Beliefs Institutions Politics

San Francisco priest bars altar girls, sparks another controversy

Video courtesy of SFGate

(RNS) 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, the Rev. Joseph Illo defended his decision in a statement issued Monday (Jan. 26), 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.”

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 that 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 Archdiocese of San Francisco 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.

YS/AMB END GIBSON

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

67 Comments

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  • I have a couple of questions about the pastor’s analysis. To begin, how does he know that the reason for an increase in attendance and donations is the boys-only policy? And how does he know that it is not just a blip, since he only changed the policy a couple of months ago?

  • His remarks make perfect sense. It’s odd that his stand (which is within his discretion as pastor or administrator) is a public controversy. Prior to 1980, it was not done to have girl acolytes, and prior to 1994, it was done only by parishes going rogue. What Fr. Neuhaus said applies here: when orthodoxy is optional, sooner or later orthodoxy will be proscribed.

    To begin, how does he know that the reason for an increase in attendance and donations is the boys-only policy?

    How does one verify any sociological proposition? This is suggestive: Lincoln, Neb. has long had a surfeit of vocations. The indifference to contemporary fashion was a characteristic of Bp. Bruskewitz ministry and is a motor of the refusal to institute girl acolytes.

  • said Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone — a vocal culture warrior

    I.e. he says things in plain language which irritate bourgeois types who manipulate words and images for a living.

  • Those altar girls will be welcome in my Episcopal parish to serve at the altar, and if any of them want to be priests, they will be welcome to do so.

  • If the future of the Catholic Church is at stake if girls are alter servers than the Catholic Church is in trouble.

    Why are girls being punished for performing too well?

  • What is the Biblical basis for “altar boys” anyways? Just curious, since there is no mention of them in the New Testament regarding first-century Christians that I can find. Or is this just another man-made tradition adopted by the church?

  • Fran, you have a canon of Sacred Scripture because it was so declared at Church councils in the 3d century. God founded not a book but a Church.

  • They’re not being ‘punished’, much less for ‘performing well’, but if the rhetorical gamesmanship of domestic arguments pleases you in this forum, fine.

    The priest makes his reasoning plain You elect not to understand him.

  • Religion is an assault on women.
    This priest is no different.

    GOD’S HATRED OF WOMEN IS ETERNAL

    “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” – God (Genesis 3:16)

    What could go wrong with such a philosophy?

    BURN YOUR DAUGHTERS ALIVE
    “And the daughter…if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.” (Leviticus 21:9)

    “Blessed are you, Lord God, Ruler of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” — Jewish Morning Blessings, Siddur, p. 12.

    So…Why shouldn’t godly men hate women too?

    “WOMAN, WHAT HAVE I TO DO WITH YOU?” – Jesus (John 2:4)

    And why shouldn’t godly women hate themselves?

    “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission..I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence” (1 Tim. 2:11-12).

    A godly wife is only the property of a godly man, after all.

    “If a man sells his daughter as a slave [for sex], she is not to go free as male servants do.”
    (Exodus 21:7)

    If you can beat your slave, why not beat your wife?

    “Do not rape my beautiful sons, rape my virgin daughters instead.” Lot – (Genesis 19:4-8)

    AN Atheist can be mean to women, but at least we don’t have INSTRUCTIONS from an Almighty God COMMANDING BRUTALITY towards all women!

    If you have a daughter, abandon the Jesus nonsense while you can.
    Take a stand against this woman-hating garbage.

  • I believe in roles. A mother is not a father and a father is not a mother. Without both parents both boys and girls suffer from the lack of male and female role models.
    This priest is courageous and I, a woman, agree with him! The women who want to be ordained priests perceive themselves to be less than equal to men, in my opinion. I don’t see it that way at all. Men and women are different, but equal! But women cannot do everything a man can do physically, for example. In the 1970’s, Army women demanded to be allowed to march with the men. When permission was given, several women ended up with hip fractures! They could not match the longer stride of the male! Equality resides in equal treatment and justice, not in role reversal.

  • Good for him. We need more women atheists, and this is a perfect way to inspire girls to take a long, close look at Catholic teaching, and then drop it like fifth period algebra. Thank you, Rev. Illo, for clearly demonstrating, once again, why sensible people of any gender should stay as far away from your church as possible. I can’t wait to see what you ban next!

  • Punished? A Catholic woman who doesn’t understand her role in this Church should spend more time praying the Rosary and studyng, for it is pure ignorance to protest like a spoiled child demanding “equality”. God made you a woman for a very precise reason and that reason involves not being in the Altar when Mass is being celebrated. GROW UP in your faith and understand that our role is very different than that of a man.

  • “Without both parents both boys and girls suffer from the lack of male and female role models.” Studies have found that there is no scientific evidence to support this claim. You are presenting it as if it were a matter of fact – it is not. It is simply your personal opinion, which you are misrepresenting as a factual statement.

  • According to you, but not to millions of Episcopalians, who obviously have no interest in your views on the matter.

  • Studies have found that there is no scientific evidence to support this claim.

    No studies are needed to demonstrate that people utter nonsense on the internet. No one who has ever prepared a bibliography of work on the sociology of family life would utter such a remark.

  • It’s true, I am irritated by people who lay claim to some sort of “moral authority”, and then fly across the country to publicly march with a known anti-gay hate group, as Archbishop Cordileone did when he joined up with the odious “Focus on the Family”. Yes, that is repellent behavior indeed. And he had so recently been arrested for drunk driving too. One would think he’d be a little less eager to lengthen his list of shameful deeds quite so soon.

  • Again, why should women bother going to church then?

    Stockholm Syndrome?

    It is obvious that any notion of treating them with dignity and respect is far beyond what its leadership is capable of. Nobody needs to spend their Sunday mornings being attacked and demeaned based on their gender. As many an expert will tell you, the best way to deal with an abusive relationship is to get away from it.

  • I’m irritated by people who are incapable of even minor exercises which would require a critical distance from themselves. Do not imagine my irritation will have much influence on you, Miss H.

  • ‘Millions of Episcopalians’ are adherents to Thomas Cranmer’s church of expediency, and Cranmer certainly wished to claim the mantle of valid holy orders.

  • Again, why should women bother going to church then?

    I dunno, Larry. Maybe she values the sacraments and is not influenced much by contemporary fashion nor fancies that it’s the object of ancient institutions to flatter her in particular ways.

  • Why are you assuming she’s Catholic? Most commenters here aren’t. I wager that according to you most people who call themselves Catholic aren’t Catholic.

  • “…Cranmer certainly wished to claim the mantle of valid holy orders.”

    What? Artie, you need to check your facts before you speak. Thomas Cranmer had valid orders — Henry VIII secured a papal bull naming Cranmer to Canterbury; he was consecrated by a Catholic bishop, John Longlands; and they use the medieval Catholic Ordinal for the rite.

    Cranmer was a validly-ordained Catholic bishop, my friend. Sorry…

  • Get back to me when you can give me a sane reason why someone would want to put up with being demeaned, patronized, insulted and attacked in public in the name of their religious faith.

  • Even if you buy the ‘Nag’s Head’ story according to which the Apostolic Succession was broken, currently all clergy in the Episcopal Church can trace their ecclesiastical geneology back to Old Catholic bishops whose ordination the RC Church recognizes.

  • Fran,

    Altar servers are a recent development in the Catholic liturgy (just about 100 to 200 years), before this time their tasks were reserved to men who had received on the minor orders of Acolyte, Exorcist, Reader and Porter. There has never been an age limit to these (other than “the age of reason” which is about 6-7 y/o). With time these fell from use as less men sought these orders Children filled the void in the liturgy. In the 70’s they were changed into “ministries”. There is ample evidence of men (and women) serving in the Jewish temple but not been the Chief Priest.

    “Viva Cristo Rey!!”
    DHS

  • Max>“Blessed are you, Lord God, Ruler of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” — Jewish Morning Blessings, Siddur, p. 12.

    I’m I the only one detecting a bit of antisemitism in Max daily diatribe???

    “Viva Cristo Rey!!”
    DHS

  • Contrary to the unfortunate Apostolicae Curae, Holy Orders in the Anglican Communion are and always have been valid.

  • Fran, while I certainly don’t agree with the more conversation Catholics here about the gender of altar servers, I do agree with them that it was the church that Christ founded and which in turn authorized the Canon of Sacred Scripture. I’ve read your posts before and I will pray that you turn to the true, “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” as proclaimed in the creed of Christians for the past 1300 years.

  • Do we not have anything better to do but watch each and every move that the Catholic Church does in every single aspect of its running its activities! As one who was an Altar server from 4th grade thru high school, it was always an honor and no one ever noticed, but it was THE boys who were the servers. The young girls were the ones who were more in the processions, and took care of the altar cloths, etc. Let go of it…for if that bothers you so much, whoever you all are, then there are other ways to express your faith. Congratulations to the pastor for making the decision, and God willing, it will afford young men the opportunity to see what a privilege and honor it is, and maybe even a future vocation or two to happen!

  • Max is quoting accurately — other than I should add he’s quoting from Orthodox prayerbooks [siddur]. More liberal streams of Judaism have changed this liturgy to “who has made me in his image.” Unlike more recent changes like women’s ordination and LGBT acceptance, that change in liturgy happened much earlier in the 20th century. As a defender and commenter of the Jewish perspective, I don’t find what Max here said to be anti-Semitic.

  • A woman who prefers to be abused and mistreated in the name of old traditions.

    An adolescent who would not know the inside of a Catholic parish from a candy factory tells us all what it means.

  • Garson,

    I don’t know about that Usually he limits his quotations to Holy Scriptures. This is the first time I see him quoting from a prayer that like you say has fallen under disuse.. God knows he could have quoted from ancient Christian prayers to prop some of his other arguments, but to my knowledge he has never done this. Perhaps he is starting to branch out since Christians here do not take him seriously.

    “Viva Cristo Rey!!”
    DHS

  • Miss H,

    If you would like to consult Sociological Abstracts, PsychInfo and like databases, you can construct a bibliography to produce a literature review on the ill effects of divorce. If you’re interested in a monograph which acts as a guide to longitudinal studies done, see here:

    http://www.amazon.com/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A283155%2Cp_27%3AJudith%20Wallerstein

    That aside, a little common sense might do on your part, which is to say a disposition to look at the conventions of human affairs and ask what purpose they might serve. None of this is esoteric. Your blather about ‘scientific basis’ is a complete ass pull.

  • “An adolescent who would not know the inside of a Catholic parish from a candy factory tells us all what it means.”

    Neither of them are particular safe for children to hang around.

  • Oh Artie….again you flaunt your ignorance.

    The encyclical you cite refers to ordinations carried out according to the EDWARDIAN ordinal (cf. No. 15). Since Cranmer was consecrated before that ordinal was written its determination couldn’t apply to him! If fact, he was consecrated using the medieval Catholic rite. So whether you like it or not, Cranmer was a validly ordained Catholic bishop.

    You may contend that he defected from the Church and that the consecrations carried out by him as archbishop were invalid, but you cannot say that he was not a validly consecrated Catholic bishop.

    Neither Catholic theology, nor history, support you.

    So get your facts straight before you spout off. Otherwise you just sound ignorant.

  • But we’re not talking about single-parent homes. We’re talking about Sister Geraldine Marie’s baseless claim that “without both parents both boys and girls suffer from the lack of male and female role models.” Neither you, nor she have offered any evidence to support this statement. We can wait all day. As it turns out, numerous studies show that poverty is the number one factor that adversely impacts a child’s well-being and later success in life. If you cared about improving children’s lifetime chances, you’d be focused on eradicating poverty, and not obsessing over gender roles.

  • Madam, sociological studies have been done on that question as well, some with better methodologies than others. Mark Regnerus has been viciously attacked because his meta-analyses came to the ‘wrong’ conclusions.

    And, no, the burden of demonstration for people advocating strange social innovations is on those advocating them, not on those defending normal life.

    And, yes, it is very peculiar and implausible to propose that father’s have no distinct function and flies in the face of common experience.

    And, if you’re citing newsletters, you’re telling all of us you’ve never read anything with more depth. I’m sorry, it’s plain effrontery for such a person to babble to people better informed about ‘science’ this and ‘science’ that;.

  • A large portion of women already HAVE stopped going to church where
    they are not welcome. BRAVA to them!!!

  • Were her parents apprised before she received the Sacrament of Baptism that all seven sacraments are available to men only. Women may receive
    only 6 of the 7!

    What kind of a God sets that up? The “Church” has no right to ignore what
    Jesus did and how he made it obvious that men and women are equal.

    Only gay-supportive priests want the system to stay the same: MEN ONLY!
    Makes it a neater lifestyle, yes?

  • “If this altar boy policy bothers us, we must ask ourselves if we have not unconsciously accepted the errors of the current age;…”

    Any priest who makes this kind of off-the-wall statement plain and simple should not be a pastor, or a priest, or a seminarian–definitely not a bishop! People do not stand for this kind of sleazy rhetoric.
    WHO BELIEVES THIS??? Priests and bishops who speak
    like this are totally out of touch with their constituents.

    That San Francisco parish is so incongruent with Silicon Valley situated just to the north.

  • “[B]oys usually end up losing interest (in altar service) because girls generally do a better job.” — Rev. Illo

  • Art deco is a disruptive Troll. Next time on NCR or Crux the name and those of the other disaffected Francis haters will have changed but the same mantras will be trotted out. These are pre-digested and pre-packaged by their mentors at the lunar end of the Right wing.

  • “Disruptive troll” = defends Church and its Tradition on a commentary site run by Vichy evangelicals with comment boards overrun with the worst sort of Planned Parenthood volunteer.

  • Deacon,

    “Perhaps he is starting to branch out since Christians here do not take him seriously…”

    All religions are built against humanity – and women in particular.
    I don’t mind whistling in the dark as long as my whistling is honest.

  • @Miss H,

    “Thank you, Rev. Illo, for clearly demonstrating, once again, why sensible people of any gender should stay as far away from your church as possible. I can’t wait to see what you ban next!”

    So true!
    And yes – the world desperately needs more women Atheists.
    And we need them in powerful positions especially of science and politics.

  • Deacon:

    “detecting a bit of antisemitism in Max…?”

    Of course not.
    Funny though that a litany of woman-hating screeds from your religion would elicit a question about the messenger rather than the message:

    “I hate women” – YAHWEH,
    “I deliberately did not choose women to be my apostles” – JESUS
    “I’m disgusted with myself for inventing women. Cover them up totally!” – ALLAH

    If God so loved humanity – why does he HATE the half that is female?

  • “Mark Regnerus has been viciously attacked because his meta-analyses came to the ‘wrong’ conclusions.”

    Mark Regnerus has a bigoted ideology to promote, and his studies have been thoroughly discredited, as you well know. He’s just another fraud with an agenda. Falsified studies are the favorite fallback of zealots and bigots, alas.

    “And, no, the burden of demonstration for people advocating strange social innovations is on those advocating them, not on those defending normal life.”

    The studies demonstrate quite clearly that that children do just as well in two-parent same sex homes as they do in two parent opposite sex homes. That’s very unfortunate for those who wish to promote bigotry. The facts do not support your case.

    “And, yes, it is very peculiar and implausible to propose that father’s have no distinct function and flies in the face of common experience.”

    Fathers are great. And so are mothers. But there’s no particular advantage to a child because a parent has a particular set of genitalia. Parents are not tabletop salt and pepper sets in which it’s best to have one of each. Apparently having a home with two loving parents is just fine, and the gender of each isn’t a factor for success.

    “And, if you’re citing newsletters, you’re telling all of us you’ve never read anything with more depth. I’m sorry, it’s plain effrontery for such a person to babble to people better informed about ‘science’ this and ‘science’ that.”

    I cited a quick read that links to the study. I’m not writing a paper here, I’m commenting on a blog (apparently to anti-science religious zealots, so no, I’m not going to devote a lot of time to their education). If you’re better informed about science, as you amusingly claim, by all means, produce the studies that support your claims! Talk is cheap! We’re waiting! Tick tock!

  • Bishop Cordileone wants a ortho/traddy parish where he can make an appearance without getting catcalled. Star of the Sea is going to be it. That’s why Illio is there. I’m not sure there are even enough of them in the city. We’ll see.

  • How do you know a large portion of women already have stopped going to church? A large portion of what number? List the source of your data, please. I suspect your statement is based on your own personal belief and not a fact.

  • Amen. The sooner the lprogressive feminists leave the Catholic Church and decamp to the Episcopals, who make up their teaching as they go along, the happier we all will be.

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