"What can girls do for God?"

I wouldn't want anyone to miss what commenter (and deacon) Eric Stoltz posted in the thread below about altar girls. He scanned a few pages from a 1940s Catholic grade-school reader that are, as he says on his blog, "quaint, cute, humorous and horrifying, all at the same time." I bet they'll bring back some memories for a few of you.

It got me thinking about the role that images play in the ongoing struggle over the proper role of women in liturgy. Jim Pauwels (also a deacon, as it happens) responded to Eric's find by noting, "Those stylized, idealized pictures of the four altar *boys* leading the priest to the altar are exactly what traditionalists want their ecclesial world to be. One image is more powerful than words. Think of what a procession looks like now. In our parish, a typical Sunday procession would be a girl, enrobed in an alb, carrying a crucifix on a pole, followed by two smaller boys, also alb-clad, bearing torches, followed by a lay adult and a lay teen who are the lectors, followed by a deacon, followed by a priest. There is something very refreshing and hope-filled when I compare what happens today to that picture from yesteryear."

When I was working on my article, and when we were thinking about how to illustrate it, I discovered what happens when you do an image search online for "altar girls." You turn up images like the one Jim describes -- smiling girls, dressed to serve on the altar -- but they're generally hosted on traditionalist sites, as examples of how debased the Church has become. Sometimes they have a big red "NO!" imposed on the faces of the girls. Then I tried searching for "altar boys" and turned up many of the same hits -- images like the one in Eric's book, held up as an example of the Good Old Days when all was right with the Church, juxtaposed with the decadent image of little girls in albs. I was really beginning to worry about the Church...until I tried searching for "altar servers." That's when all the ordinary parish Web sites started popping up. It confirmed my original impression that most Catholics have long since moved on from worrying about the sex of the children who serve in their parishes. It's only on the fringes that people can still work themselves up into an angry froth over a picture of a smiling little girl carrying a cross to the altar.

I suppose that's a lesson in the dangers of putting too much faith (so to speak) in what you find online as representative of the larger culture. Sometimes getting the big picture is a matter of using the right search terms -- and sometimes it's a matter of getting offline altogether. There are, alas, no pictures of me in action as an altar server (that I know of) -- and even if there were I'm sure they wouldn't compare with the pictures that illustrated Peggy's essay. So to accompany my article, we ended up using an image of a group of altar servers robed for Mass and holding the tools of the trade, but shot only from the neck down, so you can't tell whether they're boys or girls. It encourages me to think that for most Catholics, it doesn't matter.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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