The National Catholic Review

This is not a local story, but one that represents larger trends in the church—in the priesthood, the liturgy and in the role of the people of God. Recently Sts. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix, Ariz., changed its policy on altar servers. From now on only boys may serve; girls may apply for jobs as sacristans. Why? The rector of the cathedral told The Catholic Sun that the cathedral is not alone in making this regulation. A parish in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., he argues, have found that replacing girls with boys as servers leads to more vocations to the priesthood.

These moves to limit laywomen’s access to the altar threaten to drag the church back into the pre-Vatican II world. One wonders if next the altar rail will return, another barrier between the priests and the people.

According to the rector, people who are upset about this decision concerning Mass servers make a mistake in considering it “a question of rights,” as if someone’s rights were being denied. But, he says, no one has a “right” to be a server or even more a priest. One must be “called” to any church office. When the secular world comments on who should be an altar server, he says, it has only an emotional view, unguided by the light of reason.

The key issue is the status of the baptized: that the laity may be called by the Spirit to offer their talents in various roles. The rejection of altar girls disregards the counsel of the Second Vatican Council that the charisms of the baptized “are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation.” By virtue of baptism, the council reminds us, “there is neither male nor female. For you are all ‘one’ in Christ Jesus.” There is “a true equality between all with regard to the dignity and activity which is common to all the faithful in building up the Body of Christ” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” Nos. 12, 32).

That this call should be fully welcomed does not appear to be a priority in Phoenix. Yes, the Vatican instruction “Sacrament of Redemption” (2004) allows women servers, but it leaves the decision to local bishops. In Phoenix the bishop leaves it to the pastors. This pastor did not consult the parish council, he says, because its members are not theologically trained.

Another issue is the image of the priesthood today. Is it wise to re-enforce the sense of the priesthood as a clerical caste? Is the acolyte supposed to be like the page who serves Sir Galahad until King Arthur dubs him a knight? In a culture where parents want their daughters to have the same opportunities as their sons—in co-ed Catholic colleges, in the armed services, in athletics, in employment—the church can look irrelevant, even foolish, in shunting them aside. The more the priesthood is presented as an exclusive club, the smaller and more remote it will become. Those who put up barriers between themselves and the people should, using modern parlance, recall Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Look, how many times do I have to tell you? You are here to serve.”

Inevitably the issue of women’s roles in the church raises the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood. Recently a cardinal in Lisbon and some bishops in Brazil, among others, also raised the question; but since Pope Benedict XVI, despite continued agitation, has reaffirmed the policy of John Paul II to allow no discussion of the topic, the matter of altar servers must be considered a separate and independent issue.

In no way should policies imply that women are second-class citizens—welcome to tidy up the sacristy, arrange flowers and clean linens but not to set the gifts at the altar or hold the sacramentary or censer. Rather, they must be welcomed into every service and leadership role, including catechists, lectors, chancellors and general secretaries of bishops’ conferences. (The diaconate for women remains an open question and ought to be explored.) Churches that invite all their people to bring all their talents to the welfare of the congregation will thrive. To tell a young woman that she may no longer pour the water on the priest’s fingers at the Lavabo looks like sexism. If the ban in these dioceses continues and spreads, perhaps women and girls will consider withholding their other services to the parishes, and men and boys, in solidarity with their sisters, will decline the honor of acolyte.

Having girls share serving opportunities with boys is an expression of their equality in Christ. Parishes must create a variety of social and service activities. A distinguishing characteristic of today’s young men and women, even when they are not “devout” in the usual sense, is their rejection of discrimination in any form. They are highly sensitive to any hint of exclusionary policies in organizations. Perhaps if more young people believed they could continue that commitment to equality as priests, more would be ready to follow a priestly vocation.

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Virginia Edman | 9/30/2011 - 8:19pm

  • The “image of the priesthood today”.  The obsession with priestly “image” is the problem.  The first step in ending the confusion/distortion for this publication’s readers would be for the editor to share Vatican II’s actual teaching on the identity (i.e. Sacramental character) of the priest.  That is, unless one dissents from the Church’s theology of priesthood.
This separation of priest from laity (alter girls, lectors, Eucharistic ministers, parish councils) drives me crazy.  I have heard this tone before.  It is the tone of the superior male cleric, and that tone is already there in their twenties.  Arrogant, distant, theologians, they shun women.  They are not pastors.  They quote the Vatican, they quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church, they threaten excommunitcation if you disagree, and then to top it all off, they forbid girls to be on the alter.

Where is the joy? Where is the sense of community?  Where is the equality?

Let's have Vatican III.

Arnold Richardson | 9/30/2011 - 8:11pm

It is very difficult sometimes to be charitable in the face of an outrage. Msgr. Lankeit  is visibly a very good practitioner of the admonition to be "as wise as serpents, and gentle as doves". But in the wider context of  the direction the Church is taking,  the exclusion of altar girls is not only in itself a serious error, but one of a series of retrograde actions to turn back the clock to the pre-Vatican II era.  Putting the tabernacle back behind the Altar, the New English Language Missal, the elevation of the hierarchy by placing barriers between clergy and people, having the altar turned to the back wall, (hardly likely in some centrally planned churches), are all part of a 'death by a thousand cuts'.  Many lay persons were worried about some of the excesses and liberties taken after Vatican II.   But most questionable enthusiasms have been corrected.  The concerted, surreptitious return to pre-Vatican II days must be rigorously challenged.  In such circumstances, clear, unambiguous assertion sometimes trumps the niceties of expression. There were many reasons for Vatican II.  Old, outmoded ways needed correction.  We have them. But for how long?

Dianne Pelullo | 9/30/2011 - 8:11pm
Not often am I moved to respond to articles.  But this is just horrible.  I am so very disappointed in the leaders of the Catholic Church.   Please stop treating men and women differently.  Where is God in this nonsense?
MG Chandler | 9/30/2011 - 6:35pm

 Your agenda is to "push" young females into positions for them to break down your misguided theology making women into priests. Shame on you

Liam Richardson | 9/30/2011 - 6:34pm
What needs to be highlighted is the chimerical aspect of this: boys are fully admitted to this service already, so they are not gaining any opportunities by this, so it’s not really enhancing vocations prospects. Except perhaps if we are talking about boys who don’t want to do anything that girls do. And I am not sure I want such boys cultivated for ministerial service if that’s the switch from No to Yes for them. I don’t think I’d want to encourage boys into that calculus. Note the important qualifier: *if* that’s the toggle switch for them. I don’t condemn them as persons. But I don’t approve of a system that *panders* that being the toggle switch. 

This decision, though licit, makes the Church look small. It does not build up the Body of Christ. The decision merits scorn.
Jack Rakosky | 9/30/2011 - 6:13pm

We live in modern times with modern challenges. Not some past age in which men were ordained to a series of offices: porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte, subdeacon, deacon, priest.

Today’s equivalent adult roles include readers, Eucharistic ministers, catechists, choir members, cantors, social ministries, etc. “Server” tends in most parishes to be exercised by only children and adolescents.

Today’s challenge is to involve as many children and adolescents in as many parish ministries as possible so that they develop life long patterns of parish involvement. If we do not do this as our major priority we will not need many priests! We have to get away from an education model to a practice model of passing on the faith.

The more children and adolescents that we involve in all these practices, the more of them that will consider becoming priests and religious as well as practicing these ministries as adults.

As for any specific ministries for future priests, they should experience as many as they can personally so that they will be better pastors in the future and related better to all the ministries of the parishes. It is ok to be a server for a couple of years, but that should be followed by being in the choir, taking communion to shut-ins, teaching catechism to very young people, etc.

In other words before becoming a priest be a model well rounded modern lay person.
Kay Satterfield | 9/30/2011 - 5:24pm
With all due respect Msgr Lankeit,  I understand that your new policy of only male altar servers is motivated by a desire to increase the number of priests under the idea that having girls on the altar confuses things.  That said I am confident that this new policy is going to backfire.  As a mother of 3 teenage/young adult sons, if I were a member of your parish, I would walk, no run to another parish/diocese if I have to.  I don't want my sons to be exposed to this sort of thing.  I also write the church donation checks.  

About the laity not having the theological background to participate in church related decisions, I have to respond that theological reflection is not just about tradition and church teaching but also about listening to the experience of the faithful. Otherwise how can the Catholic Church be relevant and connect with those she is trying to serve.
Norman Costa | 9/30/2011 - 5:23pm
I think the Very Rev. John Lankeit is more than worthy of our respect and considered opposing opinion. He has taken the time to be clear about his views and give us an opportunity to debate the matters. I don't see him being contemptuous of the other commenters.
Norman Costa | 9/30/2011 - 5:11pm
@ Very Rev. John Lankeit:

Thank you for commenting and weighing in on this discussion. It is good to be CLEAR about opposing views, since it helps to frame the discussion. Also, I understand a few things better than I did before, such as altar service being an early preparation or exploration for a priestly vocation. 

You mentioned the idea of the priestly identity, the Sacramental character, of the priest, and the theology of the priesthood. I think this subject, alone, is worth a couple of posts and discussions. The notion of the Sacramental character came up, earlier this year, in a critque of Blessed John Paul II's expectation that it would lead to the rehabilitation and redemption of offending priests who abused children. My personal view was that his faith was misplaced. 

Mona Villarubia challenged your position that the issue of Mass Servers is not a 'question of rights' as we tend to understand 'rights' in America. I understand your position from the vantage point of Church prerogatives and tradition. I think this is another important issue to discuss.

I've criticized those who equate Christianity with Western civilization, or who elevate the U.S. Constitution to a level of near parity to the Hebrew bible and the Christian Testament, or who can only see a 'born again Christian' as the only suitable candidate for the U.S. Presidency. Yet, we do see fundamental rights, as we understand them, to be endowed by a creator and unalienable. These are understood by believers and non-believers who see them as self-evident.

What almost all Americans do not understand, including most Catholics, is that our Constitution and democracy were looked upon as just plain wrong, if not near evil, by Popes up through Leo XIII and after. Our understanding and pronouncement of 'rights' was viewed with seething hostility in some quarters of the Vatican. Americanism would have been considered, long ago, the stuff of mortal sin and cause for excommunication if not for the deft handling, persuasiveness, and political skills of the American bishops since the founding of our Nation.

John Cooney's book about Francis Cardinal Spellman, The American Pope, was an acknowledgment, at long last, of a de facto American Catholic Church. 
Arnold Richardson | 9/30/2011 - 4:54pm
   Clearly, the Very Rev. John Lankeit doesn't understand the difference between ignorant emotionalism and reasoned argument.  But in the Gaderene rush to a pre-Vatican Golden Age his stance makes a sort of sense. No matter that by excluding girls from the altar he is demeaning one half of the People of God.  No matter that by stigmatising girls by asserting theyare responsible for the lack of masculine vocations to the priesthood.  Such assertions ignore the elephant in the room.  Vocations are affected more by secular pressures and an unwillingness to be asociated with a caste that shows an unseemingly arrogant view of presumed ignoramuses in the pews, who dare to call clerics to account for the horrible abuses some of them have comitted.
     His parishioners may not have degrees in theolgy, but Fr. Lankeit could benefit from a course in Sociology 101.  A dose of old fashioned commonsense, alas, is probably too late to expect.
Craig Hanley | 9/30/2011 - 4:34pm
Good editors would have ridden their egalitarian hobby-horse further enough down the road to note that this same rector's bishop has also just decided not to let the Phoenix laity have Eucharistic wine except on special occasions. That is a profounder throwback than not letting little Nancy wear an alb.
Norman Costa | 9/30/2011 - 4:26pm

From your mouths to God's ears. I am sure She is listening.
C Walter Mattingly | 9/30/2011 - 4:21pm
Why would anyone wish to deny a girl an opportunity to assist the priest at Mass? It was OK for Veronica to wipe the face of Jesus and many women served as Jesus' handmaids and assisted his ministry. Why prohibit our young women of today the opportunity to assist the priest? Jesus may have had all male apostles, but He had not a single altar boy we can cite as establishing an only altar boy cadre. Removing girls from altar service would simply be a destructive, gratuitous, and counterproductive regression.
Sean Simpson | 9/30/2011 - 4:16pm
Lord, help us ! One does get tired and weary of fielding insults from Mother Church poured out on our Catholic wives, girlfriends, friends and,indeed, mothers.insults to their intelligence,to their dignity and staus as free human beings !

As I get older,it has been pointed out to me by my kids, I'm getting more impatient, grumpier and tend to look back to the "Golden Age" of the my youth in the 60's and go on and on and on..I try to fight thiese attitudes.I want to remain a person of dignity with something relevant to say not just a moaner ! I feel I am making progress.Anyway, once pointed out to me,I have now noticed that this attitude is wide-spread among oldies of my age group! !

Do you think that clerics in their 80's or 90's have a magic potion which protects them from being 'old farts'-mitres not-withstanding ? How many old people fear the future,are suspicious of change and take refuge in nostalgia! All this to say that I do not think that a lot of the arguments around issues in the Church, role of women in the Church,celebacy etc etc are really about theology, but simply emanate from ageing leaders who can't cope. God forgive me, but I have to say step aside, in the name of God and do not obstruct the Gospel.
Father Lankeit | 9/30/2011 - 4:15pm

As the rector mentioned in this piece, I feel compelled to respond to the distortion and emotionalism contained herein, but the sheer amount of slant makes it tremendously difficult to even know where to start.   It seems best for me to being with my exact words to the good assistant editor who contacted me.  I told him:

"As the rector, I am the chief liturgist of the parish. I do not, as a general rule, consult our Parish Council on liturgical matters since the typical parish council (and ours, specifically) is not comprised of members formally trained in theology and liturgy. As many in the media have demonstrated clearly, the absence of formal theological and liturgical training leaves far too many individuals evaluating this decision from purely emotional, subjective standpoint. Such decisions require a proper understanding of theological anthropology, sacramental theology and ecclesiology, as well as a willingness to examine honestly what contributes to, and what detracts from, priestly vocations. Naturally, I consulted with the bishop, as he is the canonical pastor of the Cathedral. But he leaves the final decision and implementation to me."

I have bolded and italicized part of my statement because this particular opinion piece demonstrates in black-and-white, exactly the point I was making about a preferential option for emotionalism and ideology. Unlike a committee which lacks formal theological training (like the average parish council) the Jesuit assistant editor who contacted me, and who, presumably, wrote this piece, modeled precisely the emotionalism to which I referred, despite having the requisite theological training.

To go point-by-point through the article to unmask the distortions would require far more time and effort than I have available to invest, so I’ll highlight just a few of the distortions here:
  • “Replacing girls” and “shunting them aside”– if one knows the actual history of altar service, one knows that, prior to the establishment of the seminary system, altar boys were “apprentices” for priesthood, and the service pointed to that specific vocation. It was actually the boys who were replaced at the altar by dissident clergy in the late 80’s and early 90’s prior to the permission being given by the Holy See.  So this all started with disobedience which is the epitome of clericalism.
  • The “image of the priesthood today”.  The obsession with priestly “image” is the problem.  The first step in ending the confusion/distortion for this publication’s readers would be for the editor to share Vatican II’s actual teaching on the identity (i.e. Sacramental character) of the priest.  That is, unless one dissents from the Church’s theology of priesthood.
  • “The policy of John Paul II”.  (Could you not, at least, have referred to him as “Blessed” or “Pope”?) Presenting the Holy Father’s clear articulation of the Church’s teaching as a policy is a transparent attempt to frame Church teaching as arbitrary and, therefore, changeable.
“ Fr. ______, I look forward to reading a complete and accurate presentation of my statement in your publication, should your article make it to print.”

I responded in good-faith to his request for an interview.  Sadly, I did not receive a good-faith treatment in this opinion piece. 

As food for thought for the readers of America Magazine:  If you ever read that an individual featured in an opinion piece like this one responded, “No comment”, please understand that this does not automatically mean the person is afraid to confront a difficult issue. More often than not, such a comment is made out of frustration of having one’s words distorted, truncated or slanted one too many times, as mine were here.  For someone who has never had their words manipulated in the media for ideological purposes, no explanation will suffice. For someone who has had such an experience, no explanation is necessary.

St. Ignatius of Loyola…PRAY FOR US!


Very Rev. John T. Lankeit


Ss. Simon & Jude Cathedral

Phoenix, AZ
JACK HUNT | 9/30/2011 - 4:11pm
The fuss in the church and the world over sexual abuse  might be the greater reason for a decline in interest by boys in considering a priestly vocation  They just aren't attracted to the present public image. On the other hand a healthy catechesis for youth on wholesome and healthy gender cooperation might go a long way to correct some of this ennui we sense in the area of vocations. These so called "corrective" measures here and there serve not those who would serve.
Joe Kash | 9/30/2011 - 4:03pm
Boy's being alter servers?  I thought only girls want to be alter servers.  At least thats what it seems like in my parish.
Mona Villarrubia | 9/30/2011 - 3:42pm

According to the rector, people who are upset about this decision concerning Mass servers make a mistake in considering it “a question of rights,” as if someone’s rights were being denied. But, he says, no one has a “right” to be a server or even more a priest. One must be “called” to any church office. When the secular world comments on who should be an altar server, he says, it has only an emotional view, unguided by the light of reason.

There is an obvious problem with this statement by the rector: The church is consistent in denying that women can even receive a call to the priesthood, assuming that if it is a woman it cannot be a call from the Holy Spirit. How is that not a question of rights?  How is questioning this sexism not reasonable?

it is time for the Church authorities to stop hiding their sexism behind the claim that they know when and to whom the Spirit speaks. Any reasonable, theologically trained Catholic absolutely knows that no human agency controls whose heart God's Spirit touches. Sadly, theologically trained priests and bishops seem to have lost their sense of reason. It is therefore up to our reasonable, theologically trained laity, and there are many of us out there, to stand up and challenge these pseudo-rational claims.

David Haschka | 9/30/2011 - 3:34pm
“Gott hat die Klugheit aber nicht die Dummheit der Menschen begrenzt” [‘God has limited man’s intelligence, but not his stupidity’] (Konrad Adenauer, speaking to Sir Ivonne Kirkpatrick)
MARILYN DUNPHY | 9/30/2011 - 3:19pm
So many truck-sized holes to drive through....such little time.  Where is the evidence that having female altar services diminishes vocations to the priesthood?  Even if this were true, what does it say if a young man's call to the priesthood is so fragile that it cannot withstand serving alongisde young women when both are altar servers? Will we further entrench the clerical state in a culture of an exclusive, all-male club?  Using the "explanation" for not consulting a pastoral council because they are not theologically educated does not hold water.  Many pastoral council members do have theological education at the graduate level. Even if not, most are intelligent adults who are capable of hearing and critically assessing a sound theological argument if presented honestly and well. I do not believe that these moves to ban female altar servers are happening in a contextual vacuum.  There is an element in the Church, and in the episcopacy, that does indeed wish to march us firmly back to pre-Vatican II days.  Sad that these bishops seem to think that the priesthool can and/or needs to be propped up by such measures.  Those of us who have known priests who encourage all of the laity to claim and exercise their baptismal rights, and who walk humbly with us on our respective pilgrims' journeys are the ones who have inspired me and earned (not demanded) my respect.
ed gleason | 9/30/2011 - 12:52pm
"This pastor did not consult the parish council, he says, because its members are not theologically trained.'
The pastor did not consult the pastoral council because he would have had extreme push back. The pastoral council would have used its pastoral  sense , that's why it's existance is mandated.... pastor. So saying they have no theological creds is an outright falsehood  and extreme disrespect of canonical processes. However, these betrayals are OK in the eyes of the Trads in their guerrilla war against Vatican II. Partisans will always say 'Alls fair in a dirty war'..  


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