishops and priests to continue to exclude girls and women if they wished. So, altar servers aren’t priests in training, but it’s still permitted to approach them as if they could be.

  23. We need not be more restrictive than necessary. The Guidelines presented in 1994 and updated later are only suggested guidelines. They were presented by the committee but never voted on or adopted formally by the bishops in assembly. They are, therefore, not binding.
    That said, the referenced passages states: “All servers should wear the same liturgical vesture.” It does not say that “all male and female” servers “must” wear identical liturgical vesture. Therefore, the committee suggestion could be generously interpreted to imply that all male servers should (not must) wear the same liturgical vesture appropriate to them and similarly that all female servers should (not must) wear the same liturgical vesture appropriate for them.

    I am not surprised that Fr. Jack does not seem to realize that the rubric for the ringing of the bells at the consecration was retained in the 1970 missal even after all these years. This happens quite a bit. Another often forgotten rubric is GIRM #118 together with a reference to GIRM # 118 in the binding “Instruction on the Eucharist” #93. Both retain the communion plate for the Communion of the laity.

  24. The intro before the guidelines on the USCCB website says in italics: “They may be used as a basis for developing diocesan guidelines.” It says they may be used, not that they must be followed.

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