ASK FATHER: “Today I was an Alter Server at Mass…”

I confess that I initially sent back a terse note to this one: “You are wrong.”   Having Reconsidered, more can be said…

From a reader…


Today I was an Alter [sigh] Server at Mass and upon returning home I just wanted to check if there was an age limit when I came across your article “How Old Can An Alter Boy Be?”. I myself have been trained as an Alter Server in my local Parish. I Enjoy it and I am good at it. But, in reading your article I came across a statement that I believe deems undermining, sexist and Insensitive in times whereby we are striving towards a society of equal genders. The statement reads “While I’m at it, the introduction of father and son serving teams can be a useful in easing altar girls out of the sanctuary. I saw this done in a parish and it was very effective.” I understand, as you explain later on that it is important for males to be involved in Mass’ for the purpose of pursuing a vocation in Religion however I disagree with you in saying that females must be “Eased out of the sanctuary.” Women and Men should have the same rights to be involved in the mass. Perhaps because of this eviction of women from proceedings, a decline in adherents to Christian Denominations has occured. I am not denying your right to a point of view, and I do not intend to, in any way offend you, but I believe that this should be brought to attention and perhaps an apology/restatement released on your blog on your behalf


Dear Gabrielle,

You are clearly a bright student, and have learned well the lessons that you have been taught by your teachers. I would encourage you to continue your studies – and pay special attention to grammar and spelling, it will serve you well to learn precision in your writing and speaking in the future.

Many times adults will speak to children in a condescending manner. I certainly do not wish to do so, and so will speak to you directly, knowing that you are smart enough, and strong enough to handle even hard truths.

Much of what you have been taught is false.

You write that we are in “times striving towards a society of equal genders.” You must know that equality of the sexes does not require that we all do the same thing. It is a tragedy of modern society that the notion of equality has been used to attempt to eradicate the differences between men and women. The notion that, to be of equal worth, things – and people – must be worn down to some semblance of sameness, has been promoted by those who have a vested interest in this enterprise. When equality is meant to be sameness, then any unique characteristic becomes bad and punishable. Not too far from your corner of the world is Cambodia. I would encourage you to read about the equality principle promoted in the 1970’s by the Cambodian leader Pol Pot. While that is an extreme example, it is a case in point of what this sort of equality leads to.

The equality which the Church promotes is one which does not erase the distinctions between the sexes, nor the uniqueness of the individuals. To be equal, we do not have to be the same, nor do we have to do the same things. An apple and an orange can be considered of equal value, even though the orange cannot be sliced and baked into a delicious pie and the apple cannot made into tasty marmalade. In the same way, men and women – boys and girls – have different roles in life, and in the Church’s sacred liturgy.

You speculate, “Perhaps because of this eviction of women from proceedings, a decline in adherents to Christian Denominations has occured.” Yet, if you look at statistics, those denominations which have embraced this notion of equality=sameness, and which have diluted the traditional Church teachings on the difference between the sexes, for example, the Anglican Church, have declined in adherents with truly alarming rapidity.

I would encourage you to continue applying yourself to your studies. Study the life and the teachings of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, who helped with the foundation of the Society of the Sacred Heart and their school system. She suffered greatly at the hands of the French Revolutionary society which was the first to push the notion that equality meant sameness. She was a strong promoter of the education of young ladies and also a strong supporter of the priesthood, but she knew, with the solid instincts of a faithful daughter of the Church and a disciple of Christ Jesus, that priests have their role to play, and the faithful have theirs, and understood that men and women, while equal in dignity, are not identical in nature or vocation.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    And so much more can be taught, including how the false interpretation of ‘actual participation’ that has hijacked the liturgy underlies arguments like these, or how the men in the sanctuary are supposed to represent Christ the principal actor in the liturgy and ruining this symbolism ruins the faithfuls’ sense of the sacramental, or even the history of this innovation born out of disobedience and chucking out thousands of years of established theology.

    I pray this gives me determination to finish the written work I want to do on this topic.

  2. Nicholas says:

    Amazing response.

  3. Vy says:

    I just wanted to say, as a sixteen year old girl… I used to serve for daily masses for many years, but recently I have stopped due to my understanding that altar serving is an important way for males to discern the priesthood. To stubbornly insist that altar serving or women ordination be an issue of equality, just means that they don’t understand the purpose of those roles from the beginning. Being on or off the sanctuary does not mean someone can or cannot be involved with the Mass.
    Father, I wrote a blog post about a topic similar to this awhile ago, maybe it would be interesting to someone:

  4. JARay says:

    This response by the guest priest is indeed very good. He shows the young woman that we should not alter what goes on at the altar.

  5. SaintsSQPNcom says:

    nothing to do with the topic under consideration in this post, but a note on a language point that always catches my eye –

    “…it is important for males to be involved…”

    any time i see or hear “male” used as a noun for people, it throws up a warning flag.

    when used by a grown woman, without exception i have heard it from a woman who doesn’t like men, and is the only way she’ll refer to them with a neutral tone of voice. i supposed it makes the person in question just a person with an odd chromosone. if the word “man” or “men” is used, it’s always with a tone of derision, disparagement or outright disgust. groups of men may be referred to as “boys”. if the guy being referred to is perceived as non-threatening (e.g., an elderly gent; a fellow working in kiosk on the other side of the glass, etc.), he can be referred to as “the little man” regardless of his size.

    when i hear it from a girl or young woman, as in the lead in email above from the “alter girl”, i figure she’s been listening to and learning from a such a woman.

    just a random observation from having worked in a profession where i encounter a lot of women who don’t like men. we now return you to your regular type of comments.

  6. Lynn Diane says:

    Superb answer!!!

  7. Supertradmum says:

    It would be nice if priests and parents taught that equality of person is not the same as equality of roles. The Modernist heresy that Christ was a prisoner (lol) of the Jewish culture of the time and therefore, could only choose men as apostles, is another idea which must be addressed by the clergy, who should know that Christ is God and could have done anything He wanted.

    God the Father created the patriarchy, and most ancient cultures were actually matriarchies, as England and Ireland still are, for example. I hope this young lady can learn some Scripture and some cultural history as well. Sadly, the dumbing down of education includes Catholic teaching as the fact is that the Church raised the status of women in society, owing to the honor given to Our Lady, not the other way around. Paganism, including even the Greeks, held that women were merely possessions. The Muslims see women as not fully human, either. Christianity helped women be treated with respect–as seen in the cult of the saints.

    One only has to look at the genealogy of Christ to see famous women mentioned as His ancestors…a rare idea at the time those lists in Matthew.

    Also, the idea of the priest being the alter Christus must be stressed again from the pulpit. How many priests appreciate that real fact?

  8. Tantum Ergo says:

    What a kind response to this sincere, however misguided, “alter” server.

  9. Thomas Sweeney says:

    The guest priest really writes an impressive letter. I wish that I could marshal my thoughts and express them in such a convincing way. By the way, I pray that the Altar Boy takes his letter to heart, it only reiterates what we have believed for 2000 years.

  10. benedetta says:

    Women promoted on the altar is not at all a universal affirmation in gender equality that the questioner might presume. In fact, women could not be treated more horribly in a lot of places that on the facade preach equality and ideologically pretend that they support women in clerical life. In many places where women are placed in highly visible roles in the sanctuary, the reality is that when it comes to mercy, compassion, respect, and even or most importantly material rights, they are actually manipulated and under the thumb of an angry sort of clericalism that really is unable to meaningfully get along with women apart from using or abusing them as the token instance calls for according to their regime’s dogmas. That is not equality, and that is not freedom. The notion that places that promote “women involved in the sanctuary” truly appreciate the feminine genius for what it is is simply propaganda from a virulent ideology squatting in a great many of our churches to wield power and keep people oppressed. In fact, in a lot of places that women are front and center, there is also a certain coddling of abortion, if not actual abortionists! Abortion is the most grave evil and sign of inequality of our times. A society that truly appreciated women in their integrity would tell any abortionist to take a hike. If they are given places of honor, not only will women be welcomed in the sanctuary but the demonic besides. I recommend any of St. John Paul II’s works and writings on women to any woman who buys into that propaganda for partisan achievers, and anything by the dynamic and holy couple Mr. and Mrs. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Alice and Dietrich. Over and out.

  11. momoften says:

    Unfortunately, it is likely her parents to blame. It was a kind response, and gave her
    the tools to support why girls should not serve at the altar, but I suspect her parents, both of them
    are more misinformed and misguided.

  12. zama202 says:

    I remember writing a long letter in the ’90’s to the pastor of a church near my then office in Long Island.

    I often attended Mass at lunchtime there. As they had altar girls I wanted to respectfully point out that altar girls were not permitted, that their use might discourage priestly vocations among young men, and might also cause the girls to mistakenly believe they could someday become priests.

    About two weeks later Rome caved into the widespread abuse and permitted altar girls.

    I am sure the pastor had a tremendous laugh at my expense – and it was a very long time before I presumed to bring a liturgical abuse to a priest’s attention.


  13. Grumpy Beggar says:

    Quoted in OP :

    I believe that this should be brought to attention and perhaps an apology/restatement released on your blog on your behalf.

    Catholic Encyclopedia says that “apologetics means, broadly speaking, a form of apology.”

    The Guest Priest’s Response therefore, appears to suffice nicely in complying with the demand above.

    I love Fr. Z’s blog, and he has written more than once on this subject. What I don’t like so much is when people misconstrue his comments.

    At my home parish, I’ve often heard it said by parishoners who are several decades my senior that “the service of altar boys during the Mass is the seedbed for the priesthood.

    Some people might find that way of making the connection a little strong , but it’s absolutely true – even the quote of the OP admits :

    ” I understand, as you explain later on that it is important for males to be involved in Mass’ for the purpose of pursuing a vocation in Religion .”

    There is a relation/conection between altar boys serving at Mass and vocations to the priesthood and this is statistically substantiated. The only debate about this real relation is whether it tends more toward one of correlation , as opposed to one of causation. But there is no debate concerning its effect

    A couple of good articles on the subject:
    Altar Girls, Altar Boys and the Priesthood: Connecting the Dots (Catholic Caucus)

    National Catholic Register; Boys Will Be Altar Boys ;Parishes With All-Male Altar Service Corps Tout the Benefits

    Something which happens when there are girl altar servers and altar boys are both serving in the same environment at the same time:

    What drove the two men to suggest the experiment a decade ago? Two observations.
    One: “When boys and girls are mixed on the altar, the boys tend to be less participative. They defer to the girls,” explains Spinharney. And two: “Many priestly vocations come from the altar. We’re trying to drive new vocations.”
    Father Dufner expounds on those points. “Girls tend to be more reliable and get jobs done more effectively,” he says, “so the boys tend to drop out.” At the same time, he notices that boys are excited about being part of an all-male group that is hierarchical and advancement-oriented.

    It’s all about not allowing a 20 year-old innovation to have a negative effect on vocations to the priesthood – and so should not be construed in any way by sensible Catholics as, “undermining, sexist and Insensitive.”

    If we think about it,those striked comments are a very unfair label. The way the person quoted in the OP is attempting to apply them, they would then also be equally be obliged to call the celebration of the Extraordinary form of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass “undermining, sexist and Insensitive,” since the “Extraordinary Form of the Mass, following the rubrics of the liturgical books in effect in 1962, does not permit for altar girls.”

  14. Lepidus says:

    Is the “alter” server, the second one?

    I do agree with her on one point. The girl altar boys should not be “eased” out. Good music was not eased out and Latin itself was not eased out. One day they were there, and the next, Marty Haugen every Sunday. Similarly, the new policy should just be implemented.

  15. All this talk of women demanding our “fair share” and “a place at the table” and wanting to be in the spotlight and standing on imaginary “rights” is simply un-Catholic. If any woman were to have possessed any of these “rights,” it would have been the Mother of God; but it is nowhere recorded that she insisted on such. She understood — as many Catholics no longer do — that to be small in the natural order is to be great in the supernatural order.

    And on a related note, I dread the forthcoming fiasco that takes place every year during the reading of the Passion, when shrill-voiced women read the male parts while a bunch of perfectly capable and literate men stand around mute. I am tired of the Mass being used as a cudgel to beat me over the head with gender-bending ideology.

  16. Elizabeth D says:

    Count me as another woman who HIGHLY, HIGHLY treasures the fact that the Catholic Church holds that women and men are not simply interchangeable and identical, but actually complementary and therefore BOTH man and woman are equally important and essential, in ways specific to each. Women can’t be replaced by men, and men cannot be replaced by women. You can’t abolish husbands and fathers and brothers and replace them all with women.

    Girls whose parishes have both girl and boy altar servers are NOT being bad by wanting to be altar servers. This is not as ideal as having male-only altar service, but it’s not the fault of young girls! This is a matter for adult Catholics to discuss and make decisions about. Priestly vocations are a huge reason why only boys should be altar servers. Altar boys somewhat easily see themselves as sort of junior-understudies for priesthood who MIGHT later be called to be a priest. But it doesn’t have this same meaning for girl altar servers. Women have a different role in the Church. A girl might be called to be a religious sister, but being an altar server is not a junior-understudy try-out of being a religious sister; it has nothing to do with it. Prayer, Christian friendship, and doing works of mercy and kindness to one’s neighbor are the kinds of things that help girls to explore the idea of being a religious sister or nun.

    I think sometimes people misguidedly want to be an altar server because it makes them feel “important” or “special” but this is deeply misguided. What God sees is how holy and humble you are. We are called to be holy, not to be seemigly-“important.”

  17. Semper Gumby says:

    Great response from the guest priest.

  18. Felicia says:

    Elizabeth D said: « I think sometimes people misguidedly want to be an altar server because it makes them feel “important” or “special” but this is deeply misguided. What God sees is how holy and humble you are. We are called to be holy, not to be seemigly “important.” »

    You are making a gross assumption about why most girls (or boys for that matter) want to be altar servers.

    The girl in who wrote the question herself said: « Women and Men should have the same rights to be involved in the mass. Perhaps because of this eviction of women from proceedings, a decline in adherents to Christian Denominations has occured. »

    Any reasonably religiously sensitive child will see that (1) if everyone is encouraged to “participate” at Mass and (2) if the bread and wine really and truly become the Body and Blood of Christ, then (3) the best way to be closest to God is right up there on the Altar, as an Altar Server. [And that is to misunderstand what “participation” is.]

    The desire to be an Altar Server is born of is a perfectly logical desire to be physically close to God. Girls who want to be an Altar Server for this reason, when they are told they cannot be one, hear this: “Girls are icky and God does not want them anywhere near Him.” [If that is what they hear….]

    Hence the girl who wrote the question including the bit a about a decline in Christian denominations. This is how she is understanding it! They key here is the very common mis-understanding of “active participation.”

    If this is the pre-suppostion behind the drive to serve at the Altar in the first place, then being told to get off the Altar is heard and understood as “Go away; God does not like women.” [Then there are more problems than mistakes about “active participation”.]

  19. Dspauldi says:

    The music problems concern me greatly. While Broadway musicals and Disney animated films contain catchy music, I want my church music to be uplifting. Unfortunately, only one Mass in four contains a selection written before 1970.

  20. “Perhaps because of this eviction of women from proceedings, a decline in adherents to Christian Denominations has occured.”

    If they were of the truth, they never would have left. But, since they never really were of the truth, they couldn’t remain”
    St. John of the Cross

  21. Geoffrey says:

    I happened across some very old diocesan newspapers the other day, and I noticed how various activities were organized for altar boys, particularly by the Serra Club–an organization that to this day fosters vocations to the priesthood.

    I thought about how this could be done today. You would have to invite only the male altar servers and purposely not invite the female altar servers… and then you had better take cover.

  22. Knittingfoole says:

    It seems to me that one of the main problems in the Church today, at least in the NO parishes in my area, is that they seem to think that in order to participate in Mass one must be given a “job” to do during Mass like being an EM, for instance. Being close to the altar does not make you closer to God! The priest is there and the deacon is there because that is their place and function. Altar boys should be there as they assist the priest. The faithful in the pews are there, it is our PRIVILEDGE to be in the pews and present for the miracle that occurs. The faithful in the pews play an important part, it’s just different.

  23. APX says:

    We don’t serve “on” the Altar. We serve “at” the Altar. Prepositions are important. No one should be “on” the Altar. Yes, priests at the FSSP are told to “embrace” the altar at the consecration, but at no time does someone ever go “on the altar”. [Don’t pick. “On the altar” is an old way of speaking about serving.]

  24. ajf1984 says:

    Not to pile on to the whole “decline in adherents to Christian Denominations has occurred” thread, but wouldn’t you know it–the latest statistics on number of Catholic baptisms worldwide were announced 3/7/16, and guess what? The ‘growth rate’ of the Catholic Church, calculated in baptisms, has outpaced the world’s population growth…see the story at

  25. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    I don’t suppose Gabrielle has been reading too much Old English literature in its original form, but, when I saw ‘alter’, I thought, ‘I wonder…’ and checking see that it is indeed an Anglo-Saxon spelling as well. (Not that anyone axed me about it…: variant forms of the ancestor of ‘ask’ in O.E. include ‘ascian’, ‘acsian’, ‘axian’, ‘ahsian’. )

  26. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    With my mind running on things like the Middle Ages and ‘antiquarianism’ and ‘archaeologism’, it occurs to me that I have no real sense of how things were done historically (and in some place still are done?) in nunneries. Did chaplains normally have men and boys in minor orders to assist them?

  27. Nan says:

    This poor girl doesn’t know what’s proper to her state of life. She’s missing out on the best thing, which is laundering and ironing linens. What better active participation in Mass is there than ironing purificators, etc?

    I was asked to iron a few years ago, when mom was in a coma. I was stressed when I went into the sacristy and felt much better when I was done ironing. It’s also a direct service to God.

  28. germangreek says:

    Yeah, but the major growth is all in women=men part of the world. You know, Africa and Asia. Just as would be predicted by … somebody.

  29. Healingrose1202 says:

    At my parish, we have an altar server or “Minister of the Altar” which is almost always a girl or young woman. When I was in grade school, I regularly volunteered for the role. (I’m much older and a mother of three now.) Besides just the poor title, I find the casual approach distracts from the true function of the role and the overall focus during Mass. They are allowed to wear just about anything they want, which can be especially troublesome since the seating places them exactly in the center of the raised altar area. The main church is a semicircle, so the altar server sits facing the altar and the congregation, with the priest to the left, the pulpit to the right, and the cross directly behind. (If you have not already guessed, tradition has been largely set aside at my parish for a modern, progressive approach in many more ways than just the altar servers.) I personally find that keeping my eyes closed helps make me feel more involved than I ever did while having a “job” during Mass. Not too long ago, I started keeping my head covered with a scarf or veil, a sign of humility and reverence for the presence of Christ. I have a hard time seeing how a girl, (or any altar server in my parish), could show the proper respect for the Eucharist when there seems to be absolutely no appreciation or understanding as to why we have the traditions and rituals that have been very constant until recently. I am growing wary of so many liberties that seem to be going on in Catholic churches. I have a real fear they are increasingly leaving themselves unguarded and vulnerable to the vigilant enemy.

  30. Magash says:

    “With my mind running on things like the Middle Ages and ‘antiquarianism’ and ‘archaeologism’, it occurs to me that I have no real sense of how things were done historically (and in some place still are done?) in nunneries. Did chaplains normally have men and boys in minor orders to assist them?”
    It is my recollection that if no men or boys were available the server’s part was said by a woman (or girl) who stood outside the sanctuary, on the other side of the altar rail. The priest would then do all of the actions himself, i.e. fetch the water and bowl for the washing, etc. This also obtained at parish daily masses and girls schools where no males were present to assist.

  31. hwriggles4 says:

    Knittingfoole and HealingRose1202:

    Both of you make some good points…I think we were all from the same generation – I was in high school in the mid-1980s, and witnessed (and sadly participated) in the watering down, without knowing any better. I even used to like “youth Masses” with Christian rock music, gathering around the altar, wearing casual clothes, and sometimes doing “hand motions” with the music – what was I thinking? Quite frankly, in those days my attitude was, “well, if the priest and the congregation are OK with it, it must be OK.”

    Knittingfoole – I can relate to being given a “job”. I was a “one hour Catholic” through most of the 80s (even looked at becoming an Episcopalian or a Methodist in the late 80s/early 90s) and part of the early 90s. I used to usher primarily because I was on a schedule, and was scheduled to usher every week. The parish I attended most of the time was greatly short of volunteers, and I was the only usher and one of the only parishioners who was under 40 (my little brother and I can greatly relate to this in the late 80s/early 90s), and having a “job” to do at Mass got this “one hour Catholic” to Mass. My reversion story came later, after returning to college full-time.

  32. Knittingfoole says:

    Yes, I came of age, so to speak, in the mid-eighties. I was confirmed around 1986 and witnessed “Renew!” Even today that word horrifies me. I left the true Church and became Episcopalian because of the watering-down, where, ironically, I was Directress of the Altar Guild, on several committees, and a Eucharistic Minister, which, at this particular church, meant I had to stand next to the priest and elevate the chalice! When we lost our priest, I then had to LEAD MORNING PRAYER. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I knew it was wrong not only to be in the Episcopal Church but for me to be leading a service. I left that church (that provided me many jobs and reasons to go to church) to return to the true Church that, in those first tentative steps back, offered me nothing but the “job” to attend to Our Lord by going to Mass, paying attention to the prayers, sitting, standing, kneeling, etc. I didn’t even take communion until I had gone to talk to Father and made my confession. I’m glad that the “job” you had got you to go to church. That is a blessing! But we, all Catholic laypeople, should realize (I’m including myself in this) that having some function to do at Mass isn’t equal to participation in Mass. You can be a lector or usher or whatever and still not be participating in Mass if you are more concerned about the “job” than the Sacrifice that is being represented for you. (I’m not implying that this is what is happening in your case, btw, just making a point) I think the proliferation of “jobs” for laypeople to do during Mass is an offshoot of the watering down of the liturgy and the result of too much touchy-feely-ness where people get their feelings hurt too easily.

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