Vatican May Diminish Girls' Role
Altar Boys Would Receive Preference

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post
September 25, 2003

VATICAN CITY -- Under new rules being drafted by the Vatican to crack down on "abuses" in the Roman Catholic Mass, altar boys will be given preference over altar girls, who should serve during the rites only in special cases.

The proposals, which have not yet been formally presented to Pope John Paul II for consideration, come at a time when some parts of the church are concerned that having altar girls might lead to a female priesthood. The difficulty of recruiting men for the priesthood and demands for sexual equality have spurred calls for the ordination of women in several countries; the pontiff, leader of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics, opposes that step.

"The Holy Father's position on this issue is well known," a Vatican official said. "However, we can't say anything more on these proposals because they are not yet finalized. We caution against jumping to conclusions."

Under the proposed rules, girls could serve at the altar only when there is an unspecified "just pastoral cause."

"Priests should never feel obligated to seek out girls for this function," the draft regulations state.

In 1994, the Vatican gave bishops the authority to allow altar girls to serve at Masses, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops permits the practice. "We had a whole generation of girls and women angry that they could not be servers at Mass," said Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and editor of the Catholic magazine America. "We don't need this grief."

Altar girls serve in countries outside the United States as well. In Italy, for example, they are a common and generally uncontroversial phenomenon.

The proposals were first made public in an advance text of an article in the Catholic monthly Jesus to be published in October. In general, the rules would curb informal practices that have grown up both for popular as well as practical reasons.

In April, John Paul II issued a call for tightening celebration of the Catholic Mass and in response two Vatican departments, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have forged the proposed rules. It is unclear when the pope will rule on the proposals.

A Vatican official suggested that the early publication of the draft was intended by opponents inside the Vatican to create controversy and sink some of the restrictive proposals.

"This premature news is creating a journalistic sensation that is not helpful," the Vatican official said.

The new norms also would prohibit dances and applause during the Mass. Ethnic dancing has been a feature of papal Masses during the pope's many foreign trips, and applause for the pontiff when he enters and exits Mass has grown common, even in St. Peter's Basilica.

In Italy, clapping at the conclusion of a variety of services including baptisms, weddings and funerals has become almost customary.

The proposed new rules would roll back some de facto changes that resulted from the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meeting of church officials that altered many Roman Catholic practices. Among them was an increased role for lay people in helping conduct worship services, as well as reaching out to other Christian sects.

Lay preachers must not "usurp" the role of priests, the document warns, nor preach the homily, a sermon delivered during Mass. Lay preaching in Catholic churches has grown common in parishes where priests and deacons are scarce, especially in northern Europe.

There is also a proposal to inhibit pan-religious participation in the Mass, a practice that had taken root during decades of ecumenical enthusiasm in the Catholic Church. Representatives of Protestant or other non-Catholic sects should not take part in the service beside the priests.

The use of non-Biblical readings during Mass, such as quotations from philosophers and poets, is also to be avoided.

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