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Ventura County Religion

More Girls Taking Up Role of Altar Servers at Catholic Churches

Religion: Trend has been growing since 1994 when the Vatican gave its permission for the youngsters to assist priests in sacred rites.

September 12, 1998|PAMELA J. JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Colleen Smith recalled the frustration she felt five years ago when a church official visited her fourth-grade classroom and asked the students if any of them wanted to be an altar server.

Her hand flew up.

"A bunch of us girls raised our hands," said Colleen, 14, now a ninth-grader at St. Bonaventure High School on Telegraph Road.

But the girls' arms dropped when the church official from Our Lady of the Assumption clarified her question.

"I meant of the boys, who wants to serve?" the church official asked.

The follow-up question puzzled Colleen.

"When you're in the fourth grade, you kind of wonder, why can't girls do it?" she said.

The next year, Colleen's prayers were answered when the Vatican broke with tradition and approved girls serving at the altar during Roman Catholic Mass.

A server now for four years, Colleen was among the first girls in Ventura County to become servers at Catholic churches since the law was revised in 1994. Of the 120 servers at her church, 58 are girls.

"We're happy to have our girl servers," said Our Lady of the Assumption Pastor Michael Jennett. "They're very good and very faithful."

Altar servers, generally ages 8 to 14, assist the priest by lighting altar candles, participate in the ritual washing of the priest's hands, and present the bread and wine to the priest to be consecrated as the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

The practice of allowing girl altar servers began at some churches in 1983, when a revision in church laws did not explicitly forbid girls to join boys as altar servers.

But many churches, such as Our Lady of the Assumption, Mary Star of the Sea in Oxnard and St. Rose of Lima in Simi Valley, waited for explicit authorization from the Vatican before allowing girls to serve.

At St. Rose of Lima, girls were allowed to serve during Mass in a limited role before the official church action. They could carry the cross and candles to the altar, but could not serve on the altar until the Vatican gave its permission.

"I was happy when the day came that the girls could expand their role," said Linda McCann, the church's altar server scheduler. "I thought it was right."

Nearly half of the 80 servers at the church are girls. Of the estimated 70 servers at Mary Star of the Sea, about 20 are girls, said altar server coordinator Marcus Darilag.

"But lately the trend is that more girls are signing up," Darilag said.

Although Colleen said she thought it was time to allow girls to become servers, she stopped short of saying it's time to allow women to become Roman Catholic priests.

"I've always felt that girls could do just as much as the boys, if not more," said Colleen, who would one day like to play for the Women's National Basketball Assn. "I don't want people to judge me. But Jesus was a man. The apostles were men. Maybe priests should be men, too."

Pastor Jennett, however, appeared to be open to the possibility.

"Theological and scriptural arguments have been offered in support for ordaining women as Catholic priests, but so far they have not been sufficient to change the nearly 2,000-year tradition.

"But you never know what will happen," he continued. "All things are possible with God."

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