This article on ‘What I Say to My Altar Servers’ posted at InsideCatholic has led to a combox storm over girl altar servers v. boy altar servers. So what do I think?
I think having only boy altar servers is best. Here’s why: boys and girls like to do things separately. When I asked the girls at St Joseph’s High School if they wanted to be altar servers they said, “No, father, we don’t have to do everything with the boys. We’re happy for them to be altar servers and not us.” It was their feminist grandmothers who wrote me the letters complaining when we switched to all boy altar servers. Boys and girls like to do things separately because their sexuality (like everything else about them) is in development. Boys doing things with other boys and men help them to become men. Girls doing things with other girls and women help them to become women.
A second reason why I prefer all boy altar servers is that they (and everyone else) associate in their minds that the sanctuary and the altar are the preserve of the priest and deacons, and that the church teaches that this is a masculine role, and therefore reserved to men. Boys serving Mass supports the teaching of the church in this way, and it helps to form vocations early. The feminization of Christianity has been like an unstoppable juggernaut hurtling through our tradition and boy only altar servers helps to put the brakes on that. To speak plainly: religion seems girly enough already, and it’s nice to have some roles that only the women do and some that only the men do.
However, that being said, girl altar servers are permitted. In my parish we have girl altar servers, and they do a good job, and I’m proud of them. They were in place and doing a good job before I got here and I wasn’t about to fire all of them just because of my own preferences.
The way we handle the situation here is to observe certain over-riding principles about the relationship of the sexes that are Catholic and which avoid an easy secular uniformity egalitarianism. Therefore, the boys and girls serve at different Masses. All boys for one Mass. All girls for the other Mass. Also, they dress differently. No unisex robes. Instead the boys wear cassock and surplice. The girls wear cassock albs. There is a dress code for boys and girls–no sneakers, no chewing gum, hair neat and tidy etc.
At school, where we do not have girl altar servers I make sure there are plenty of roles for the girls within the worship life of the school. Girls are the ushers, lectors and sacristans, while boys set up for Mass and serve at Mass.
I think it is possible for boys and girls to serve at Mass in different, but equal ways, and that this helps them to learn the complementary nature of gender, and to understand how this all fits together within the life of the church and the family.