Race to the altar?

I was poking around the newsfeeds at the weekend in search of BF fodder, and I stumbled across this piece linking to this one, outlining how a recent pilgrimage of altar servers in Rome showed the gender balance as being roughly 60/40 in favour of the girls.

What a fascinating statistic. I don’t know how accurate the counting was at this event, or how representative of the global trends this stat is, but I know that my own experience at parishes around the country would tend to see that statistic as being conservative, to say the least!

Why is it that fewer lads are stepping up to serve? Personally, I don’t buy they whole sex-scandal thing, because the numbers were dropping off well before then. I’ve read a couple of opinions, and they seem to fall into two camps:

1) Isn’t it great to see young girls out there, emulating Martha and helping out at the altar? Lovely.

2) Isn’t it terrible that we don’t have enough boys serving at the altar, as that used to be where many heard their vocation to the priesthood. Tragic.

I just hope it isn’t the boys simply thinking “sweet – I don’t have to do it because the rosters are filled up without me.”

What about all of you out there in Being Frank land? Do you think that there are more altar girls than boys? And do you think this is a good or bad thing? I’m really keen to take the pulse on this one.

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    Comments: 13

    1. FXD August 9, 2010 at 12:39 pm

      Hi James,

      good post.

      Serving at the altar is, or was, reserved for instituted acolytes: that is, those who were on their way to priesthood, and were instituted (some would say ordained) clerics in minor orders (specifically, the 4th minor order).

      VII did away with two of the minor orders (porter and exorcist), but retained lector and acolyte. Incidentally, it also did away with the first major order (subdeacon), but retained obviously the key orders, deacon, priest and bishop (as it had to, of course!).

      However, back to the issue: boys who were considered suitable were allowed to act as altar servers (a long time ago, but I couldn’t tell you when – we’re talking centuries however), both because of the lack of ordained clerics to do the job, but also as a way of fostering vocations. Many priests will tell you that they found their vocations serving at the altar.

      However, the crux of the issue is that they were fulfilling a role to which their baptismal character did not necessarily lend them. I haven’t put that well, but I’m writing fast here!

      In 1993 (I think) the Vatican allowed the use of female altar servers. I think that this was a mistake.

      Boys at that age (typically about 7-8) don’t want to be doing what girls are doing. If girls are getting into the altar serving (and let’s face it, girls are inherently more ‘religious’ than boys) the boys will simply stop. In one parish in Auckland, the serving roster was filled for 6-8 weeks ahead of time when only boys were permitted to serve. Once girls were introduced, the number of boys serving plummetted from 32 to around 5.

      It may have an adverse effect upon priestly vocations. This is a very real issue I think.

      ANyway, just some quick thoughts.

    2. FXD August 9, 2010 at 12:44 pm


      I think many people are stuck in the idea that it is really good to see people (girls/boys) doing something on/at/near/around the altar, as if this somehow fulfills VII’s call for active and conscious participation.

      This is wrong.

      Participation at Mass is, fundamentally, internal. We unite our hearts and minds to what is happening. It is not ‘external’, although our conscious and active interior participation will naturally, at various points in the Mass, manifest itself externally (in kneeling, or vocal prayer, or standing, or singing).

      The modern mania for ‘doing something’ betrays a fundamental misunderstanding, and, what is worse, a lack of prayer.

      The Mass must, first, be prayed.

      That is why it is better to sit at the feet of the Lord, and humbly receive from him, rather than to be always in ‘work’.

    3. JoyfulPapist August 9, 2010 at 1:34 pm

      FXD says that serving with girls is putting boys off the job: that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case in our parish, where we have an active altar server roster about 50/50 boys and girls – all the children whose families regularly attend church, and many children who come on their own just to serve.

      It is also, true, though, that we have an active group of young and middle aged adult men who set an example of devout prayer and service. I suspect that this has a strong influence on the boys, who are keen to emulate their role models.

    4. FXD August 9, 2010 at 2:03 pm

      Hi Joyfulpapist,

      with respect, I would suggest that your case is the exception, rather than the norm.

      In the parishes I have observed in Auckland, very few, if any, boys tend to serve. Anecdotal evidence from friends in other parishes tends to corroborate this. I think that’s a shame, especially given the flow-on effects from altar serving to priesthood.

    5. JoyfulPapist August 9, 2010 at 2:50 pm

      Yes, I accept your experience, FXD. What I’m trying to work out is the reason. Can you tell me whether you have a good number of youngish men taking roles as readers, welcomers, music leaders, and so on?

    6. dave morgan August 9, 2010 at 3:26 pm

      our parish has trained altar dogs

      a local parishioner, who has an expertise in dog handling, has trainer up some dogs for this service. they haven’t graduated to doing sunday Mass yet, but they are on their way :)

      the parish calls them EDoSAs


    7. JoyfulPapist August 9, 2010 at 4:10 pm

      There’s always one, Dave.

    8. dave morgan August 9, 2010 at 7:11 pm

      jp, really. i thought our parish was the first to try this out. i’ve never seen it anywhere else.

    9. JoyfulPapist August 9, 2010 at 7:38 pm
    10. Don the Kiwi August 9, 2010 at 8:01 pm

      If I was up in the mountains and dying for a drink, I’d really love to see a well trained St. Berbard dog with a little tot of rum tied under his chin. ;-)
      Actually, St. Bernard dogs could even carry one back home, they’re so big.

      But serve on the altar ???

      They’d have the bread eaten and the wine drunk before it could be consecrated.

      Seriously, in our parish, most of the young altar servers come from the one family – three boys and three girls. The oldest boy is now around 17, goes to Aquinas College, and is the NZ junior sprint champion; and he towers above Fr. Joe and Mnsgr. Michael. I expect he won’t be around much longer.

      Other than that, several of our senior male parishioners are excellent acolytes. But it would be great to get some more of our youngsters coming on as servers.

    11. Don the Kiwi August 9, 2010 at 8:04 pm

      I should also say, that that is at the 8.00 am Mass on Sunday, which I attend.

      I’m not sure about the 5.30 pm. Saturday vigil, or the 10 am. Sunday, or 5 pm. Sunday Masses.

      Maybe I should go to them all and check it out. :-)

    12. bamac August 9, 2010 at 11:14 pm

      The number of altar boys has been improving at St Marks… during the school holidays we had two young lads serving at the week day masses… they rode their bicycles to get there and were so reverent… this old girl couldn’t help smiling … am sure god did too!!!


    13. dave morgan August 10, 2010 at 1:04 pm

      i’m not sure, but i think that st john vianney parish (hillsborough, akl) has a big altar boy revival running. there could be some vocations from what is going on there.

      i wonder what mother teresa would say about altar girls? she said that the saddest thing for her was seeing communion in the hand everywhere. she understood very deeply the damage that that was doing. what damage to the life of the church is altar girls doing?

      i wonder…