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.