The Rev. Joseph Illo, pastor at Star of the Sea Church since August, said he believes there is an “intrinsic connection” between the priesthood and serving at the altar — and because women can’t be priests, it makes sense to have only altar boys.
“Maybe the most important thing is that it prepares boys to consider the priesthood,” he said.
The Richmond District parish is now the only one in the Archdiocese of San Francisco that will exclude girls from serving at the altar. Such a decision is “a pastor’s call,” said archdiocese spokesman Chris Lyford.
Still, the decision has rankled some people at the church and its school, where some, but not all, parents and students disagreed with the move, said parent Nancy Bye, who serves as liaison between the school and the parish.
“I think it is a few people,” Bye said. “I think a lot of the people who are upset are not parishioners.”
…Girls trained to be altar girls will be allowed to continue serving, with the use of females phased out. Illo said he wants to get an altar boy program up and running for all Masses, as part of a larger father and sons program at the church.
An altar boy program would be a male bonding experience, one that helps them socialize and develop their leadership potential, Illo said. Girls would still be allowed to perform readings during Mass.
UPDATE: Catholic San Francisco has more in this week’s edition:
The Archdiocese of San Francisco has received comments both pro and con about the change, split about 2-to-1 in favor of Father Illo’s decision.
A half dozen comments had come in by deadline Tuesday, ranging from “How shameful … How will this increase priestly vocations or church attendance?” to praise from a convert who wrote: “It seemed obvious to me that boys would respond to the innovation of female altar servers by feeling that serving at the altar had suddenly become a ‘girl thing,’ and would psychologically withdraw from openness to the idea of becoming a priest. I believe this has done terrible harm to our once-vibrant church.”
Today, the Star of the Sea altar server program has 15 altar servers and three are girls. All are scheduled to serve Mass, Father Illo said. The parish itself is experiencing a small-scale revival in the six months since the two priests arrived to found an Oratory of St. Philip NeriAug. 1. Mass attendance seems to be up but there are no hard numbers yet and the weekly collections have increased by 33 percent in the past three months, Father Illo said.
And the pastor posted a statement on the parish website (which has been updated to show pictures of the altar boys):
Altar service is intrinsically tied to the priesthood and serve as feeder programs for the seminary. If the Catholic Church ordained women, altar girls would make sense, but the Catholic priesthood is a male charism. Nothing awakens a desire for the priesthood like service at the altar among the brotherhood of young men. At the risk of generalizing, I suspect young men serving with young women might just distract them from the sacrifice of the Mass, and perhaps even from a priestly vocation.
I want to emphasize that we are not discontinuing altar girls because females are somehow incapable or unworthy. Girls are generally more capable and certainly just as worthy as boys (because God makes us worthy). The news media has portrayed our decision as discrimination. It is not. It is simply giving boys a role they can call their own, and more importantly recognizing the priesthood as a specifically fatherly charism rather than a motherly charism. If this altar boy policy bothers us, we must ask ourselves if we have not unconsciously accepted the errors of the current age; specifically, that the differences between men and women have no more spiritual significance than “plumbing” arrangements. Do you think Mary, the Mother of God, would want to serve the Mass or be a priest, and even if so, why did Jesus not include her at the Last Supper? Is it not because she, as a woman, has a distinct, an even more exalted role than the Apostles?
Altar girls is a common practice only in Europe and North America; in countries that have high numbers of vocations and flourishing Catholic communities, girls do not generally serve the Mass. At Star of the Sea many girls read the scriptures at Mass, help prepare the altar before and after Mass, and participate in a girls-only group called the Daughters of Mary. Some parishes and even two US Dioceses do not have altar girls, and so we are not that unusual in this regard. We hope that by strengthening the link between altar service and the priesthood, and providing supportive groups for young men and women, we will strengthen our parish community in the long run.