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Women fill key roles in Catholic churches, feel strongly about participation

Sunday, September 28, 2003

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Rosemarie Longenecker remembers thinking "I don't buy it" when the nuns at her parochial school tried to explain why she could not become an altar server.

Altar girl Maddy McGuire, 10, of Rosslyn Farms, carries a candle during the procession at the start of Mass at St. Margaret Church in Green Tree on Friday. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

"I really thought it was unfair," said Longenecker, now 55 and a grandmother.

But that rejection never dampened her faith. She became a church employee, preparing children for sacraments at St. Ferdinand in Cranberry. Five years ago, she became a lay eucharistic minister, with the responsibility of distributing communion after the priest has consecrated it.

As one of the largest parishes in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, St. Ferdinand uses scores of altar servers, lay eucharistic ministers and lectors for the 20 Masses it holds each week and for funerals, weddings and holy days. Longenecker figures that at least half are women and girls. That is typical in this diocese, and experts say women are now strong majorities in many nonordained ministries in the Catholic Church.

Longenecker especially loves to see the altar girls working alongside altar boys.

"I think it's more true to what Christ was calling us to, because he was calling all of us to service, not just the men," she said.

Not everyone in the church views altar girls that way. Last week there were reports, some overblown, about a draft document from the Vatican's liturgical office that took a negative tone toward altar girls, who were approved by the Vatican only in 1994.

A group of cardinals and bishops has sent that draft back for revision, and its bottom line seems to have been only that a priest could not be forced to use altar girls against his will.

But word of the document sent ripples of discontent through an American church still reeling from the scandal of priests who sexually abused minors, many of them altar boys. And it served to highlight the fact that women, although they cannot be ordained priests or deacons, have become vital to helping those priests and deacons carry out their liturgical and pastoral duties.

"No one would raise an eyebrow if, on a Sunday, both of my lectors and all of my eucharistic ministers and all of my altar servers were female. Now, if I had all men in those roles, they would take note of that because it's such an unusual occurrence," said the Rev. Louis Vallone, pastor of St. Mary of the Mount, Mount Washington.

Even if the Vatican draft had been adopted, Vallone said, it probably would have changed little. According to published excerpts, it said altar girls were permissible for "a just pastoral cause."

That's Vaticanese for "it's up to the pastor." If he thinks that banning altar girls would be bad for his parish, he's got "just pastoral cause" to keep them, Vallone said.

He compared it to a document the Vatican issued several years ago which had a similar negative tone toward lay eucharistic ministers of either sex. Parishes still use them because they are necessary to move hundreds of people through communion and out of the parking lot in time for the next Mass.

"That's something liturgists don't have in mind when they write these documents. But if you're a pastor in a parish, you do have it on your mind," Vallone said.

No one keeps statistics on female lay eucharistic ministers and lectors in the United States. Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, a liberal Catholic reform group, saw an estimate by her conservative counterparts that 58 percent of altar servers are girls. She has no reason to doubt it.

Schenk gathers data on other ministerial jobs that do not require ordination, and which are rarely visible at Sunday Mass. Of 35,000 Catholic chaplains, 85 percent are women.

"Lay ecclesial ministers" educate adults, prepare converts to enter the church, prepare couples for marriage, guide others through the annulment process and do other pastoral work. Many have degrees or certification in their field. Schenk estimates that 82 percent of paid lay ecclesial ministers are women. The Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate, a major Catholic research center, reported that in 2002-03, 63 percent of the 35,448 people studying for lay ecclesial ministry were women.

"We have huge numbers of Catholic women involved in ministry in the church," Schenk said. "Many Catholic people think Father does it all. But usually behind Father are at least five other people, four of whom are women."

The Vatican's liturgy office is considered one of the most conservative strongholds in the Roman curia. In this case, some of its proposed rules appeared to be more Catholic than the pope: The same draft that took a negative tone toward altar girls would have banned all applause and dance inside the church. Both are common at papal Masses.

"Now someone is going to have to tell the pope he can't do this," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America and author of a book on the Vatican bureaucracy.

When Reese was researching that book, altar girls were still banned by the Vatican but were found in many Roman parishes, he said. Mannequins in the windows of Rome's many vestment shops usually included both an altar boy and an altar girl. And, at a papal Mass he attended at a suburban church, a girl with a long ponytail was conspicuous among the servers.

"Did the pope kick her out of the sanctuary? No," said Reese, who doesn't think John Paul has a problem with altar girls.

Although Reese believes the document would have allowed pastors to retain altar girls, its larger problem was its negative tone and effort to micromanage minor liturgical details from Rome, he said.

"There are two things fueling a lot of this. One is nostalgia from a few diehards who would prefer to have the liturgy back the way it was before Vatican II. The second one is clericalism -- the paranoid belief that any time we let the lay people do something we are diminishing the status of the priest," he said.

In 1994, the Vatican said the decision to allow altar girls was up to each diocesan bishop. In the United States, all but a tiny handful immediately welcomed them. The bishops who declined said they wanted to preserve altar service as a pathway to priesthood.

But while altar service had a vital vocational role in some eras, it has been less important since Vatican II, said the Rev. James Wehner, rector of St. Paul Seminary in Crafton. Decades ago, a priest might identify promising altar boys and encourage them to enter a minor seminary in eighth grade. But minor seminaries have virtually disappeared since 1970. And John Paul has encouraged other ministries that have become new doorways to priesthood, he said.

In the 1990s, entering seminarians were usually college graduates who had experienced a renewal of faith as an adult, Wehner said. Since the turn of the millennium, the age of Pittsburgh's entering seminarians has moderated down to the early 20s, but their call rarely stems directly from altar service.

Often they come through youth ministry programs inspired by the pope's World Youth Days. Admiration for John Paul, a response to his call for evangelization, and deep devotion to the Eucharist are often crucial to their sense of call, he said. While most have had liturgical roles that strengthened their call to ordination, it was often as a lector, lay eucharistic minister or other position in which women have served for decades.

Wehner can't recall a seminarian who grumbled about altar girls.

"It has never come up in conversation," Wehner said.

Others say that, for better or worse, priests have distanced themselves from the relationship with altar servers that once encouraged vocations. In the wake of the sexual abuse scandals, some priests are so skittish that they leave most training and direction of young altar servers to others, said Sister Jan Pritchard, pastoral associate at St. Margaret in Green Tree.

She trains the 70 altar servers at that parish. She hopes some altar boys will become priests and that some altar girls will become religious sisters.

"We are inviting all of these young people into ministry in the church, and it's not necessarily the priesthood," she said.

Megan McGonigle, 12, an altar server at St. Bernard in Mt. Lebanon, has thought of becoming a nun, largely because her best friend senses a call to it. Being an altar server has deepened her faith.

"Instead of not really paying attention in church, I'm listening to the readings and everything. I'm beginning to understand what it means," she said.

If someone said she could no longer serve, "I would feel disappointed because I couldn't help out anymore. And I would feel angry, because that's sexist," she said.

To Lori Mitchell McMahon, 44, a lay eucharistic minister and adult altar server at St. Anne, Castle Shannon, the thought of going back to the days when her service at the altar was forbidden is "absurd."

Helping the priests, "has allowed me to have a more intimate interface with what we hold as the most sacred of the mysteries of our faith, which is the Eucharist," she said.

Now her daughter, Lara, 11, the oldest of her five children, is also an altar server. McMahon thinks her daughter is having a richer experience than earlier generations of girls.

"She's participating in a way that I think can speak deeply to a child, even if they can't quite articulate or completely understand it," she said.

"Looking back, there has really been a quantum leap in intimacy, and a sense that we are really part of the church."

Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at or 412-263-1416.

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