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Star of the Sea pastor trains only boys as altar servers

January 30, 2015
Valerie Schmalz

Star of the Sea Parish in San Francisco still has girl altar servers but it is gradually returning to the Catholic Church’s 19-century tradition of only male altar servers – and the decision is provoking some controversy.

The decision, made by new parish administrator Father Joseph Illo in November, has led to stories in the past two weeks in local and national news media.

Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone supports Father Illo’s decision but he also supports those pastors who choose to have both girls and boys as altar servers, said Karen McLaughlin, executive assistant to the archbishop. It is a pastor’s decision. Under canon law, a bishop can decide whether or not girls can serve as altar servers and most U.S. dioceses allow girls as altar servers.

Father Illo said the most important reason for the change is that serving as an altar boy is a proven way to encourage vocations to the priesthood and there is no pathway to the priesthood for women in the Catholic Church.

The parish is also encouraging leadership among girls and for the first time girls from Star of the Sea are reading scripture at the daily noon Mass, said parochial vicar Father Patrick Driscoll, who is responsible for a new group for girls, the Daughters of Mary.

“Altar service is intrinsically tied to the priesthood,” Father Illo said. “If the Catholic Church ordained women, altar girls would make sense, but the Catholic priesthood is a male charism. Nothing awakens a desire for the priesthood like service at the altar among the brotherhood of young men.”

The Archdiocese of San Francisco has received comments both pro and con about the change, split about 2-to-1 in favor of Father Illo’s decision.

A half dozen comments had come in by deadline Tuesday, ranging from “How shameful … How will this increase priestly vocations or church attendance?” to praise from a convert who wrote: “It seemed obvious to me that boys would respond to the innovation of female altar servers by feeling that serving at the altar had suddenly become a ‘girl thing,’ and would psychologically withdraw from openness to the idea of becoming a priest. I believe this has done terrible harm to our once-vibrant church.”

Today, the Star of the Sea altar server program has 15 altar servers and three are girls. All are scheduled to serve Mass, Father Illo said.

The parish itself is experiencing a small-scale revival in the six months since the two priests arrived to found an Oratory of St. Philip Neri Aug. 1. Mass attendance seems to be up but there are no hard numbers yet and the weekly collections have increased by 33 percent in the past three months, Father Illo said.

The 1994 “Vatican Communication on Female Altar Servers“ by the Congregation for Divine Worship states that it is the bishop’s prerogative to decide whether girls may serve as altar servers and supports Father Illo’s contention that a boys only altar serving program leads to increased vocations to the priesthood, notes Rob Graffio, vice chancellor for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. 

“… the Holy See wishes to recall that it will always be appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this had led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue,” the document states.

Father Driscoll and Father Illo offer confessions for at least 15 minutes before every Sunday and daily Mass. The parish opened the church all day beginning in the fall so people could stop in and pray. A chapel is being refurbished and the parish hopes to be open 24 hours a day for eucharistic adoration within the year, Father Illo said.

In general, with just six months under their belts, they are seeing positive if incremental results, Father Illo said. “I believe that strengthening the link between altar service and the priesthood will strengthen our parish community in the long run,” Father Illo said.

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