A Catholic priest who recently took charge of a San Francisco parish has said only boys can be altar servers, a move that is sparking both criticism and praise and comes amid a wider debate over conservative concerns that the Catholic church has become too "feminized."
As media coverage of the controversy at Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church began to build in recent days, Fr. Joseph Illo defended his decision in a statement issued Monday, saying he decided to make the change in November, a few months after he became pastor. Illo cited two main reasons for the switch.
The first, he said, is that "boys usually end up losing interest [in altar service] because girls generally do a better job."
The second and more important reason, Illo said, is that "altar service is intrinsically tied to the priesthood and serve as feeder programs for the seminary."
"If the Catholic Church ordained women, altar girls would make sense, but the Catholic priesthood is a male charism," he said. "Nothing awakens a desire for the priesthood like service at the altar among the brotherhood of young men. At the risk of generalizing, I suspect young men serving with young women might just distract them from the sacrifice of the Mass, and perhaps even from a priestly vocation."
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Illo's comments echo recent remarks made by Cardinal Raymond Burke, a senior American churchman working in Rome who is an outspoken conservative and a favorite among many Catholic traditionalists.
Burke made waves in an interview with the head of a Catholic men's ministry when he said the church had become "feminized" and that the introduction of altar girls into U.S. dioceses in 1994 contributed to a decline in vocations to the priesthood.
"It requires a certain manly discipline to serve as an altar boy in service at the side of [a] priest, and most priests have their first deep experiences of the liturgy as altar boys," said the former archbishop of St. Louis. He added that "the sanctuary has become full of women" and that has discouraged men from taking part in church life.
Burke also said the Catholic church had been influenced by "the radical feminist movement," and in his statement, Illo seemed to repeat that point.
"If this altar boy policy bothers us, we must ask ourselves if we have not unconsciously accepted the errors of the current age; specifically, that the differences between men and women have no more spiritual significance than 'plumbing' arrangements," he said. "Do you think Mary, the Mother of God, would want to serve the Mass or be a priest, and even if so, why did Jesus not include her at the Last Supper?"
Star of the Sea is the only parish in the San Francisco archdiocese to bar altar girls, and Illo said Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone -- a vocal culture warrior in the U.S. hierarchy who leads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' fight against gay marriage -- had given him permission to take that step.
Only one U.S. diocese, in Lincoln, Neb., bars altar girls in all churches, though a number of individual parishes in other dioceses have a boys-only policy.
At Star of the Sea, boys and girls are only allowed to serve at Masses for students at the parish school; girls currently trained as altar servers will continue to serve until they leave but no other girls will be added. Altar boys will now be used at the parish's regular Masses where only adults had been allowed to assist the priest.
Illo proved a controversial figure at a previous church when he told parishioners that if they voted for Barack Obama they would have to go to confession before receiving Communion.
A number of parishioners have told local media that they are upset with Illo's decision and some said they are leaving Star of the Sea.
But Nancy Bye, a parent who serves as liaison between the school and the parish, told the local newspaper that complaints are only coming from "a few people."
"I think a lot of the people who are upset are not parishioners," Bye said.
Illo also said he believed the new policy would not only boost vocations to the priesthood but would also bring in more new members than they are losing. "We have seen an overall increase in numbers and the income is up," Illo said.