When I was a kid I remember being so disturbed by the introduction of female altar servers that I vocally expressed my dissent to the program director with tears and a refusal to be an altar server if girls were allowed to serve. Yes, I was quite the 4th grade zealot; sincere in my fidelity but lacking in understanding. All I knew is that my parents had told me that female altar servers were against Church teaching and that was enough for me.
Every once in a while I will run into this same attitude toward female altar servers; an attitude I passionately shared, and realize where I was at and where I am now. How eagerly we defended that bulwark. While easily criticized as misogyny, a word that merely casts conservatives as haters; the real root for our passion was our fear concerning independent, undiscerned, change that was happening in the Church, especially in the post conciliar time. We weren't afraid of women but skeptical of change; which is always hard because it places in doubt identity. The work of distinguishing between what is essential and what is extraneous is hard work and we can easily either dismiss what is essential or over rate what is extraneous.
The Church has reaffirmed over and over again that the ordained man is a sacramental sign. The one who stands at table and breaks bread in the memory of Christ must be a man, as Christ was a man. It’s neither a hateful or hurtful statement. The presbyter takes the place of Christ in a unique way in the complete sacramental sign of the man offering bread and wine. The priesthood is therefore not a series of duties to be performed (like the protestant vision of a minister) but a sign in himself (just as motherhood cannot be reduced to a series of tasks to be performed). The Church can no more ordain women than it can use milk for baptism. Yes, it’s that important.
However, just because the masculinity of the minister is essential to the sacramental sign; it doesn't necessarily mean that all aspects that are traditionally assigned to the priest must only be fulfilled by a man. While the fundamental seven sacramental signs are continuous; the context of their celebration has not always been the same, as anyone who has studied liturgy would know.
This, however, should not be interpreted a liturgical relativism. Determining how to celebrate the liturgy is a discernment process, an integrated process. It means being in communion with the entire tradition of liturgy and the mind of the Church; not simply creating something carte blanche.
In this discernment process the Church has seen that the restriction concerning woman altar servers, lectors, and extraordinary ministers was not essential to the celebration. Woman ministers were present in the early liturgies and the Church (Deaconesses, Eucharistic Ministers, etc) and it is right to see these past impediments as cultural strictures.
As this process of change progresses I would be in favor of greater female presence in Church councils and parish leadership; a process that is already happening. Just because the priest is a sacramental sign does not mean that participation in the discernment and defense of the deposit of Faith is a strictly male prerogative.
In terms of Altar Servers; I think it’s important to realize that they never were “Acolytes” according to the ranking of the minor orders. They are not a preparatory stage for Holy Orders. In reality they are more closely related to the designation of choir members since their primary duty is to respond to the priest. This is why they wear choir robes (Cassock and surplice). They are respondents, singers, assistants. They stood in the place of the community who either could not hear or understand the priest during the Pre-Vatican II liturgy.
Thus, I am a supporter of woman altar servers. I think the more we cling to what is nonessential the more we undermine our credibility when it comes to what is essential. I think that girl altar servers should be encouraged and supported. That being said; there are somethings that I would like to see in the altar server programs in general.
First, I think altar server programs should be demanding and truly formative. Nothing is more uninspiring for a child than a program with low expectations. The more we give them real responsibilities and the formation necessary to fulfill their tasks the more they will take ownership of their identity.
Second, I am generally not in favor of this move to avoid the hassle of child altar servers and replace them with adults. This is simply priests and liturgists being lazy. Altar servers are generally the cream of the crop in terms of the youth and thus there is a golden opportunity to do some in depth formation with children who are invested (an opportunity often underutilized).
Third, while I support female altar servers; I think that some single sex formation has advantages. I don’t know if all the formation needs to be separated, but it does seem advantageous if some of the formation and activities are directed toward one or the other gender. I think it is also good for us to incorporate more female leadership in the altar server program. I also am not opposed to women servers wearing different vestments from their male counterparts; either a different vestment altogether, or a different style of tailoring.
Finally, clergy and religious should be more involved in their formation. Invite the group to the rectory for dinner, go camping, participate in their formation, etc... Altar servers should visit houses of religious formation and be involved in works of ministry. They should be familiar with the life of priests and religious.
In conclusion, I can truly understand the passion with which some have opposed girl altar servers, and the reasons that they have given. In the end it simply not as counter traditional as we have often made it out to be. The Church has blessed it and I think the more we embrace it the more we will be able to give it a wholesome expression instead of treating it as a tolerated rebellion.