QUAERITUR: Altar girls dressed as clerics. What to say?

From a reader:

What would be a proper response to a priest who not only allows his female altar servers to wear the black cassock and white surplice, but also tells the parishioners that it is perfectly acceptable to do so?
It doesn’t seem right and I am uncomfortable telling my children that it is o.k when they have questioned it. This priest also feels that Exposition in front of the Blessed Sacrament is of no additional benefit, would not allow a display of Vatican approved Eucharistic Miracles because it encouraged the “superstitious”, and wants nothing to do with our Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration Chapel. Thank you for your help…..

What would be a proper response?

Wow. Ummmm….

How about:

I would prefer there there not be altar girls at all.  But if you are going to do this anyway, the least you could do is not dress them as if they were clerics, which they can never be.  Cassock and surplice are the choir dress of clerics.  Male servers at least have the potential to be clerics, whereas females never do.  Vesting females as if they were clerics sends the wrong signals.

Another response:

I am not going to give you any more of my money until you stop this.

Another response:

It has been nice knowing you.  Perhaps we shall meet again some day. I am moving to Lincoln, Nebraska.

One of the points made at the time of the (very bad) interpretation of CIC 1983 can.230 §2 was that the situation should be explained so that confusion could be avoided.  Avoiding confusion was, at the time and now, important.  Furthermore, the letter from the CDW said, that “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 .”

Given the age of many servers, I don’t see how dressing the girls in the same manner as the boys does anything to encourage boys to serve.  There ought to be a distinction.

That said, if the pastor opens up to changing the vesture of the girls, then be prepared to cough up money to help it happen.  Church stuff isn’t free.

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  1. Will D. says:

    My parish splits the difference. The boys wear cassock and surplice, the girls, robes with cincture. I think Father would prefer to only have male altar servers, but he’s taking a brick-by-brick approach to “orthodoxificating” a parish that spent a lot of time in the wilds of the “spirit of Vatican II.”

  2. Samthe44 says:

    At my parish, all Altar Servers, both male and female, wear a white alb and cincture.

    @Will D.
    That is pretty cool idea. Hopefully we will go back to all-male Altar Servers, but until then, we need to go ‘brick-by-brick’.

  3. Yep, get rid of the altar girls altogether. Stop using little girls as pawns in the feminist agenda, creating unrealistic expectations and setting them up for disappointment. I think the whole (real) point of altar girls was ultimately to buffalo the Church into ordaining women. (Same with the artificial priest “shortages.” Liberals love a good priest shortage.)

  4. skull kid says:

    Girl altar boys should be safe, legal, and rare.

  5. Brian says:

    It bothers me more when seminarians or religious brothers wear collars or are allowed to preach.

  6. What should girls wear, then? They’re dressed in cassocks and surpluses at my parish too.

  7. Bryan Boyle says:

    @Skull kid: Bingo.

    As to what should they wear? If they have to be there at all in some misguided sense that service at the altar should be egalitarian…some shapeless, formless white alb. At the same time, they should be sent home when wearing jeans, sneakers, florescent flip-flops, or leopard-spotted stockings. As should any young men.

    Young men should be in cassock and surplice.

    But, that’s my paleoecclesial opinion…;)

  8. Tim Ferguson says:

    Not to be pedantic, but, like the parish priest in the query, I have some concerns of my own about “Exposition in front of the Blessed Sacrament”

  9. teaguytom says:

    The parishes that have allowed altar girls usually adopted the oversized alb look. Girls and boys will have these sloppy looking albs and sometimes wear wooden crosses like they are missionaries. The EF community I attend has boys in choir dress. It looks more Catholic.

  10. benedetta says:

    This “superstition” thing, it’s big where I am currently unfortunately. Like, it’s all myth and fable so why bother. I particularly enjoy prayers for our Catholic leadership who teaches and preaches this exact sentiment, whether through words, actions or both. Because I know, from experience that when Jesus is compartmentalized or minimized in exactly this way, He just comes back in the most surprising, pretty much, outrageous ways imaginable, in great ways. It’s really never on His terms, no matter what people might teach, preach or say. Some people love to be surprised. If you hate surprises then, best to go with Adoration and let Him lead the way, trust and permit the faithful to pray as needed and desired, then you can sleep more confidently knowing you’ve done your part. You can prevent people from coming to Adoration in the church, that certainly occurs (I am actually reading an account right now of some dark times when that was imposed) but guess what no leader will ever be able to stamp, snuff or prohibit. Or ignore or pretend something else. As a pastoral matter people need and desire to be able to pray in the church especially before the Blessed Sacrament. Instead of pretending that it’s superstition, make it readily available and then see what happens…what are they so afraid of anyway?

  11. Imrahil says:

    The thing is: Given that altar girls exist (against which there are some reasons), what else would they wear?* Altar boy’s aren’t clerics either.

    Maybe the cassock is no cassock but only looks like one after the surplice has been thrown over it? I mean that two-piecer known as “altar server dress” consisting of the “altar server skirt” plus “altar server neckwear” with the surplice above.

    [* I can imagine speaking of albs and the like. However, that was somewhat my reaction. Wearing albs and cingulum is something which one may vaguely remember that altar servers can theoretically do – but is (even though a – really small – minority of parishes does so still, it feels) so old that we don’t really know whether it is far out-dated or a modern invention quickly out-dated… One serious thing in the humourous tone, I can really only guess whether there were any albs, as main dress for altar servers, before the liturgy reform or whether they were introduced by it.]

    In fact in popular feeling, an alb would seem clerical (and does seem clerical with pastoralreferentesses), an altar-server-dress doesn’t. Assuredly.

  12. JKnott says:

    Dressing up a girl like a man? Why would the bride want to wear the Tux?
    Better to teach our daughters to be pure brides, worthy of the white, not the black.
    Girls – at – the- Altar descend your poise-less height
    Sink deeply into God’s uncreated Light
    Politically correct is “lukewarm” in His sight
    Claim the Extraordinary as your blessed right.

    Abbe Sinor wrote:
    “The presence of women in the sanctuary, which is the place of Christ the New Adam, Bridegroom and Saviour, and hence the place of the bishop, bridegroom of his [local] church, the place of the priest and the deacon – this unjustifiable feminine presence, even if it does not destroy the objectivity of the perpetually renewed redemptive Act, nevertheless greatly harms the personal faith of each member of the congregation by confronting it with a sign which falsifies the mystery; it impoverishes our faith.”
    “…falsifies the mystery..” INDEED

  13. Gail F says:

    First of all you have to take a deep breath and think. What is it you want to accomplish? Do you want to simply understand your pastor? (For instance: Perhaps he is confused, as many people are today, about what different types of clothes actually mean. Perhaps to him, putting girls in cassocks and surplices is just “dressing them the same as the boys” and has nothing to do with dressing like a cleric — which he associates solely with vestments for priests and deacons. Perhaps he is trying very hard to accommodate what he thinks are “traditional” folks by having the servers wear that instead of the potato sacks I get at my parish. He might be making what he thinks is a nice, reasonable accommodation.) Do you want to see the girls in something else? Then you might try something like, “Father, I am uncomfortable when I see girls dressed in clerical dress, which is really only for boys. What if the girls wore something different?”

    My nieces and nephews all wear the same outfits, exactly as described above, in their Episcopal church. They look lovely. If that is all one wants — lovely outfits — then it makes perfect sense to dress them that way.

  14. Andy Milam says:

    Realistically, it is very simple.

    Female altar servers are not necessary. They are needed when there is a particular need. I don’t see that need. Seminaries are filling back up, which means that young men are becoming more interested in the priesthood again. This being the case, the recruitment of boys to serve should not be all that difficult. All one has to do is make it appealing to young men.

    Boys, being boys don’t want to serve with girls. Boys are not lazy, boys are not misguided by not going to Mass. Boys don’t want to sit next to girls. Take the girls out, the boys will return. It really is that simple. If you don’t believe me, then ask them. I have mentioned that I’ve worked as an MC in my parish. I’ve asked. That is the answer I got. When I get a group of boys, without girls to serve, they are happy to do it. But the second a girl shows up in the sacristy, heads go down and the boys become very quiet. That is called emasculation, in case you were keeping score.

    However, from a more formal point of view, the role of a server is an extraordinary one to the ministries of the Church. Lector, acolyte, and deacon. If those roles are proper to males only, which they are, wouldn’t it follow logically that the extraordinary role would fall to males only? Logic says yes. Unfortunately the leadership of the Church, spurred by the American and German liberal politico pushed for and got passed the contrary. Sad

  15. frjim4321 says:

    Simple solution here, all the servers wear albs with a cord that matches the color of the day (red, green, purple, white). They also wear a very simple small wooden cross on a leather thong. Though at one of my assignments the altar servers wore white dress shirts or blouses with navy slacks or skirts . . . that worked, too, but I prefer the vesture of albs. Also, the relationship of the alb to the baptismal garment is quite meaningful to the servers and their families.

    The double standard of albs for girls and cassock/surplice for boys is easily misunderstood, and should be avoided.

  16. skull kid says:

    There’s an excellent article about girl altar boys and how they actually came about here:

    A brief, fascinating excerpt:

    >>> Fourth, Girl Altar Boys were introduced under duress. Anyone old enough to remember the U.S. political climate that existed from 1992 to 1994 can remember the hostility toward the Catholic Church. According to a prominent Catholic apologist, “…My understanding of the Vatican’s thinking at the time on altar girls is this: In the United States and in other countries there is a trend toward using litigation to force change for ‘gender equality.’ In the context of current American jurisprudence, a court suit to force altar girls on the Church might well be successful. Once the courts decided that they had the authority to force altar girls on the Church, they might just go all the way and force women deacons, and finally priests. If the Church approved altar girls, the first lawsuit would address the Sacrament of Holy Orders, which would be easier to defend given the unbroken history in the Old Testament days of male Jewish priests and rabbis, and in the past two thousand years of male priests and deacons. So my understanding is that the Holy Father’s decision to approve altar girls was based on a prudential judgment that it would result in less overall damage to the Church.” <<<

  17. Ah, yes, the dreaded cross necklaces. A safety hazard to EMHCs and servers alike. Nothing like dangling a big string around your neck to catch stuff in, when you’re spending all your time fetching and carrying important stuff you wouldn’t want to hook on a string.

    It’s a pity this isn’t the Middle Ages, so we could have huge interdiocesan fights when the sumptuousness of the parish cross necklaces began to usurp the dignity of the bishops’ and abbots’ pectoral crosses. Heh heh heh. That’d liven up Confirmation, you bet….

    (Yes, I’m in a bad mood this week.)

  18. Elizabeth D says:

    I happened to be present for part of a Mass in Korean recently here and they had a woman server in cassock and surplice who also purified the vessels at the altar while the priest went and sat down after Communion. Clearly this was not right but I am not Korean, do not understand the Korean language, do not normally attend this Mass, and have not told anyone (till now). Should I? The English Masses at the same parish are very proper (the Korean priest celebrates that Mass only as far as I know).

  19. benedetta says:

    If he believes that the Eucharistic miracles is all about superstition then why bother with having altar servers or whatever else for that matter, at all? Is it just a historical re-enactment like the history re-enactors? At least those really go for authenticity…

    I would say, first, believe in the Eucharist and then, whatever clothing that is dignified would be lovely for the altar servers…Would much rather see young people in service in ordinary, dignified clothing amidst a believing congregation and pastor rather than having to encounter the problem of denying the reality of the real presence with beautiful accoutrements…

  20. frjim4321 says:

    ED – – –

    Yes, that would be quite the distraction. Why was she at the altar and not at the credence table or in the sacristy?

    – – – f/j

  21. Elizabeth D says:

    The thing is, Fr Jim, a few years ago at the very same church our previous pastor (not the Korean priest but regular pastor) sought a permission from the Vatican to let lay people purify the vessels after Mass in the sacristy (this was not an extreme number of vessels or some situation like that which might justify extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion helping, they just for some reason wanted the university students to participate in that way). The permission was denied, and the priest resumed purifying the vessels himself at the altar as directed by the GIRM. So, I feel certain that she is not really supposed to be purifying the vessels either at the altar, at the credence table or in the sacristy, because my understanding is that others at this exact same church were told “no” by the CDW!

  22. Elizabeth D says:

    In addition to what the GIRM says, the USCCB stated in 2006:
    “6. May an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion assist in the purification of sacred vessels? In accord with the Holy Father’s recent decision, as reported in Cardinal Arinze’s letter of October 12, 2006 (Prot. no. 468/05/L), an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion may not assist in the purification of sacred vessels. This extraordinary ministry was created exclusively for those instances where there are not enough ordinary ministers to distribute Holy Communion, due to the consummate importance of assuring that the faithful have the opportunity to receive Holy Communion at Mass, even when it is distributed under both species. (cf. RS, no. 102)”

  23. Vincenzo says:

    Here’s how Mother Angelica explained why altar girls were allowed at the time (I recently saw a re-run of Mother Angelica Live.)

    She used the analogy of a car and a bicycle. Liberal bishops wanted a certain car (an inclusive language English catechism) but they did not get it. Just like the teenager who is too young for his car, so he is given a bicycle instead to satisfy him.

    The poor catechism was denied (and she praised Cardinal Ratzinger and the Pope) but the altar girl concession was given to them as a political decision to keep liberals within the Church.

    She then said it was the first time in over 30 years many of these dissenting women have been obedient about anything – and they were so excited that it even came from the Vatican. (Picture her laughing, cackling.) http://i51.tinypic.com/2jcyhkp.jpg

    She said that we got the important thing, the (good) car, and we can’t be harmed. And she said that time will tell if the bicycle (girl altar boys) will hurt us. Kids can fall off and get hurt on bikes.

  24. Andy Milam says:

    @ frjim4321;

    “The double standard of albs for girls and cassock/surplice for boys is easily misunderstood, and should be avoided.”

    Two HONEST questions for you….

    1. How is it a double standard?
    2. How would it be misunderstood?

  25. rcesq2 says:

    Would putting a chapel veil on the head of a girl altar server wearing cassock and surplice help distinguish the poor dear from the boys? That’s what happened in my parish this past Sunday – except that it was a crocheted doily and I haven’t a clue who came up with the idea. The child didn’t seem to mind, even though the whole effect was a bit silly-looking.

  26. Centristian says:

    What else would a female altar server be expected to wear, indeed? The servers at my parish, male and female, wear white albs: a distinctly clerical liturgical garment, no less so than a cassock paired with a surplice.

    I suppose it could occur to parishes at which those in service at the altar wear cassock and surplice that a variation in color could make it even clearer than it obviously is that altar boys and girls are not minor clergy. Let them wear, say, blue cassocks with surplices. Add altar server crosses or neck ruffs and the distinction becomes even clearer. Anyone who does not object to seeing female choristers dressed this way should be able to handle the sight of females in service at the altar dressed this way.

  27. New Sister says:

    “….I’m moving to Lincoln, Nebraska” is the best option! :-)

  28. MichaelJ says:

    Is there no longer a distinction between male and female dress (or between male and female, for that matter) in modern society? Are individuals now defined solely by the function they perform rather than by any inherent quaities or attributes that they possess?

    I for one would be offended if my son were expected to don “female” clothing. I wonder why parents of girls are not similarly bothered.

  29. John Nolan says:

    It is my understanding that the alb per se is not a clerical garment. It was originally worn by the newly baptized during the Easter Octave and laid aside on Low Sunday (Dominica in Albis Depositis). Cassock and cotta are indeed clerical choir dress and an acolyte was a cleric in minor orders. When a lay clerk assumed the function of an ordained acolyte (which is what would happen in parishes) he dressed accordingly. When Paul VI abolished the minor orders he established the instituted lay ministry of acolyte (which is reserved to men). A properly instituted acolyte is an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and in addition is permitted to purify the sacred vessels. If we had more of them we wouldn’t have women in the sanctuary (they’ve no business being there anyway) and if EMHC were needed at OF Mass they would already be performing a liturgical function and would moreover be appropriately vested.

  30. MJ says:

    How about we solve the problem this way: no altar girls. :)

  31. Julee says:

    We have plenty of white albs in which to dress our altar girls, if needed. Our previous pastor was an ultra conservative, traditional priest who did away with altar girls upon his arrival at the parish. He attired his senior servers in the black cassock and surplice and his junior servers in the white alb. When he left, he was replaced with our current pastor who is the polar opposite of him and seems to abhor any fancy, traditional style Roman practices. He is a nice man, and I like him, but cannot reconcile his way of thinking with mine. Its a very confusing time…..

  32. jkm210 says:

    I became a girl altar server in 1993. Yes, you read that correctly – I was born in 1982, but my church always had girl altar servers, long before I joined. I wonder how many people knew it was against the rules. Anyway, I was late to the game, becoming a server in 6th grade when the other kids began in 4th. My mother pushed me into it. I really was vocationally-confused for a long time, but it’s something you can hardly talk about, because most people are either in the camp of “of course serving at the altar doesn’t confuse anyone, silly” or “you’re not confused; women can have a vocation to the priesthood.” Plus, as a married woman with two daughters, it’s a little embarrassing to think back on now!

    We had a very good priest assigned to my [Presbyterian] college my junior and senior year who was finally able to get through to me on this issue. Shortly thereafter, I was able to get my true vocation sorted out and met my husband. I don’t intend to let my own girls become servers (they’re 2 and 4), and hope it won’t be too much of a fight. I have seen parishes who do not allow girl servers set up complimentary programs for girls, leading the rosary before Mass and doing other things, and I think that is definitely the way to do it in a pastoral manner.

  33. Julee says:

    That is what our previous pastor had done as well. Invited the girls to be lectors, sing in the choir, etc. And he was vilified for it, believe me. Now, those that hated him LOVE our current pastor and all his liberal ideas….Unfortunately, lay people at this parish have always been given too much power……”power” that rightfully belongs to the priest.

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