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Yesterday, reporter of all things Catholic John Allen covered the story of the pentennial International Pilgrimage of Altar Servers that brought an estimated 50,000 alter servers to Rome for a rally with the Holy Father. Of particular interest, Allen notes, was the predominance of female attendees:

For the first time this year, the female altar servers in attendance outnumbered the males. According to organizers, the balance was roughly 60-40 in favor of females. The official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, pointed to the turnout as a symbol of “the massive entry in recent decades of girls and young women into a role once reserved exclusively to males.”

That’s striking given that in some quarters, the very idea of altar girls remains controversial.

There are many fine altar girls out there, and their desire to serve is admirable. It reflects, in fact, a very feminine quality, like Martha, they feel compelled to serve the one they love. But as the 1994 letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship permitting girls to serve on the altar noted, the tradition of having boys serve at the altar “has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue.” But the predominance of altar girls would suggest that allowing girls to serve negatively effects groups of altar boys. In fact, they are driving boys away from altar serving. And for those boys who do continue to serve, the presence of altar girls makes it difficult for altar serving to be considered an apprenticeship for the priesthood. If altar serving is going to continue as a way of fostering priestly vocations, it seems that another form of service needs to be found for altar girls.

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