Questions Answered

St. James Cathedral, Seattle, Washington

Question: What is the origin of female altar servers?

Answer: Female altar servers are a fact of life in the Church since 1992. The ability of girls to serve at Mass is established by papal authority, so one must accept their possibility and existence. Still, the history of how this occurred is confusing.

First, it must be established that this is a matter of human law, and not divine law, so it can be changed. Second, there is a longstanding tradition of only boys being altar servers at Mass. Third, as such, service at the altar is considered a source for priestly vocations, and many believe this has reduced priestly vocations where serving is open to both boys and girls. Fourth, the occasion which seems to have raised this issue in the Church was progressive radical feminism in the contemporary Church. Fifth, there was a long period of disobedience in the Church when allowing altar girls to serve at Mass was understood to be against Church law. However, a number of parishes allowed girls to serve anyway. Then, the practice became legally accepted.

The Code of Canon Law addresses the issue of lay people participating in the actions of the liturgy thusly: “Lay persons can fulfill the function of lector in liturgical actions by temporary designation. All lay persons can also perform the functions of commentator or cantor, or other functions, according to the norm of law.” (230, n. 2)

Obviously, an acolyte is not included here. With the rise of feminism in the Church, people began to demand women’s ordination, at least to the diaconate. Although Pope Francis has revived a commission to study this again, it was clearly denied as an order even in the early Church by several already existing contemporary papal documents. Altar girls were seen as a compromise.

A dubium (that is, a question for clarification) was taken up by the Congregation for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts on June 30, 1992: “Whether among liturgical offices to which the laity, whether women or men, can function is included service at the altar.” The decision was: “Affirmative, according to the instruction given by the Apostolic See.” It does not seem the Holy Father was consulted when this decision was made on such a longstanding tradition. Nevertheless, he confirmed this decision on July 11, 1992.

When Cardinal Ortas, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship promulgated this decision, he gave the following observations:

1. Episcopal conferences may decide to permit this but this not an order or command. Priests still remain free to decide whether to use this permission or not.

2. It is appropriate to remember that the tradition has always been altar boys.

3. If the permission is used, the tradition is to be clearly explained to the faithful when it is implemented.

4. This permission is given ex temporanea deputatione (by temporary appointment) and must not be considered a right.


Question: In Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, I gained an understanding of a “Hierarchy of Beings”. By this, I understood, that “Pure Existence” gave a share in His existence to all living beings, real and theorized (i.e., Angels), in creation. Therefore, He said: “I am who am”.

Am I correct in my understanding of Aquinas? Is our soul the “share” of God’s pure and total infinite existence?

Answer: The hierarchy of being involves the principle that the Creator is the one in whom essence (what he is) and existence (that he is) are identical. God is the only being in which this can be the case, as God is the author of motion, change, and composition, but must logically not to be a subject of motion, change, and composition. In all others, being, essence, and existence are really distinct. This is because they are created.

Since all things come forth from God, they participate in a likeness to the Creator, each on their own level of existence. The term “share” is perhaps too much about creatures which do not have a spirit. The term “participate” is perhaps more apt. This means that they seek to return to the Creator by their motion—they reflect what he is like, and they depend on him for existence. It should be noted that all beings—whether they be substances or accidents—participate in God’s likeness.

However, since accidents adhere in substances, then the substances demonstrate their likeness to the Creator in the most evident way. Since all things come forth from God, who is absolutely one, they seek to return to unity in their diversity, and it is the type of return which determines their place in the hierarchy of beings.

First, there is the world of matter, which has no soul. These beings do not move themselves back to the Creator, but more are moved by him. True, he does not normally move them directly, but imparts this to those which are more powerful as to form—for example, the sun to move those less powerful such as to form the rocks, planets, etc. Their moving force in creation is more that they are acted upon, than they act. They have no life of interiority or self-movement. The unity which they experience is a superficial one, like the unity of stones.

The first breach in the threshold of matter would involve some kind of self-movement. This occurs in the world of organic life in which one being can absorb another without destroying it. This would be plant life. The organism can unify energy, water, nutriments, and perform actions such as reproduction, growth, and nutrition, but it is still bound to matter, and so must destroy these other elements to unify them with its being.

With animals, this interiority becomes more sophisticated, and thus more interior. Through sense knowledge and desire, an animal can experience union with a being in its interior self without destroying or absorbing it. The eye, through the image, for example, can take in, or experience, union with the apple without destroying the apple. This image, and the power of imagination and memory, allow the higher animals to expand the limitations of their own existence, to experience a grand unity with a great number of other things. Through sense knowledge, they unify these things within and through love, that they experience as a kind of sympathy with the rest of creation, which is astonishing. Aristotle was so impressed by this that he also attributed a kind of prudence to the animals, in the sense that they can know things are harmful or useful to them in one experience. The lamb smells or sees the wolf, and runs away. This is on the very threshold of spirit or judgment, but is not yet there because the animal soul does not exhibit intellectual life or love.

In man, one arrives at the summit of material existence. Man is a body AND a spirit. He summarizes in his soul both the lower creation, and touches the angels. In his knowledge, he can experience not only unity, or love, for one individual tree; but because of his intellect, he can experience all trees in experiencing just the one. In the will, he can love all trees in loving one. Though participating in matter, he transcends matter. In his soul, he can arrive at God if he is given the grace to do so. God is present in all things which exist, but not as a part of their being. Man not only participates in the being of God by having an intellect and a will, but he also is called, through grace, to experience God in communion of spirit as an object of blessedness. It is in this sense that man can be said to “share” in God’s existence.

Philosophers posited that if there were material beings in whom essence and existence were really distinct, and man was the highest of those, to complete the hierarchy of creation, there must be immaterial beings which did not participate in matter, but in whom the only distinction was between their essence and existence. These are the angels. The insight that angels were composed and changeable, but not because of matter, was perhaps implied by people, like Aristotle, but made finally explicit by Aquinas. This was the source of what is known in Christian philosophy as the real distinction between essence and existence, and was the summit of the application of participation in the being of God.

The most beautiful expression of this hierarchy is in an oft used quote in the Middle Ages from a neo-Platonic philosopher named Proclus:

Man stands in the middle of creation, on the horizon of being, between flesh and spirit, between time and eternity.

The dignity of man is seen in the fact that, in his body and senses, he summarizes all the lower orders of creation as they seek God, and also touches the higher being of the angels, who seek God, by being called to communion and blessedness with him.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

Please send your questions to:
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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Portland, OR 97232
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  1. Avatar Jack Benedict says:

    As I recall, it was John Cardinal O’Connor who pushed Rome the hardest for a declaration allowing for female altar servers.

  2. Avatar ermole amatho says:

    good, thank you

  3. Avatar Joseph Welch says:

    Altar servers do not, I think, appear in the rubrics as such. Rather, in seminaries and major churches, the tradition was that seminarians, those training for the priesthood, those in minor orders, assisted the priest at the altar. Ordinary parishes did not have access to gangs of seminarians so the tradition grew up of laymen and boys fulfilling those roles. However, all altar servers were still seen as assisting in the priestly ministry of the sacrifice of the Mass, and because of this all altar servers needed to be male. Altar serving is not separate from the priestly ministry; servers emanate – as it were – from the priesthood itself, and in some quasi-ritual sense are almost part of the priesthood, or at least an off-shoot of the priesthood. As a result, the Church can no more allow female altar servers than she can ordain female priests. Consequently, we are now in the paradoxical position of the Church Herself doing something that She Herself cannot do, namely have females assisting in the priestly ministry. The theological and quasi-sacramental anomalies that this situation now involves will, sooner or later, have to be sorted out by the Church.

    • Avatar C. Zylstra (Freitag), MDIV says:

      Mr. Welch, altar servers have always been seen as being separate from the priesthood itself.
      And, contrary to your understanding, altar servers existed before any seminaries existed. It is a lay ministry and it always has been. For this reason, Pope John Paul II made changes to Canon Law that allowed for females to serve at the altar. Your understanding is held by many who prefer the extraordinary form of the Mass (Vatican I) – for example, the FSSP which is in full communion with Rome. The extraordinary form does not allow for female altar servers. Your statements are not supported by Sacramental Theology, Church Doctrine, or Canon Law with regard to the nature of altar servers. Before Seminarians progress to the Transitional Diaconate, they may be installed as acolytes and Lectors. At this present time, Canon Law only permits men to be installed as acolytes and Lectors – those who are not installed are known as altar servers and readers, respectively. A seminarian remains a lay person until he is ordained a transitional or a permanent deacon. In the Vatican I Church (FSSP), clerical status begins with the first tonsure. And to correct you further, I will direct you to Pope Benedict changing Canon Law in 2009 to distinguish the different Sacramental nature between the priesthood and the diaconate – he clarified that both are different ministries with different Sacramental natures which each stand on their own merit. In short, an ordained deacon, though receiving the Sacrament of Orders, is ordained into a different Order from a priest — only a priest (and bishop who is also priest) is conferred through Holy Orders the Sacramental Character that allows him to act in persona Christi. As you are aware, the Church is studying the issue of women deacons. There are many who erroneously believe that if women were ordained into the permanent diaconate, this would eventually open the door for them for ordination into the priesthood. For the very reasons I cited above, this will not happen. I believe Pope Benedict had great insight and sensed that the Holy Spirit was moving the Church to restore the permanent diacaonte to women, as there is a historical precedence for this — and he opened the door for that possibility through his 2009 change to Canon Law — but — Catholics need to understand there is no historical precedence for women being ordained into the priesthood. There is no historical record that evidences that women were validly ordained as priests — ever — in the history of the Catholic Church. Finally, I want to end by saying that both the extraordinary and ordinary forms of the Mass add depth and beauty the Church. There are times when I would like to attend the former as I grew up with the Latin Mass, but most of the time I prefer to attend the ordinary form of the Mass. I hope that my explanations are helpful to you.