Two notes on Rome rally of altar boys (and girls)

by John L. Allen Jr.

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According to an old Italian saying, only cani e americani move in Rome in August – dogs and Americans. The sweltering heat, however, did not deter an estimated 50,000 altar boys and girls, mostly but not exclusively German, from descending on the city this week for a massive rally with Pope Benedict XVI.

The gathering was billed as an “International Pilgrimage of Altar Servers,” part of an event organized every five years by a group called Coetus Internationalis Ministrantium.

“You are not only creating a festive environment in the square, but you are also filling my heart with joy,” Benedict told the youthful crowd in German. He went on to briefly explain the history of Saint Tarcisio, who was an altar server himself.

Two things about the event seem worthy of note.

First, for the first time this year, the female altar servers in attendance outnumbered the males. According to organizers, the balance was roughly 60-40 in favor of females. The official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, pointed to the turnout as a symbol of “the massive entry in recent decades of girls and young women into a role once reserved exclusively to males.”

That’s striking given that in some quarters, the very idea of altar girls remains controversial.

The practice has been banned in a handful of dioceses around the world, usually by bishops or pastors who worry that it might seed confusion about church teaching on the reservation of priestly ordination to men. (In related fashion, some argue that because altar service functions as a kind of “feeder system” for vocations to the priesthood, it should be exclusively for boys.)

In 2003, the use of altar girls was briefly part of a draft Vatican document on liturgical “abuses,” though that document was softened after strong internal criticism.

In that context, the celebratory tone in Rome this week about altar girls would seem to signal clear Vatican support for the practice.

Second, Vatican sources seemed eager to bill the gathering of tens of thousands of devoted young Catholics with Pope Benedict XVI as a kind of counter-point to the sexual abuse scandals of recent months.

Here’s how the editor of L’Osservatore Romano, Gian Maria Vian, phrased it in a front-page editorial on Wednesday:

“The beauty and the commitment of this world meeting of altar servers, under the summer sun, clearly demonstrates – in the wake of a long, cold media season based on horrible scandals, which tried indiscriminately to obscure the beauty and the radical nature of the Catholic priesthood – the importance of how much the church has done throughout history, and how much it continues to do every day and in every part of the world, for the formation of the youngest generations.”

L’Osservatore also quoted three German altar servers named Florian, Christian and Lena to the effect that “for us, there have never been the problems about which there’s been so much talk.”

Instead, the young Germans said, “we want everyone to know that there are people like the pope, thank God, who comfort us in the faith and are close to us when times are tough.”

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