San Francisco Priest Bars Altar Girls

A Catholic priest who recently took charge of a San Francisco parish has said only boys can be altar servers, a move that is sparking both criticism and praise and comes amid a wider debate over conservative concerns that the Catholic Church has become too “feminized.”

As media coverage of the controversy at Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church began to build in recent days, the Rev. Joseph Illo defended his decision in a statement issued on Jan. 26, saying he decided to make the change in November, a few months after he became pastor. Illo cited two main reasons for the switch.

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The first, he said, is that “boys usually end up losing interest [in altar service] because girls generally do a better job.”

The second and more important reason, Illo said, is that “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,” he said. “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.”

Illo’s comments echo recent remarks made by Cardinal Raymond Burke, a senior American churchman working in Rome who is an outspoken conservative and a favorite among many Catholic traditionalists.

Burke made waves in an interview with the head of a Catholic men’s ministry when he said that the church had become “feminized” and that the introduction of altar girls into U.S. dioceses in 1994 contributed to a decline in vocations to the priesthood.

“It requires a certain manly discipline to serve as an altar boy in service at the side of (a) priest, and most priests have their first deep experiences of the liturgy as altar boys,” said the former archbishop of St. Louis. He added that “the sanctuary has become full of women” and that has discouraged men from taking part in church life.

Burke also said the Catholic Church had been influenced by “the radical feminist movement,” and in his statement, Illo seemed to repeat that point.

“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,” he said. “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?”

Star of the Sea is the only parish in the Archdiocese of San Francisco to bar altar girls, and Illo said Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone—a vocal culture warrior in the U.S. hierarchy who leads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fight against gay marriage—had given him permission to take that step.

Only one U.S. diocese, in Lincoln, Neb., bars altar girls in all churches, though a number of individual parishes in other dioceses have a boys-only policy.

At Star of the Sea, boys and girls are only allowed to serve at Masses for students at the parish school; girls currently trained as altar servers will continue to serve until they leave but no other girls will be added. Altar boys will now be used at the parish’s regular Masses where only adults had been allowed to assist the priest.

Illo proved a controversial figure at a previous church when he told parishioners that if they voted for Barack Obama they would have to go to confession before receiving Communion.

A number of parishioners have told local media that they are upset with Illo’s decision and some said they are leaving Star of the Sea.

But Nancy Bye, a parent who serves as liaison between the school and the parish, told the local newspaper that complaints are only coming from “a few people.”

“I think a lot of the people who are upset are not parishioners,” Bye said.

Illo also said he believed the new policy would not only boost vocations to the priesthood but would also bring in more new members than they are losing. “We have seen an overall increase in numbers and the income is up,” Illo said.

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Franz K.
2 years 8 months ago
One detail missing from this story: Star of the Sea parish was recently handed over to the Oratorians of St. Philip Neri. Should we be surprised that girls, and women in general, are not welcome to serve at the altar by a group that favors the extraordinary form of the Mass? This priest was just less subtle in banning girls, instead of simply not accepting any without making it official policy.
Stephanie Barrett
2 years 8 months ago
This article does seem a bit over the top. Does every pastor of every parish now get to decide their own rules. My Baltimore Catechism defined us all as , "One, Holy, Apostolic Church." Anyone remember that definition? Than why does one pastor get to make a rule that in today's world seems to go back 20 years? Might I add that the archbishop who has his own crusade going against lots of things, including banning gays, has given permission for this? Decide for yourself. I am only a grandmother married 49 years this year, and a cradle Catholic. My mind and heart as a woman is saying, "No way!"
Robert Lewis
2 years 8 months ago
The Catholic Church is not monolithic, so I say, "Let a thousand flowers bloom!" Parishioners of this weirdo may simply vote with their feet, but "weirdos" who want to live in the pre-1950s American Catholic Church should be allowed their enclaves, too.
Martin Eble
2 years 7 months ago
Each pastor may choose not to allow female altar servers at his discretion if they are permitted in his diocese. This is an official ruling by the Holy See binding the Universal Church.
James Knipper
2 years 8 months ago
So if you extrapolate the pastor's rationale of the girls are better at serving, would this be one reason why the Church rather not have women priests? In the business world, one looks to have the best doing what needs to be done. Why would anyone wonder why people are still leaving...
2 years 8 months ago
This debate is both silly and serious. Silly because the "no girls" policy flies in the face of Jesus own ministry. He was accompanied by women throughout, enjoyed conversations with them, seemed to welcome children without sex discrimination, had an intimate resurrection appearance with one and could number many among his disciples both before and after the Resurrection/Ascension. Serious because the salvation of the world, at least about half of it, is being toyed with over the issue of sexual identity as male, female and even the more modern concerns regarding homosexuals, transgenders and others.
Cynthia Rivera Prestgard
2 years 8 months ago
As a woman, I agree with the policy. Girls can do anything, there are many ministries they can serve and yes, while they can do a great job as altar servers I think it should be reserved for boys. Girls/women have taken over many church ministries and it's been my experience that most men and boys will let the women/girls take over without complaint. Altar servers though are a prime feeder for the priesthood and I think should be reserved for boys...something special they can do without having girls judge them or manage them where they have close contact with Jesus in the Eucharist and a chance to witness the Mass in an intimate way. I came from the Arlington diocese where this policy was in effect at least at that time, and I didn't see people leaving the church in droves as implied by one reader. In fact my parish church was filled to capacity--6 Masses on Sunday. Perpetual adoration was crowded and we had long confessional lines each week. We were blessed with three young vicars plus the pastor. I believe, at least at that time, that Arlington had a good number of seminarians, too. The policy works. Bravo to Rev Illo!
John Swanson
2 years 8 months ago
These kinds of things make it so hard to hold on.
Jeannie Richards
2 years 8 months ago
"If the Catholic Church ordained women, altar girls would make sense, but the Catholic priesthood is a male charism," he said. "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."~Fr. Joseph Illo. What kind of gender-biased logic is this?! I believe there is a need for the laity of the church to speak up on such matters. There are many dedicated Roman Catholics seeking to effect change in today’s Roman Catholic Church, along with several organizations that have banded together to ask the Pope to end gender-bias and discrimination, including Call To Action, Fortunate Families, and the Women's Ordination Conference. So far, an estimated two-dozen organizations, like the American Catholic Council, the National Coalition of American Nuns, and the Federation of Christian Ministries/Roman Catholic Faith Community Council, are currently sponsoring a petition calling for inclusivity and equality which will be submitted to the Vatcian for their 2015 Family Synod which will take place on March 4, 2015. Part of this petition states (and I quote): "We urge the Vatican Synod office to make every effort to include a wide diversity of Catholics, especially those from the constituencies being discussed including divorced and remarried people, cohabitating couples, interfaith families, impoverished families, single parents, families with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members, same-sex couples, and families torn by the violence of war and abuse.These women and men can share their lives and stories in a way that creates greater understanding among the bishops who will, in the end, make critical recommendations about the Church’s priorities and pastoral practices for years to come." For those interested in promoting a more inclusive, less gender-biased church, I urge you to let your local parish priests and bishops know how you feel about this issue, and sign this petition referred to as "Widen the Circle at the 2015 Synod" at: http://action.groundswell-mvmt.org/petitions/widen-the-circle-at-the-upcoming-family-synod-2015?bucket&source=facebook-share-button&time=1421959678 You can also lend your support to social media organizations—on Facebook—like Call to Action, the Women's Ordination Conference, Roman Catholic Women Priests, as well as other essential groups bringing about this tide to change today's church. If you have any difficulties accessing the petition site, you can find a direct link posted at the top of my author’s page—aka the Miriamne Page. JB Richards Author of "Miriamne the Magdala-The First Chapter in the Yeshua and Miri Novel Series" and Content Creator for The Miriamne Page https://www.facebook.com/pages/Miriamne-the-Magdala-The-First-Chapter-in-the-Yeshua-Miri-Novel-Series/206903979347028
Martin Eble
2 years 7 months ago
It is probably worth pointing out that Call To Action, Women's Ordination Conference, American Catholic Council, National Coalition of American Nuns, and the Federation of Christian Ministries/Roman Catholic Faith Community Council oppose Catholic teaching on issues such as abortion, birth control, divorce and remarriage, and so on and that membership in some of them results in automatic excommunication in some dioceses.
ed gleason
2 years 8 months ago
As a past member of this Star of the Sea parish 50 years ago here is my take. Fr Illio 'floated ' around Rome with a few congregations, landed back in Dunwoodie NY in the 90s and was ordained for Stockton Ca. Left parish work in Stockton Ca for chaplaincy at a small Catholic college in Ca,. back to Stockton, and then loaned to San Francisco to start a new order for priests = a new Oratory.. He immediately introduced a Latin Mass. and no altar girls And he Wants to use the parish to hold up to 10 priests in residence/community. How does A/BCordileone justify a parish facility worth about 15 /20 $million dollars .[ almost a square block in high priced San Francisco] and give to a floating priest who has other plans than being pastor for the parishioners who paid for this real estate. Don't believe the usual excuse of 'changing demographics ' either. Was the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council consulted? In my days there, Star Of the Sea was a parish 'plum ' always given to a Monsignor with tight chancery connections.I left the parish but not my house when the pastor at the time said form the pulpit that as leaders of Christian Family Movement it would be better to label CFM, the Communist Front Movement. All the CFM couples left for welcoming parishes along with assoc. pastors and religious principal. On further reflection I have come to the conclusion its Ju-Ju in the parish water pipes. . .
ed gleason
2 years 8 months ago
Update; Fr Illo gave an interview where he claimed in the school with 150 families only 3 attended Mass. No altar girls and Latin is his and the A/B answer?
Martin Eble
2 years 7 months ago
Archbishop Cordileone “justifies” his actions by pointing to his episcopal consecration and appointment to the See of San Francisco by the Holy Father. Since the Catholic Church is not a democracy, you made the right move when you left the parish but not your house when you found yourself unable to cope with being criticized. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’”
Bill Mazzella
2 years 8 months ago
A comment made by a pastor who does not want to be a pastor and shows little effectiveness. The girls serving at the altar are not the reason for the small amount of vocations. Illo should spend his time serving the parish rather than demeaning women.
Martin Eble
2 years 7 months ago
The two American dioceses which did not permit female altar servers also experienced the greatest per capita entrants into the seminary. Coincidence?
Abigail Woods-Ferreira
2 years 8 months ago
When I read articles like this, I feel like Berger in that classic Sex and the City episode, like I should just break up with the Catholic Church via a post it on the church door that reads: "I'm sorry. I can't. Don't hate me." [I'm not going to, it just feels like it.] Edit: It's not the lack if altar girls itself that bugs me. Some traditions / rites / cultures / local churches don't have altar girls for whatever reason and if that is part of the local tradition I don't see anything wrong with that per se. It is the reasons given here by the priest, and the clericalism, bad liturgical theology, and very misguided notions of how boys and girls relate that is offensive. Most of my friends have sons, and the little boys have not problem or hangups about playing with my daughters. I grew up playing with boys. We even had co-ed soccer teams when I was kid, and the presence of some very skilled female players never turned off the boys from being on the team. If boys aren't doing things because girls are doing them, maybe the fault lies with the notions and examples they get from the adults in their lives and not with something innate to their gender. And the liturgical experience of the laity should be deep and full enough that one doesn't need to be an altar server to fully experience it. There is something very, very wrong with how we do and conceptualize liturgy and the laity if being an altar server is a young person's first deep experience with the liturgy.
Tim O'Leary
2 years 8 months ago
Abigail - glade to see you are open to diversity in local churches, which is more than most commentators below. But since you brought it up, I would say that "Sex and the City" represents almost the exact opposite of a Catholic understanding of women (or men), and presents a particularly base idea of what it means to be a woman. Maybe, you should just break up with "Sex and the City"? I do think that the secular misunderstanding of gender and equality is a root cause of many problems between the sexes in our society, and the difference "deniers" are constantly tripping themselves up in logic or consistency, whether it comes to biology (every single cell, for God's sake), psychology, life choices, culture and even spiritual roles, etc.. The Catholic concept of complementarity is the only way I can see for getting to equality without losing the full humanity of each sex. All secular attempts at a Procrustean equality run into odd distortions of reality. Just to give you one trivial example from sports. We have tennis "open" tournaments that are supposed to be "open" to all comers but they are not, since women play only women and men play men. If your co-ed approach were reasonable, shouldn't these sports (at least the non-contact sports) have single tournaments for men and women? Same with track and field, and maybe even soccer? I have no particular concern with having girls serve as alter girls (and they have been doing that in my parish for years), although I do notice a big major drop in boys wanting to be alter boys. In any case, isn't it an overemphasis on clericalism to want to have girls be alter girls, as if one needed to be on the alter to feel fully Catholic? If one is serious about clericalism, why not just let the priests be priests and let the laity assume most of the non-clerical roles and duties?
Abigail Woods-Ferreira
2 years 8 months ago
Relax - there is nothing wrong with some delicious junk TV, wine, and friends. But since I married I passed my SATC DVDs onto younger single friends years ago. And I'm not just tolerant of other people's traditions - I would note that my Byzantine parish does not have altar girls, and it has never bothered me. The Eastern Churches also have a rich tradition of lay spirituality and liturgical "participation" and perhaps that is why I am in general "meh" either way on the whole female priests question. I don't deny that there is a difference between men and women, but that difference is complex, varies from person to person, and expresses itself in ways that are very culturally conditioned. And in the Church's tradition, gender has a long history of being complex and of negotiating the tension between "God created them male and female" and "In Christ there is no male and female." The current trend of a simplistic "complimentarity" in some quarters of the Church seems more like a reaction to personally felt discomforts with the culture than any real, deep "ressourcement" of Christian or biblical tradition on gender. And yes, I think a lot of our conversation on female priests is driven by clericalism. Though I wouldn't be against it if the church were to allow female priests, I do think the focus on priesthood is a symptom of the larger problem in the Western Church of deficient theology and praxis when it comes to the role and dignity of the laity.
Tim O'Leary
2 years 8 months ago
I agree there shouldn't be a "simplistic" complementarity, no more than a simplistic equality, the latter being much more prevalent today. But it seems a little strange for you to be so blasé about the anti-women distortions of secular culture and so bugged at various parts of church culture, that you feel like leaving (even, if you, thankfully, do not intend to). Perhaps, you think that secular culture has so little credibility in it that it is not pulling people away from salvation, but I think it has a more nefarious influence.
Judith O'Connor
2 years 8 months ago
I'd like to invite America readers to view a new blog called "A Good Woman is Hard to Find," which hopes to address issues affecting Catholic women. Our first post addresses Cardinal Burke's original comment and a recent article from Crisis Magazine. In the post, we call into question the term "feminized," and try to debunk some of the claims the Cardinal and others have made. We're a brand new blog, so we would appreciate and value your feedback. You can access the blog at https://missedfits.wordpress.com/ Thank you for your thoughtful comments and allowing us to add our ideas to this important conversation.

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