Why do some parishes only allow boys to be altar servers?
Let me begin by giving some clarity on the sources for whether or not girls are permitted to serve at the altar. There is no little confusion on “who” can decide whether or not altar serving should be only for boys or if it is permissible for girls – for I have heard such claims through the years as, “Pope John Paul II allowed girls; therefore, any priest that does not allow it is disobedient to the pope.” Having shown some history, I will then speak to some contemporary practices and decisions that may come as a surprise.
First of all, it is important to know our sources – as it was not John Paul II who wrote concerning the possibility of women/girls as altar servers. Rather, in 1994, it was the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments who issued a letter to presidents of national bishops’ conferences throughout the world on this matter. (This letter can be accessed at the following website address: http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/cdwcomm.htm.) In this letter, some important guideposts were established, including that each individual bishop has the authority to either permit or not permit women and girls to serve. Likewise, the place of altar boys only is firmly stated, “It will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue.”
Later, in July 2001, the same congregation issued another letter that made clear that any diocesan level decision to allow girls/women as servers cannot be at the
exclusion of boys from serving, and that individual pastors are not obliged to follow the permission to allow girls to serve. Accordingly, every parish pastor has the proper ability to decide whether or not to permit girls to serve on the altar – and in some cases, priests have exercised this authority to have altar servers be only boys/men, even while many others allow for both boys and girls.
Given the words of our sources, the manner of implementing “who” the servers are is fittingly decided at the level of each parish. That some pastors of parishes have decided to have only boys as altar servers is likely in part for reasons given in the quote above regarding priestly vocations. For example, I know of a parish in the Twin Cities that only has boys as servers, where they have also opened other opportunities for girls to regularly assist with Mass, particularly through singing. Here at
St. Benedict’s, it has remained that both boys and girls are able to serve at Ordinary Form Masses (noting that the rite for the Extraordinary Form Mass only allows for boys). A particular detail of our practice here is that boys typically serve together and girls serve together – and only rarely are boys and girls serving together. At present, we have far more boys than girls who serve – for a couple of known reasons, among other factors: one reason is that many of the girls are simply not interested (and that is fine – just as it is fine for any boys who are not interested). A second reason is the truth that some parents, as is their right as parents, prefer that boys only be altar servers, believing their daughters can serve the Church in other ways. (Such as by assisting with filling holy water fonts and replacing votive candles regularly – which presently is of interest to several younger girls). Thus, in no way does our practice here emphasize boys ahead of girls, or vice-versa. Finally, I think it is important for all of us to remember that our call to “participate” in Mass is first and foremost as disciples of Christ, who offers to us the gift of salvation that we are called to receive and partake of by way of humble faith – modeled after the pattern of the greatest disciple: the Blessed Virgin Mary.