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Women or Girls serving at Mass

Women or Girls serving at Mass?!

From its formulation in the the Middle Ages, Church Law forbade women to serve at the Eucharist. The reasons for this were (a) women’s presumed inferiority that precluded them from leadership functions, and (b) women’s impurity because of menstruation.

In 1917, the prohibition was still firmly entrenched in the ecclesiastical legal code.

‘A female person may not minister. An exception is permitted only when no male person is available and if a just cause is present. The female person may not, however, approach the altar under any circumstances, and may only respond from afar’. (Canon 813/2).
[Imagine such an impure creature defiling the pure altar!]

Celebration of Holy Mass with a nun as mass server was permitted in a convent chapel, but there were restrictions as moral theologians pointed out.

‘If a male server is readily available, the celebrating priest would commit a venial sin. It is, however, forbidden on pain of grave sin for the female server to approach the altar’. (Heribert Jone, ‘Katholische Moraltheologie’, Westminster, MD: Newman Bookshop, 1946, p. 444).
[Note: the priest and sister commit a grave sin if she approaches the altar!]

Many Catholic women felt the ignominy of being excluded from serving at Mass deeply and personally.

When we were children, a woman tells me, “girls were told they could only go on the altar [past the Communion rails to the front of the church] the day they got married. It made me angry, because my little brother was an altar boy and he could go up there any day he served Mass.” She obviously means during Mass or some other Church service, because women have been cleaning and preparing the altar since the Last Supper! Another woman relates how, as a child, she learned all the Latin responses by heart and would get to Mass early each Lenten morning in the hopes that the altar boy wouldn’t show up and the priest would let her say the responses to his Mass prayers. She had to kneel in the pew, of course, because girls weren’t allowed up there with the priest. “I can remember being told by a priest in the early 1960s that it was a mortal sin (!!) for a woman to be present in the sanctuary [altar area] of Church during Mass," Ruth Wallace writes.
From: The Catholic Woman. Difficult Choices in a Modern World, by Jeanne Pieper, Lowell House, Los Angeles 1993.

Changes since 1963

1963 The Second Vatican Council launched a far-reaching liturgical reform through its document Sacrosanctum Concilium. Women were not mentioned in detail.

March 1970 The General Instruction on the Roman Missal provided for lay persons of either sex and without canonical limitation on age (although clearly they must be old enough to do the service appropriately) to supply some of the same services as installed rectors and acolytes. These additional roles had been classified in the pre-Code documents as liturgical ministries.

“All the ministries below those proper to the deacon may be perfomed by laymen whether they have been commissioned for any office or not. Those ministries which are performed outside the sanctuary may be entrusted to women if this be judged prudent by the priest in charge of the church.” (Gen. Instr. § 70)

September 1970 The instruction Liturgiae Instaurationes outlined which ‘ministries’ were permitted to women and which were not. Serving at the altar was still forbidden!

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.”

“In accordance with rules governing this matter, women may:

1980 Pope John Paul II stipulated in an instruction entitled ‘The Inestimable Gift’ that ‘women are not permitted the functions of an altar server’.

1983 Canon 906 of the revised Code of Church Law came into force in 1983 called for ‘the participation of a believer’ whenever a priest celebrates Mass and thus seemed to remove the ban on women servers implicitly. Canon 230/1 made it clear, however, that the office of acolyte - which covers that of altar servers - may be entrusted to men alone.

“Lay men who possess the age and qualifications determined by decree of the conference of bishops can be installed on a stable basis in the ministries of lector and acolyte in accord with the prescribed liturgical rite; the conferral of these ministries, however, does not confer on these lay men a right to obtain support or remuneration from the Church.” (Canon 230, §1.)

The Law recognised the need of exceptions, however, in special circumstances. Here women too were included.

Canon 230, § 3. “When the necessity of the Church warrants it and when ministers are lacking, lay persons, even if they are not lectors or acolytes, can also supply for certain of their offices, namely, to exercise the ministry of the word, to preside over liturgical prayers, to confer baptism, and to distribute Holy Communion in accord with the prescriptions of law.”

The present situation

Many local Churches throughout the world have begun to allow girls to function as altar servers. This in spite of repeated attempts by the Roman Congregation for Worship to discourage the practice.

In 1994 the Congregation for Worship capitulated. In a Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences it stated that the local Bishop may give permission for women and girls to serve at the altar.

“The Diocesan Bishop, in his role as moderator of the liturgical life in the diocese entrusted to his care, has the authority, within the boundaries of the territory entrusted to his care, to permit women to serve at the altar.”

In 2001 the same Congregation, in its instruction ‘Regarding Female Altar Servers’, reiterated that decision but declared at the same time that the local Bishop may also refuse to allow women to serve.

“The authorization [by a local bishop] to allow women servers may not, in any way, exclude men or, in particular, boys from service at the altar, nor require that priests of the diocese must 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.”

In other words: the battle is not over!

Read also: The crumbling of the institutional Church prejudice against women

John Wijngaards

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

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