I went to Mass at a parish out of town a few weekends ago, one with lots of young families (at least during the summer) and a handful of altar servers assisting in the celebration -- boys and girls in basically equal numbers, as I recall. After the Mass there was a coffee social in the parish center. When one of the girls who had served at the Mass came out of the sacristy, a woman near me remarked on what a good job she had done. The girl said "Thank you," politely, and headed for the cookies, and that woman and a couple of other moms fell into a conversation about altar girls. "I always wanted to be an altar server, like my brothers, but I wasn't allowed to," one woman said. A few other women nearby agreed. "I was so proud when she started serving," said the altar girl's mother. "I told her I never could." I've heard this sort of thing lots of times before, from women just a little older than me -- they used to say it to me, back when I was the kid with the ponytail holding the doors open at the back of the church after Sunday Mass.
Last year I wrote in Commonweal:
The Vatican stopped saying no to altar girls just fifteen years ago. But to this day, it has never really said yes. To be more precise, in 1994, the Vatican finally said, Yes, women are allowed to serve the priest at Mass, according to canon law. But the pope has never said, Yes, it is a good thing for girls and women to fulfill this ministry.
Which is why John Allen's reports on the recent "International Pilgrimage of Altar Servers" to Rome, and the response in L'Osservatore Romano, came as a pleasant surprise. Allen wrote on the NCR blog that the pope told the crowd of youngsters, "You are not only creating a festive environment in the square, but you are also filling my heart with joy." If the presence of female severs was objectionable to him, he apparently didn't let it cloud his joy. (Allen reports that altar girls outnumbered altar boys, 60 percent to 40 percent, for the first time in the history of the every-five-years gathering.)
On top of that, again according to Allen's blog, L'Osservatore Romano offered the full-throated endorsement of female altar servers that I despaired of ever hearing from the Vatican. (Sure, it's not directly from the pope, but I'll take it.) An essay by Lucetta Scaraffia echoed my own experience:
For girls, entering into the space of the altar has meant the end of any attribution of impurity to their sex, its meant the possibility of living this formative experience of extraordinary importance in religious education, and its meant a different kind of attention to the liturgy as well as coming closer to the faith by drawing near to its very heart.
We'll give her a pass on writing that the inequality "has been cancelled by now for several decades" -- it hasn't been quite that long (unless you're counting from 1983...but I've already been through all the confusing technicalities, in my article and at dotCommonweal). Most grade-schoolers could take or leave a nod in their direction from L'Osservatore Romano, but it certainly brings joy to my heart.
UPDATE: Zenit has a full transcript of the pope's remarks.
Photo by Markus G. Grimm, Dachau, courtesy CIM.