QUAERITUR: Female altar servers

I received a question from a reader…. a very long, convoluted question (please keep them short or I just can’t wade through them), and so I edited it:

Dear Fr. Z,
                In my home parish we are trying to get some adult men to serve Mass; some of us behind the push want more reverence from the servers and believe that having adults will get that.  The idea is that not only will the adults be more reverent but it will give the children someone to imitate and hopefully keep them in line more.  My questions arise due to this situation.
… 2)    It is the opinion of a rather vocal woman in our parish that adult women can serve as well as adult men.  … If there anything we can do about this with the exception of actually having the adult men installed as acolytes?

First, I think a great solution would be if bishops would simply install more acolytes and lectors.   This would help to resolve many problems.

I remember visiting a parish, I believe in Texas, where the very smart priest had organized a fabulous cadre of altar boys.  Each "level" of service was clearly identified and the older boys helped to teach the younger boys.  If a boy went all the way through the cycle, quite a few years, the bishop installed him as an acolyte… I don’t remember if lector was included.  Great system.

That is probably not going to happen in many places.

Remember that canon 230 of the 1983 CIC has been so interpreted that females *may* substitute for installed acolytes.  It does not give females a *right*.  As a matter of fact, the Holy See said that priests cannot be forced to have female servers.  It clearly states there ought to be a preference for male servers, especially the service of boys.

Service of females of any age at the altar remains an exception to the rule of male only service.

It is important that when there is resistance to male only service never to accept the premise often underlying the arguments in favor of girls, namely, that this in an “equality” issue.  It is not.  Service at the altar must not be politicized.  The service of males at the altar is also not merely a practical issue, that is, that it helps vocations.   The deeper theological point is that service at the altar is, in a sense, an extension of male ordained priesthood and those orders and ministries that lead to it.

No layperson as any right to serve.  This is something granted.

What I would like to happen with this thread is for people to speak of their own experiences of shifting the practice at their parish.

I would like to hear from priests who fought the battles and lay people who promoted male altar service.

Let’s keep this entry focused.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. David L says:

    Canon Law and Redemptionis Sacramentum are apparently being ignored.
    While not a fan of the TLM, check out Fr. Peter Stravinskas 3 CD album on this from St. Joseph’s Communications.

    Canon law: A bishop can’t force a priest to have female altar boys and a pastor can’t even force his curate. Bishop may forbid them in his diocese (Lincoln, Neb)

    Reality: Noisy law women and eucharistic ministers are in charge in the USA

  2. Patrick Rothwell says:

    My experiences have varied.

    First, in the Episcopal parish in which I grew up about 20-25 years ago or so, there were both female and male altar servers. There was also a female priest, and there were objections to her by a small minority, of which I eventually joined – probably there are no objectors to female ordination in that parish today. In any event, the altar server corps (which were called “acolytes” in that parish) was enormous, was probably more male than female, and there were not the sort of problems that one might expect, i.e., a lack of boys to serve. My recollection was that there were more boys than girls. The acolyte program was well-run and highly organized. Most acolytes were required to do their share of early Sunday mornings (7:30 am) and afternoons (5:00 evensong, 5:30 eucharist). It was also a large parish in a university town, so that may be in part a factor.

    Later, I joined an Anglo-Catholic “shrine” parish where female priests or servers were verboten. Although the altar server program was not as well organized, the ceremony was executed flawlessly, more or less in accordance with Ritual Notes, I believe, in a modified Tridentine style. I’ve heard they now have women altar servers, which was a controversial move, which to me means that they are slowly adopting all the changes in the Episcopal Church which the parish has resisted for 35 years or so.

    (2) Later, I became an altar server for several years at a major cathedral on the east coast after I became Catholic. It had an all-male corps of servers, not as well-run and organized as the two examples above, but good ceremonial in accordance with the modern Ceremonial of Bishops. However, a new pastor came on board (whom I am told is soon leaving his post) who decided to greatly simplify the liturgy, chuck the beautiful vestments in favor of (expensive!) schlock, and introduce female altar servers. There was considerable opposition among the altar servers and a number of parishioners (including myself). The result was that a lot of very good altar servers quit, not that many female servers actually volunteered, and the liturgy suffered in the process. Fortunately, the new priest in charge of the ceremonies did an excellent job with what he was permitted to do, which mitigated the worst of the changes. As far as I can tell, the liturgy at that cathedral is ok, but not as good as it was, and not as good as it could be.

    The current parish I have been a member of is a small majority black parish with male and female altar servers. All the altar servers are middle schoolers through early college. I’ve noticed that, in fact, over time, the girls are slowly crowding out the boys, and fewer boys are presenting themselves for service at the altar. The girls are diligent and reverent, but it is not a good thing for the sanctuary to be female-dominated. The pastor is trying to balance the sexes – whether that will be successful remains to be seen.

    All in all, I would strongly prefer if the former discipline concerning the sexes in the sanctuary be restored. Barring that, my experience indicates that it is possible to have both female and male servers and have things work out, if one tries hard enough. However, most places will not make the effort, and so there will, over time, in too many places, be a slide to a female-dominated sanctuary with symbolically undesirable results.

  3. gsk says:

    I have pondered this extensively, wondering what my gut objection was to girls serving at the altar, and I came to the conclusion that it was the androgynous cross-dressing. There are females in clerical garb, even if it’s the cheesy robe-with-a-hood thingy. Obviously theryare competent (it’s not “rocket surgery”) and they can be reverent (as reverent as anyone of their age). What David calls “noisy” women are often broken women with “father” issues.It’s not any particular point of theology that they dispute, but “patriarchy” because of some way in which manhood hurt them (often with their own ignorant collaboration). When I speak to seminarians, I remind them of this and to “hold fast” — despite the misplaced chilvalry that tempts them to avoid doing what “hurts” women. These women need healing — but for the sake of funning the sacristies — these misguided women also need to be firmly shut down.

  4. Tom says:

    While I doubt there’s a canonist alive
    who would advise a bishop to defrock a
    priest for not allowing altar girls,
    every diocese has a Siberia for the un-
    PC cleric.

    “Someone has to staff those parishes!”

    I feel fortunate to have been raised in
    such a Siberia.

  5. gsk says:

    Ah humility, pushing submit instead of preview. I’m mortified by the typos (funning=running, obvi). The link to posts on this are here and here;

    Mind the chivalry, guys, and make sure it’s not misdirected.

  6. Philothea says:

    “…a great solution would be if bishops would simply install more acolytes and lectors. This would help to resolve many problems.”

    …but only if the bishop requires and implements correct and proper training of the acolytes.

  7. Dan O says:

    gsk writes , \”I have pondered this extensively, wondering what my gut objection was to girls serving at the altar, and I came to the conclusion that it was the androgynous cross-dressing.\”

    I have no objection to clerical garb, and it is the accepted dress for males on the altar, but it is hard to understand how long skirts and capes could in any way be called androgynous. If anything, the case could more easily be made that the men and boys are cross-dressing.

  8. Daniel says:

    One strategy I have observed is to have a uniform dress code; all hair off the collar, closed toe black shoes, no painted nails, no visible bracelets, only one discrete ring if married, minimal to no makeup, etc. Something similar to military dress codes. This fosters uniformity and eliminates distractions.Servers really should not be seen.

    No one but Christ should stand out in the liturgy.Just like no one should stand out in a military formation. A a matter of corporate strategy, we need to attract men to service and this is one prudent venue.

  9. Patrick says:

    If we continue to have girls and boys serving at the altar, two things really help keep boys involved:

    1. Only have boys serve with boys and girls with girls. My parish does it by weekend. And the boys (high-school age) do the major solemnities and feasts.

    2. Have different vestments for each. The girls should be in albs with cincture, and the boys in cassock and surplice.

    These two things have worked very well at our parish. The boys are very drawn to serving and stick to it…we have a few seniors in high school. And, we have more boys than girls. Also, once they reach high school, they receive their own vestments.

  10. gsk says:

    Dan O: While cranks (outside the Church) talk about “men in skirts,” the accepted view (in the Church) is that clerics are for men. Hence the jolt on pictures like in this link as well as the ones in my posts to this shop

    The barriers to be broken down are in the minds of the faithful, so getting the pew-warmers used to cross dressing is essential (and insidious!)

  11. Margaret says:

    While I don’t remember the priest in my parish being an especial stickler for liturgical correctness, he did understand the psychology of boys very well. Fr. D., when he was assigned to “manage” the altar boys (and there was not yet a push for altar girls in my particular parish, mind you,) adopted a hierarchical, military-esque structure. The oldest, most able boys were named “Captain of the Guard,” and started sticking on until much older than normal for our parish– through high school. I suspect there were a few other “ranks” for the up-and-coming. The “Captains” were in charge of training the youngers and keeping them in line. Typically one older one would be serving Mass with one or two younger ones so he could keep a watch and correct them as needed. The vestments were cassock and surplice rather than the co-ed robes used today.

    I can’t say how it would have gone down in the face of a determined feminist, but I think Fr. D. was pretty smart to organize it in ways like this that strongly appealed to the boys. After he took over, the altar boy program, while never sickly, really took off. There was a certain prestige attached to being in the program, and the numbers went up.

  12. Carolina Geo says:

    My apologies if this is too off topic, but I was wondering if it is ever allowed to have non-Catholics serving at Mass. I have seen this happen before. My follow-up query is whether it is allowed to have non-Catholics do the readings at Mass. I have seen this before as well.

  13. Tina says:

    When I was 10 (1985ish), my parish and grade school realized there were not enough boys in school to have enough alter boys. When I graduated from 8th grade there were 18 children, 6 of them were boys and of the 6 boys only 2 or 3 were allowed to serve. The class behind me had 12 children. My grade school had students from another parish and the boys were not allowed to serve at our Masses and vice versa. I never really did get the why as it is the same Mass but it was beyond my comprehension at the time. Once one graduated from grade school, one did not serve Mass anymore. I don’t know why this occured but my guess is that it was hard to keep track of the high school students.

    The decision was made that girls would be acolytes. They would wear white gowns over their lay clothes. The girls would only be allowed to carry the cross in the processionals, carry the gifts and some specific other things. Initially girls weren’t allowed to set-up the altar or touch the red book the priest used to say Mass. Girls were not allowed to sit next to the priest or on his side of the altar and had to sit on the opposite side next to the lecture. The problem occurred when the assigned boy didn’t show up. Sometimes a boy would come up from the congregation to serve but most often the priest was on his own. Because of this, eventually, the function of the girl acolyte mutated into girl server. Girls were never allowed to wear the cassock and white thing.

    When I was a freshman in high school, I was no longer on the schedule to serve. I would have kept serving had I been asked. In fact during Lent of that year, the permanent deacon begged me to serve Stations of the Cross on Friday nights. He was like I can’t get anyone else to do it and you did it last year and did such a good job. That was the last time I served.

    The parish I grew up in, which is now closed, could hardly be called a hotbed of liberal Catholicism. I never saw any felt banners on the altar nor did we have puppets at Mass. Of course we did have a priest who listened to hockey games during Mass but alas that is a different story. The reality of the situation at my parish was there were not enough boys. The simplest solution was to use girls.

    I do remember one time the boys getting yelled at. The boys tended to wear tennis shoes to serve while the girls tended to wear school or dress shoes. The boys also tended to throw their cassocks and short white over thing (surplice?) on the floor after Mass. The priest yelled at them to be more like the girls who at least hang their gowns up.

    Just because I was an altar girl didn’t mean I thought I could be a priest later. I got the difference. My guess was maybe the parish thought this would encourage some of us girls to become sisters.

    I contrast this experience with high school. I went to an all-girls private Catholic high school. No girls served Mass at all. The priest was on his own.

    I think the experience did bring me closer to God at the time. When I thought about leaving the Church for another religion, I always thought back to the days when I served Mass and changed my mind.

  14. Fr Fisher has a useful post on the law around this subject – http://revsafisher.blogspot.com/2008/05/female-altar-servers.html

    The key point being that no one, male or female – has the right to serve.

    Part of the problem in this particular case seems to be the push for increased use of adults as servers. It is one thing to use adults in cases of necessity, but this sounds like a deliberate push to shift the balance. One or two adults to supervise might have some merit while keeping the main focus on the use of boys and young men to encourage vocations, but as soon as you lose that focus you weaken the argument.

  15. gsk says:

    Tina: I think your story is compelling — thank you. An essential component is the fact that the boys and girls were differentiated, both in dress and function. That’s helpful. One parish in our diocese dresses the girls in a modified nun’s outfit, which I think really “purifies” the intention. It is seen as true service, not a path to empowerment, and no girl can don that garb without at least considering what a “handmaid” really is.

    Our parish, by the way, dresses all boys and girls the same (except the MC’s, which are boys only who have shown competency over the years) and the boys and girls serve separately. One year, a new parochial vicar, without thinking it through, had the girls serve Holy Thursday. Very painful for the entire congregation to watch them strip the altar and sacristy — including heavy plants, carpets, and furniture at the end. Lesson learned!

  16. Father M says:

    When I came to my current parish, most of the servers were girls. They were, as you would expect, very diligent and quite reverent. But serving had become a “girl thing.” First of all, we instituted the TLM, at which only boys would serve (I recognize permission could be given for girl servers, but I will not give such permission). Eventually the fairly minor storm over that passed, since most of the objecting families had no interest in the TLM anyway. Then, led by some of the young people themselves, we instituted a rigorous training program for the ordinary form Masses as well, a program drawn largely from the TLM. We first taught the children how to walk, how to hold their hands, how to genuflect, etc. etc. Suddenly, there was an uptick of enthusiasm–even among boys. Many girls did stay, but the number of boys grew quickly. It is no longer a “girl thing.” I find myself unable to ban girls who are already there from the sanctuary, fearing that could do serious spiritual damage. I confess that, in spite of my own strong belief that ONLY BOYS AND MEN should ever serve Mass, I think the OF Masses have to clean themselves out over a period of time. It helps immensely having the TLM available, the military like precision of the new serving rubrics help the boys, and we are trying to institute a choir (and especially girls to be part of that). The girls who are serving and their families are typically very serious about their faith and I don’t blame them for what was done in the past. I know that some of my traditionalist friends have suggested that I should move more quickly, but at the moment, with young souls in question, I prefer to festinare lente. Gravitational pull and all of that, Father Z…or so I hope.

  17. Thomas says:

    In the parishes of my hometown, girls always outnumber boys on the altar. However, the high school chaplain, during his two years in that position, would never allow girls at the altar. This made many people angry, and left some practical issues, but he explained it to everyone’s satisfaction. The practical problem was getting boys to learn how to serve, and so 20 boys at the high school signed up for a training session. But Father went on his last sick-leave before that could happen. He was 32. Requiescat in pace.

  18. Nick says:

    I have asked both an Eastern Rite Catholic priest (Orthodox in communion with Rome) and an Orthodox priest (not in communion with Rome) as to why their rites forbid women to be on the altar and received essentially the same answer: dead blood is not permitted during the Sacrafice.

    The Orthodox priest also pointed out that in his rite women during that time of the month are can voluntarily excuse themselves from church which had been changed during recent times from “may not attend”

    So from about 1,200 B.C. to thirty years ago — no women on the altar…

  19. Kieran. says:

    Interesting. . I’m a 16 year old boy and I love serving Mass and would love to become involved as possible with it. I really love the rubrics of the Mass and understand all the different of different ‘grades’ e.g thurifer, acolyte 1 and 2, crossbearer etc. I am the M.C where I serve Mass. So is it possible for me to become an Installed Acolyte? Is there certain criteria involved?And how do you apply?


  20. Tina says:

    I would encourage you to let the girls that are currently serving to keep at it as long as possible. I can tell you right now, if Father Hockey had come in and forbidden girls from acolyting (because that was what we were allowed to do when he first came) I would have quit the Catholic Church. Lock, Stock and Barrel. It would have been the last straw. At 13 I wouldn’t have cared about your sensibilities or the TLM (You know how some 13 year olds are). I think the sense of betrayal I felt at the Catholic Church would have deepened and become irrepairable.

    I know Father Z wants to keep this discussion focused [Yes. – Fr. Z] but all I can think about is how the boys get the cool jobs and the girls don’t get to do anything cool. My 10 year old self is screaming NOT FAIR! Girls only get to be nuns, which I admit some nuns are cool, but priests are cooler. My grandmother got to wash and fix all the altar boy stuff. Let’s see, wearing the stuff or ironing the stuff? No contest to which is cooler. I don’t even know the Latin terms for all the cool stuff.

    For me the issue of altar girls really focuses on where and how I belong to the Catholic Church. Serving helped me identify and belong to the Catholic Church. When I went to high school, I lost that sense of belonging to the Catholic Church and I lost a sense of community. Which I have just regained in the last 2 years or so.

    Girls want to be actively involved. I appreciate how hard it is to find roles for these girls that are valid and active for them.

    Someone mentioned having girls join the choir instead. I’m thinking of my current canonical parish and how when I was 15 and wanted to join the choir, all the members were elderly ladies. Needless to say I didn’t connect very well.

    Sorry if the thoughts in this post are disjointed. It’s really hard to put into coherent, thoughtful, adult sentences what I think about this topic.

  21. Kristen says:

    With the young ladies, however, there must be discussion of the other ways the young women can serve the parish. There is so much more to being Catholic than serving.

    GSK- I would be interested in seeing the girl servers’ robes at the Church you mentioned: “One parish in our diocese dresses the girls in a modified nun’s outfit, which I think really “purifies” the intention. It is seen as true service, not a path to empowerment, and no girl can don that garb without at least considering what a “handmaid” really is.”

  22. gsk says:

    The parish is Saint Augustine’s in Providence, RI but I cannot find a website or pictures. I saw them a few years ago and haven’t heard that anything has changed since then. As I recall, long black scapular over white robe, with pleats and waistband. Rather attractive in an “old school” consecrated way. It worked.

  23. gsk says:

    Tina: at the risk of sounding terribly gauche, this book may help.

  24. Tina says:

    Kristen, I agree that the discussion needs to occur and that the potential service needs to involve more than domestic chores as it was for my grandmother.

    Unfortunately, that discussion isn’t happening.

    I agree that there is more to being Catholic than serving. I get that now. I don’t think I got that when I was in grade school. I think I really thought that the role of women in the Church was to clean the Church, clean up after Father and mend and clean the altar cloths and cassocks. What I’m trying to say is the role models I had were women doing what they traditionally did for their families for the Church. I have nothing against domestic chores but if I’m going to serve the Church, I’d rather not do the wash.

    Being an acolyte was a totally different way of serving the Church. I got to be a role model too as my year was the first year it was implemented.

  25. Kieran asked about how to become an installed acolyte.

    That will depend on which diocese you live in, because the practice differs from place to place. Fr. Z already mentioned the Texas parish/diocese where servers could be promoted to the installed ministry of acolyte. Here in Boston, as far as I know, no one is installed into this ministry who isn’t destined for ordination. That is, in a sense, an abuse of the ministry, and contrary to the wishes of Pope Paul VI who reformed the minor orders (see Ministeria quaedam for his letter on this), but that’s how things are. You can also look at the General Instruction for the Roman Missal for more on an acolyte’s specific roles within Mass.

    I would suggest asking your pastor to request information from your diocese’s chancery. I suspect that it always helps to have a sponsor or promoter of your cause in such a quest.

  26. Tina says:

    gsk – Thanks! I’ll see if I can hunt up the book from library. Is it really good? The Newman Center where I go to grad school at is attempting to update the library (Some of the books are older than me…) would this be appropriate for the 18-22 year old crowd?

  27. In the Diocese of Arlington, female servers were permitted a couple of years ago, at the same time as the former “Indult” for the TLM. Of course, it was done over the objections of the majority of the priests, especially the younger ones. The norms are written in such a way, that if girls become the majority, the bishop can revoke the indulgence that allowed them. I’m not sure he’d actually act on it, though. In addition, while both boys and girls can wear albs, only boys can wear the surplice and cassock (which is actually male attire, in the strict sense, so ditch the “cross dressing” thing.)

    He might not have to. Out of about 72(?) parishes and missions in our diocese, no more than a dozen use “altar girls.” Some of the guys who serve the TLM at the parish where I work, are exiles from “altar girl” parishes.

    Needless to say, I don’t have to deal with the issue much, except when I go home to Ohio. Then they’re everywhere. At my sister’s wedding, there was a female server. During the homily, she sat over to the side with her colleague, crossing her legs, unmindful of the fact that the folds of her alb showed off her legs to the assembly. If you must use them, you have to tell them, “Remember, ladies, you are within the Holy of Holies, not a cocktail party.”

    Now, to switch gears a bit, I hope the good Father would permit me to speak to the young correspondent named Tina…

    When it comes to what’s “fair,” most things in life really aren’t, and can’t be made to be. I don’t know how old you are, but there’s an age range of about junior high, or middle school, whatever you call it, where the girls start to “grow up” faster than the boys for awhile. This is why boys at that age might be threatened by their female classmates appearing to “invade” what was once their territory. They handle things so much better, and with more confidence, because nature just stacked the deck that way. Hardly seems fair, does it?

    Do you see women as ushers in your parish? Do you see them as pallbearers? Does a lady offer her seat to a gentleman on the bus or the train? When a ship is sinking, don’t you expect the men to give up their seats in the lifeboats to the women?

    Hardly seems fair, does it?

    And yet there is a difference between being “equal” and being “the same.” It’s been that way for millennia, and the world still spins on its axis just fine. Once you realize that, a lot of the apparent inequities of life (and there will be others of far greater consequence) are easier to live with.

    (Thanks for your indulgence, Father.)

  28. Kim Poletto says:

    When my son first wanted to serve, I believe when he was in 3rd grade, (he attended Catholic grade school), I was totally opposed to the idea. First, there were girl altar servers. Second, the uni-sex alb, but most importantly, the total lack of formation of the altar servers I had witnessed throughout the years, i.e. altar servers, usually boys, screwing around during mass, literally raicng each other for postions around the altar, laughing etc., which I felt would destory everything I had taught him about the Blessed Sacerament. (Fortunatley I found a EF Mass to attend and for my son to serve at. I write this which is tangential to the issue presented, to point out that even though there may be all male altar servers, that alone does not make a “good’ altar server. Without the proper foramtion, the Mass still loses, not to mention the server and the faithful on attendence. Kim

  29. gsk says:

    Tina wrote: “Kristen, I agree that the discussion needs to occur and that the potential service needs to involve more than domestic chores as it was for my grandmother. Unfortunately, that discussion isn’t happening.”

    Kristen and Tina: I really cannot let this comment go uncontested. A vibrant and exciting discussion is taking place. I was a delegate and speaker to a congress in Rome (marking the 20th anniversary of Mulieris Dignitatem) attended by women from all around the world to discuss this very topic. There are numerous American conferences discussing the topic this year, some here. Many document discussions are also taking place as well as good book studies of excellent titles. Just because it hasn’t hit your radar screen, please don’t think that it doesn’t exist.

    Btw, the contributors to the Rome Congress were everything from government officials to consecrated women to hard-working professionals. Oh, and the mothers :-) We met with Benedict who has encouraged and supported the discussion at every level of the Church. Much good is happening.

    Sorry, I’m becoming a blog bully — must stop now. Blessings!

  30. Ioannes Andreades says:

    Are there any dioceses in the U.S. that institute acolytes and readers who are not in formation for the priesthood or diaconate? I’ve never lived in one, and I’ve lived in quite a few places. It seems to me to be an unwritten rule among the U.S. bishop that they keep instituted acolytes and readers to an absolute minimum, and my guess would be so that it is to avoid conflict caused by minimizing female execution of these functions. As I have attended some of masses at which men were instituted to these ministries and can recognize them, I have also noted at my cathedral that uninstituted members of the laity have proclaimed readings at masses where instituted readers were on hand. As someone who was an altar server for nearly a decade and currently serve as lector by “temporary deputation”, I appreciate the dignity of these sacred offices and that the dignity of these offices calls for a more regularized formation.

  31. AlephGamma says:

    I would be interested in being an instituted lector and/or acolyte but I do not know what the current situation is in the Diocese of Oakland. I suspect that it may upset the current “balance” in the local faith community of the catholic tradition.

  32. Eileen says:

    Our parish has no female servers, but we have some 100 young men serving, including my sons. They wear cassocks and surplices, and the high schoolers wear the same cassocks worn by servers at Papal Masses. Boys do love the whole hierarchy thing, and most of the veteran servers take seriously their job of helping form the new guys. The most experienced teenagers are designated “Master servers” and are quite capable of handling, with great reverence, the duties usually performed by seminarians or MCs. The younger boys regard serving as a manly task, largely because they see the older guys doing it so naturally and effectively. It is especially important to get the cool athletes to serve — the star lacrosse/football/baseball players, the lifeguards and swim coaches at the local pool, the fellow heading off to West Point next summer. The spectacle of three or four six-footers kneeling at the altar, or solemnly incensing the congregation, is an extremely powerful witness and a very effective recruiting device.

  33. RBrown says:


    What do you think of anyone who leaves the Catholic Church because there are girl altar servers?

    BTW, do you know that St Benedict and St Francis of Assisi were not priests? And St Teresa of Avila is one of the greatest figures in the history of the Church. To me she was cool.

  34. Jackie says:

    At my parish in Northern Virginia, we have a wonderful system set up by our former pastor. There are two levels of altar servers, the inexperianced once get a plain surplus and cassock and after a while when they are experianced enough they get a certificate and get ‘strips’ on thier surplus. It works well, especially since we are a parish next to a large military base and 60% of the parish are either active or retierd military, and the rest are pretty much FBI, CIA, DOD, or DEA agents commuting to DC. We have never had a problem with only having boys serve. Our current pastor was exploring the option and most of the parish (mostly the boy;s moms)took a hard stance against it and the pastor backed down.

    As to the young ladies’ situation. I have to agree there is a certain problem in a lot of parishes that young ladies (I was one only a few short years ago..) dont have a good way to serve or volunteer in the parish. I never desired to be an altar girl but it would have been nice to have something for girls to do. Maybe an altar society or a female teen choir or a special youth group activity for service ‘just for gals’. At least at my parish there was nothing for young ladies to do to help or get involved. All the activites that were approprate to help with for them were pretty much only for older women. I am sure there is a good solution, but parishes just need to get a bit creative.

  35. Tina says:

    I would have to say I don’t actually know anyone who left the Catholic Church because of girl altar servers. I have talked to people who have left and this hasn’t been a reason given. When I left the Church for a time it wasn’t over the role of women in the Church. My mother has essentially left the Church and it isn’t over the role of women. Most people I have talked with discuss problems with receiving Sacraments, insensitive priests or the closure of their parish.

    Honestly, I would question if that person was truly Catholic to leave over something that I see as window-dressing or as trivial. I realize to some it is not trivial.

    I did know that St. Benedict and St. Francis of Assisi were not priests. I did actually learn something in my 12 years of Catholic school. As for St. Teresa of Avila, I don’t know much about her other than what is in my Saint book.

    Perhaps it would be more beneficial to explain why I read Fr. Z’s blog. The TLM is now allowed. A former smeinarian and the priest at the college church I hang out at were discussing how the seminary was forcing seminarians to go to the extraordinary Masses. They were of the opinion it should be optional as it is an extraordinary rite. I asked a silly question. What is the big deal anyway? I thought this was all settled ages before I was born. Father explained that it was basically to keep people happy and to prevent schism. I then asked when he was going to be saying the TLM and he gave me a look and we all laughed. I don’t get it (yet!) why some are so attached to the TLM. I’ve never seen it or experienced it. I don’t know any Latin. I’m not seeing the appeal. I’m hoping that by coming to this site I “get” what attracts people to TLM. Also learning about old stuff is cool in my opinion. I’m beginning to wonder if the discussion is taking place on two different levels. I worry that the big picture of our Faith is getting lost in the details or the minutiae.

    By no means am I advocating puppet Masses or dance in Mass. I agree it doesn’t belong.

    I’m begining to see that this is a culture thing. The parish where I grew up and the parish 1/2 mile away didn’t really cultivate a culture that encouraged boys to stay servers or to appreciate being servers. As a consequence, there weren’t hardly any boys willing to do it. Most of the boys thought it was really cool to miss class and get paid for serving mid-day funerals. I know that the culture of a parish depends mightily on the priests.

    I agree with Kim that there has to be formation for servers as they don’t appear out of thin air ready to serve properly.

    I tried to ask my mom about what actually happened to allow girls to become acolytes in my original parish and she was like because there were no boys. I tried to find out what the response of the parish was in general but that conversation didn’t go anywhere.

    I honestly don’t see the big deal. I do agree that girls should not wear cassocks and the surplice cause I think it is a little wierd. I’m totally cool with separate specific functions at the Mass for girls. I understand that having boys serve can help point them in the direction of a vocation and if that is what we want the function of the servers to be then the priests and bishops need to be very clear on this point. I think more people would understand if the bishop or priest said I’d prefer servers to be boys because I want them to experience a taste of the priesthood or some such. I don’t like it when the reason given is “because” or “that’s the way I want it” or “we’ve always done it this way” I also think that if you are going to put it out as some special guy culture thing as some comments have proposed then there needs to be a special girl culture thing as well of some sort. The best way I can think of to explain it is here in this culture a school would not have boy scouts with out having girl scouts or vice versa. I’m thinking along the same lines.

  36. Ioannes Andreades says:

    “It is the opinion of a rather vocal woman in our parish that adult women can serve as well as adult men.”

    If it is truly the opinion of this parishoner that women “can” serve, you can say that you agree, since such is the current understanding of the canon at hand, strictly speaking. The question is, “What is preferable?” I think that admitting females is preferable, but on this blog I think I’m in the minority.

    Priests and bishops who do not allow female servers need to do a far better job than they have in saying why having only male altar servers is not a flagrant breach of the abolition of distinction between woman and man in terms of our Christian identity given to us at baptism (Galatians 3:28). There are plausible but unconvincing arguments that I’ve come up with on my own, but even these were never communicated by a member of the clergy. I’ve mentioned before on this blog that since women have gradually been entrusted with more and more functions that were performed by male ministers alone through most of Catholicism’s history (e.g. choir members), it seems arbitrary and capricious to draw the line at female servers. I know plenty of women who are still steamed that they could not be altar servers as girls and weren’t told why. It’s admittedly a hard talk to have, but is really needs to take place.

  37. Michael says:

    Ad. Nick. In the Byzantine Churches, including their Catholic derivatives, “No woman, whatever her age and social position, may enter the sanctuary at any time” (Kucharek: The Byzantine-Slav Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom”,1071 p. 209, with reference to Ordo Celebrationis, Rome 1944, pp. 4-5, n.7; Alleluia Press).

    But Father Z, please, make it clear that this debate is not about the TLM but about the Novus Ordo.

  38. Fr. Philip says:

    If I might be permitted to shift gears just slightly, I had a closely related questions about how to communicate the message that a change needs to be made regarding encouraging boys to serve.

    I am pastor of a suburban parish in a midwestern diocese, with a large number of boys and girls both serving. Like most parishes, the rule of unintended consequences has kicked in, and girls already outnumber the boys very noticeably (almost 2-1). This is especially the case because we are a very sports-oriented parish, and the boys quickly perceive that playing sports is a more manly thing to do than serving with the girls.

    I have already implemented many suggestions noted above (boys in cassocks, serve in separate single-sex teams, etc). I have restricted some special occasions (e.g. confirmation) to boys only.

    What I am looking for is the best way to explain the change to others, in a skeptical culture. The soccer moms (and surprisingly even now sometimes soccer dads) are very unhappy, even angry, that their little girl is excluded from serving, even if just occasionally.

    They complain that their girls have “no other opportunities,” despite the fact that there are myriad apostolic and youth activities they can become involved in. (I think this is a red herring. I think the real issue is they want their daughter to have a highly visible role.)

    I think they have been seriously infected by a culture of political agitation for “equal rights,” and are constantly on the lookout for “gender discrimination.” (As an example, they complain frequently that the boys get the better gym practice time in their athletic events, etc.)

    I know that it would be good for vocations and ultimately good for the parish to shift toward boys-only, or at least, girls only on occasion. However, not sure the best way to get from Point A to Point B.

    Any constructive suggestions for how to make that case would be greatly welcomed.

    -Fr. Philip

  39. Eileen says:

    With regard to the girls, here’s a link to a program called “Fiat” created by a young priest we know at a neighboring parish: http://web.mac.com/jrsearby/iWeb/Fr.%20James%20Searby's%20Website/Fiat.html

    From the website:

    Named after that word of total self gift spoken by Our Blessed Mother at the Annunciation, its purpose is to help young women in the parish grow in a spirit of service and virtue while growing in an understanding of the particular dignity of women and their vocation in the world and the Church.

    This group helps the young women to acquire “an influence, effect and power” (John Paul II) in the world as young women imbued with the Gospel and the New Evangelization. The two fundamental dimensions of the feminine vocations of motherhood and virginity will be highlighted and promoted through practical service and formation with Mary the Mother of God as the model of their dignity and vocation in the world.

  40. RBrown says:

    I would have to say I don’t actually know anyone who left the Catholic Church because of girl altar servers. I have talked to people who have left and this hasn’t been a reason given. When I left the Church for a time it wasn’t over the role of women in the Church. My mother has essentially left the Church and it isn’t over the role of women. Most people I have talked with discuss problems with receiving Sacraments, insensitive priests or the closure of their parish.

    Most didn’t leave the Church. They simply started going to parishes without girl altar boys–or, more likely from what I’ve seen, suppressed whatever zeal that might have still remained.

    Honestly, I would question if that person was truly Catholic to leave over something that I see as window-dressing or as trivial. I realize to some it is not trivial.
    Comment by Tina

    You obviously didn’t think it was trivial before–you say you would have left the Church if the priest had not permitted altar girls. If those objecting would not be truly Catholic for leaving, then the same could be said of you.

  41. Brian C. says:

    At the risk of being tongue-in-cheek… Jackie wrote (and others referenced):

    I never desired to be an altar girl but it would have been nice to have something for girls to do. Maybe an altar society or a female teen choir or a special youth group activity for service ‘just for gals’. At least at my parish there was nothing for young ladies to do to help or get involved. All the activites that were approprate to help with for them were pretty much only for older women. I am sure there is a good solution, but parishes just need to get a bit creative.

    Creative and innovative. I would humbly suggest that parishes institute a wildly new and revolutionary idea of mine (at least, I don’t *think* anyone’s ever come up with it, before now!): there should be local organizations of young ladies who collectively (and individually) immerse themselves in intensive spiritual formation, daily devotions (with challenging rigour and difficulty–a real regimen for Church Militant), self-sacrificial “ministry in the world” (corporal and spiritual works of mercy), and the like. It only needs a name, though…

    What on earth would we call such a radical, new, edgy phenomenon? It has to be something catchy, so that new members would be intrigued…

    How about… “sodality”?


    In Christ,
    Brian C.

  42. Tina says:

    To clarify, I said had Father Hockey had banned altar girls when I was already one at 13 I would have left the Catholic Church. There were other things that were occurring that are not appropriate for this discussion on why this would have been the last straw.

    Additionally, I am no longer 13. I’m more than twice that age. I would hope now confronted with the same situation I would handle it more maturely and with more understanding than I did at 13.

    Again, in my conversations with other Catholics lapsed and otherwise, the topic of girls on the altar has never come up. Perhaps because there are other issues that appear more important to us.

    Finally, I never said I was a good or great Catholic. I’m not. I never said I wasn’t hypocritical. I tend to be. I never said I was sensitive and understanding. I seemed to have missed those graces from God. All I can do is speak to my situation. At 13, I was already feeling abandoned and betrayed by the Church and God. Had Father Hockey thrown girl acolytes out, I would have been crushed. At my current age, I realize that it is not God’s fault or the Church’s fault (well mostly) that some priests are insensitive. I didn’t get this at 13.

    Again I can only speak of my situation and perspective.

    I think the discussion would be helped if all sides were on the same wavelength. Some see altar girls as an issue of fairness or equality while other see the issue as having a vocations use. Not even on the same wavelength.

  43. Jayna says:

    I was raised in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, baptised in St. Jude’s Cathderal, went to the cathedral school, had my first communion there, etc. Our rector at the time was, I think, permanently sewn into his cassock. So among other things, there was never even a question of allowing girls to be altar servers. The term altar “server” didn’t even exist for us, it was altar boys, so I never questioned it. I wasn’t a boy, hence I could not be an altar boy.

    For a great number of reasons I stopped going to church for about 10 years (most of it had to do with my parents getting divorced, moving to a different state, deaths in the family), then when I came back (in the Archdiocese of Atlanta) I noticed something strange. There were lay people and women…on the altar? I didn’t even know what an EM was, they simply didn’t exist in my old parish. We had never been allowed anywhere near the altar, and while the lectern from which the readings were done was within the altar railing (my current parish doesn’t even have one), the altar itself was nowhere near it, so it still didn’t feel like they were “on” the altar.

    As to the altar servers, as liberal as I may be in other areas of life, it just feels plain weird for women to be serving at mass (either as actual servers or as EMs). In my parish I’m pretty sure they outnumber the boys, there are usually two girls and one boy serving on Sundays. If I were to even suggest that perhaps there should be a preference for boys when choosing altar servers, I would be…I don’t even know what I’d be, I don’t think I want to know what they’d say or do if I suggested that. Suffice it to say, it would take a battle of epic proportions to change their minds about anything. (And they say I’m the one who’s stubborn and stuck in my ways!)

  44. john says:

    Serving Mass as an altar boy was a wonderful part of my childhood.

    Girl altar boys could be stopped tomorrow by the same declaration that allowed it.

    It really is that simple.

    God continues to bless Lincoln, NE diocese because they have chosen wisely.

  45. Jackie says:

    Brian C-
    I actually agree. When I said new and creative what I meant was that for the last 40 some years girls never had a way to express their faith. What you said IS as you called it “radical, new, edgy phenomenon” becuase it has been neglected thoughout many of our lifetimes (I was born in ’81) Yes, faith is mainly internal working itself out to the world…the Love of God prompts us to do acts of charity etc, how ever when a 14 girl is told that she should cultivate her faith and not given support or a way of doing so, success is not likely. I liked what Eileen’s Fiat group. I found their website (for some reason I couldnt get the link to work, but I did a quick google search)and it is exactly what i had in my mind as good kind of organization. Its purpose is to bring the girls to holiness through prayer (holy hours etc), service and friendships. In fact Fiat reminds me of several groups throughout history that people have started for the good of young ladies, including Children of Mary (I think I have that name right) that St Therese was a memeber of in school. I hope and pray Fiat grows and spreads throughout the whole country.

  46. Women “can” (and “may”) serve at the altar conditionally, but the whole situation comes down to a difference in the letter and spirit of the law. The allowance of female altar servers came from a interpretation based on a technical ambiguity in the Latin of the current Code of Canon Law. However, I think we need to step back and look at the whole picture and use Pope Benedict’s “hermaneutic of continuity” to really get the spirit of the law.

    Even today in the Ordinary Form, the ideal is for clerics and institued ministers to serve in the Mass. The one exception to this using boys for altar servers. This is still encouraged by the Church especially as an inspiration for vocations to the priesthood.

    Although lay men and women have been allowed to read, this is only when there is an absence of an instituted lector. If there is an instituted lector it is then their ministry and right to do the readings. Unfortunately, lay men and women are the norm in practice since it is usually only seminarians and candidates for the diaconate who are instituted as lectors.

    The same goes for acolytes, except, as mentioned before, boys serving at the altar.

    Also, as mentioned, nobody has a right to serve except those who’s ministry is proper to the Mass, ie the clerics and those instituted lectors and acolytes (which can only be men).

    So, even though it is allowed for women to serve (which in my opinion is only through a technicality of a loophole and not by the intention of the writers of the Code) and for women to read, it is not the norm intended by the Church. If there are enough men in the question mentioned in the beginning of the post, there is no reason to begin complicating the issue by also allowing women, as it sounds like more of an “equal rights” type arguement rather than really doing it for reverence’s sake.

  47. gsk says:

    Couldn’t stay quiet. I’m frustrated by the premise that a good Catholic needs to participate in some visible way at the Holy Sacrifice. I know this is a result of the way the Council was brought home, and we’re still digging out and redefining. Imagine 11 of the 12 tribes of Israel saying they weren’t good Jews because they weren’t able to provide the priests. I think a tremendous gift has been offered by Opus Dei, which reminds us of the importance of simply living the lay vocation, leaving the clerical stuff to the clerics. That has been a small gripe I find with the way many “Steubenville-type” graduates think — going home and fluttering about the rectory door, looking for jobs. If we think of the Mass as an essential form of nourishment, so that we can live as holy mothers, ditch diggers, bank executives and photographers, then perhaps we won’t need to be visible in order to “feel faithful.”

    I know this strays substantially from Father’s topic, but the responses cornered us in the wrong place. The entire paradigm of “active participation” obviously has been hijacked, and this is where it leads to equity challenges for those outside the clergy.

    nota bene: I am not in The Work; and I know many terrific Steubenville graduates. Sorry to pick on that school, but it was only an example…

  48. feminaprovita says:

    I keep hearing about this “loophole” that’s been newly interpreted to allow female servers, but no one I talk to can provide me anything more concrete than this. Can any of you direct me to some fact, rather than just hearsay?

    I am a woman who grew up not realizing that female altar servers were a new allowance (I only discovered this when I went off to college four years ago). I’ve done just about every other ministry, and have even been trained to serve, but have never actually done it, for which I’m glad, though I can’t yet adequately explain by reason why my heart is relieved that I never served.

    I can’t see the practical possibility (or benefit, really) to allowing female servers but relegating them to a second-class place. Either have them or don’t. As someone pointed out above, the lines will get blurred as time goes on, and keeping the girls included but separated will not satisfy anyone who wants “equality.”

    If I understand correctly, the primary reason we like to keep girls from serving is because serving at the altar is a participation in the priesthood. This didn’t make sense until the continuity between both forms of the Mass clicked in my head. What really did it was seeing how, at the EF, 1) the other servers would kiss the MC’s hand from time to time, and 2) how the MC, then all the servers are incensed before the congregation. Those two actions are clearly clerical in nature. Admittedly, we need to balance things and neither forsake our baptismal priesthood nor blur the line to the ordained priesthood… But I think we need to have a theological argument at the center of this if anyone is going to understand.

    (Tina, reading this blog will probably not help you to appreciate the EF so much as frustrate you that people can be so seemingly-obsessed with one Liturgy over another. I recommend that you go to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass three times, and then you’ll be able to begin to appreciate it.)

  49. Veritas says:

    Fr. Phillip:

    I’m a mere ‘voice from the pew,’ but it’s clear to me that, when parents consider their children “entitled” to something (anything), it is extremely difficult to convince them otherwise. Schools especially are wrought with “not fair” complaints (in my diocese, such complaints are often between the two Catholic high schools, one of which has had an inferiority complex ever since it was established…”not fair…the donor gave the other school money, but not us”; “not fair, they got another so-and-so football standout from the inner-city public school”; etc.)

    So, what to do? Such attitudes run deep. But people admire and follow courage. I tend to think that if you lead on this issue courageously and consistently, exercise patience, and take time to explain in positive ways your reasons, people will follow. They will come up to you after Mass and quietly say, “you know Father, I think what you’re doing 100%” just as much as others will lash out (if not more). Write in the bulletin about the priesthood and what the callin means, and link that directly to the tradition of all-male servers. Create the ‘culture of vocations’ within your parish.

    I admit it is 10x easier to create such a culture for our young men than our young women. This troubles me because I believe that the Church is only as strong as the number of Her female religious. There are few, if any, role models to inspire young women to a vocational calling these days (although since JPII, the situation I think has vastly improved). This is a separate crisis, and one that often gets lost in every discussion about a perceived “equality” at the altar. One generation of sisters sold out other generations by pretending something existed when it was never (and will never be) possible. This has to be noted and addressed. The young women in your parish need to know what that calling entails. If your parish has (or had) a school run by sisters, dig through the archives. Tell their story and about the generations of children they taught. Bring out the old black and whites. Allow your children to know their history.

  50. Having girl altar boys sends the wrong message about the Priesthood. I believe it was St. Theresa of Avila who wanted to be a priest, but once she found out she couldn’t served the Church in the best way that she could.

    I think having altar guilds, choirs, and other ways that girls can serve would help the problem. THe line has been blurred, time to get that line back.

    It’s not that girls can’t serve at the altar (as I know some girl altar servers who serve quite reverently). Doing the mechanical functios anyone can do of course, but as it’s been mentioned here, when equality becomes being the same, we have prolemss. Men and women are different, and each has their own dignity. There’s no “leser” role in serving the Church, whether it be catechist, lector, altar boy, etc, all of these are dignified ways to serve the Church, and when we can get women to see that, I think things would be a lot easier, that’s just my 2 cents.

  51. Folks: Let’s try to keep this on track.

  52. feminaprovita said: “I keep hearing about this “loophole” that’s been newly interpreted to allow female servers, but no one I talk to can provide me anything more concrete than this. Can any of you direct me to some fact, rather than just hearsay?”

    Altar girls are not a part of the Tradition of the Church, as noted even by Pope Paul VI after Vatican II in his “Third Instruction on the Correct Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” which is contained in the “Vatican Council II” book edited by Austin Flannery, O.P. (the Vatican II book most Catholics in the U.S. are familiar with).

    In #7 of that document, Pope Paul VI says, “The traditional liturgical norms of the Church prohibit women (young girls, married women, religious) from serving the priest at the altar, even in women’s chapels, houses, convents, schools and institutes.” (p. 217).

    Even in the a letter “Inaestimabile Donum,” from 1980 said, “18: There are, of course, various roles that women can perform in the liturgical assembly: these include reading the Word of God and proclaiming the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful. Women are not, however, permitted to act as altar servers”.

    The recent allowance of altar girls is based on an interpretation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. As explained in an article at
    “The interpretation by the PCILT was apparently based on its reading of a sub-canon in the 1983 Code of Canon Law concerned with “other functions” in the liturgy at which lay people are allowed to assist. The first and principal part of the canon in question (c.230.1) specifies that only lay men (viri laici) can be “installed” permanently in the Church ministries of lector and acolyte; but then the next sub-canon (c.230.2) says that lay persons (laici) can fulfill these functions “by temporary deputation”. Thus, it was decided, females are not explicitly excluded from these functions by canon law, even if they may not be installed as such.”

    However, in a response to a dubitum about whether a bishop can force his priests to have altar girls (Prot. N.2451/00/L), the response contained this:
    “In accord with the above cited instructions of the Holy See such an authorization may not, in any way, exclude men or, in particular, boys from service at the altar, nor require that priests of the diocese would make use of female altar servers, since “it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar” (Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conference, March 15, 1994, no. 2). Indeed, the obligation to support groups of altar boys will always remain, not least of all due to the well known assistance that such programs have provided since time immemorial in encouraging future priestly vocations (cf. ibid.)
    “With respect to whether the practice of women serving at the altar would truly be of pastoral advantage in the local pastoral situation, it is perhaps helpful to recall that the non-ordained faithful do not have a right to service at the altar, rather they are capable of being admitted to such service by the Sacred Pastors (cf. Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences, March 15, 1994, no. 4, cf. also can 228, §1, Interdicasterial Instruction Esslesiae de mysterio, August 15, 1997, no. 4, see Notitiae 34 [1998] 9-42). Therefore, in the event that Your Excellency found it opportune to authorize service of women at the altar, it would remain important to explain clearly to the faithful the nature of this innovation, lest confusion might be introduced, thereby hampering the development of priestly vocations.”

    Note, even the wording says “this innovation.”

  53. Sandra in Severn says:

    I served for 22 years in the United States Air Force, some of that at austere and remote bases and sites. We often had a shortage of personnel. That was how this woman ended up on the altar, as a reader and lector, then as “server” and LEM.

    My vocation is motherhood and marriage, and I never, not even as a child aspired to ever be “the celebrant” at Mass.

    Many women and girls are up on the altar because of several reasons:
    1. Lack of male participation (it does not matter the reason, men are not there, so women step up)
    2. Invitation to participate, however guided or misguided, someone “invited us” pass the altar rail.
    3. A cultural sense of appropriate, in most countries thought of as traditionally Christian, the expansion of the roles, duties and tasks that women now do has spilled over into the Church. If we have women on the front lines in battle, why not behind the altar rail?
    4. Yes, a true devotion to our Lord, and a deep reverence for the Rites of the Church.

    I never felt fully comfortable with the roles, perhaps it was from all those years between 1962 and 1968 when the “New Mass” was implemented in my childhood parish, (the year AFTER I made my first communion), and the longer span of time before I ever saw women, other than a couple religious sisters from the parish school up as readers, and my shock when I experience my first Mass with “altar girls.”

    Just as the inclusion of the female sex did not happen everwhere, and in so many tasks and duties; the females behind the altar rail will not disappear overnight either.

  54. feminaprovita says:

    Thank you, Roman Sacristan.

    Women and girls who serve do so with the best of intention and usually with great reverence, but with no understanding of the break in tradition that their service at the altar represents. First and foremost, they must be respected and loved. Then (and only then) they must be catechized until they understand what the Church has said on these matters and why. It’s like anything else: with love and instruction, we can do great works for the Lord.

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