Passing On the Alb

My Career as an Altar Girl
A girl altar server carries Pope Benedict XVI's zucchetto during his visit to St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Rome

I think by now it's safe to say that altar girls are a positive part of Catholic life. Young women who serve the priest at Mass benefit from taking an active role in the liturgy, and the parish benefits from their service. There's nothing controversial about that opinion in my parish, and it's probably taken for granted in your parish too. But it would be a pleasant surprise to hear something similar from Rome.

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.”

Nevertheless, it's clear enough to most U.S. Catholics that, when the church blesses altar girls, they are in turn a blessing to the church. And I'd argue further that banning girls from the sanctuary is detrimental to the girls, the parish, and the church. My diocese waited for the official OK from Rome, which meant only boys could serve until I was thirteen. But I knew altar girls existed in other dioceses—some of which had introduced them along with the other liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council. This practice was officially declared out of bounds in 1970, and again in 1980, by the Congregation for Divine Worship. No reason for the ban was given, aside from a frankly unpersuasive...

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About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.