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Altar Servers and Priests: From the View of the Child

April 10, AD2013

I have two entertaining stories to offer, both related in a manner of speaking. First is a conversation that took place amongst friends of mine. Using generic names and some license to paraphrase:

Setting: A performance of Irish Dancers.

Announcer: The following dance is a dance that has traditionally been an all-female dance.

Fr. Smith (Jokingly): I can’t hardly believe that a group would limit an activity to one gender!

(The small group gets the obvious reference to the priesthood as well as the good priest\’s humor.)

Announcer (Next act): This next dance used to be an all-male dance, but was eventually changed to include both boys and girls. Because we have no boys involved in our group, this will also be performed by all girls.

Fr. Smith (Smiles): Now that doesn’t seem right. If the girls got to keep their all-female dance, why did the boys have to give theirs up?

Mom: It’s just like the altar servers, Father.  Once the girls were admitted, the boys lost interest.

The above conversation is radically simplified but was real nonetheless. It helps to illustrate a very important point. We can go on all day about the many reasons that altar serving should be limited to boys, but one fact that often goes overlooked, probably because it is more sociological than theological, is that once the activity became open to both genders, the boys lost interest. I have often wondered why this is, but it seems difficult to deny that it is true.

The difficulty with this discussion is that the Church has in fact given the okay for female altar servers. (Please note that the Church does not mandate that a parish or Diocese allow females to assist at the altar. There any many examples of parishes and at least a few examples of a diocese that reserve altar serving for males. The fact that these parishes and diocese are in the minority makes for a very sticky conversation with our own children. We have chosen to take a nuanced approach to it. When you ask our children who should be serving at the altar, they will tell you that it should be boys. When you ask them why there are girls up there, they will tell you that when there aren’t enough boys to volunteer, sometimes a girl will serve.

They answer this way because we have told them that this is the answer. I am not sure if we are entirely honest with them in this matter, but quite frankly I don’t have a better response. I suppose that the most honest response is, “Well, it really should only be boys, but the Church lets girls do it.” The problem with this is the conflict it causes when we try to teach out children about obedience to the Church. The issue is muddled by the fact that the allowance of girls on the altar is not an act of disobedience to the Church. As I pointed out, the Vatican has given the okay. But how do you explain to a seven-year-old the difference between allowing female servers and disallowing their exclusion. (At the risk of repeating myself, the Vatican does not mandate that individual dioceses and/or parishes must allow females on the altar.)

Further, how do you explain that we as parents disagree with the fact that our diocese and parish allow girls on the altar. Just as the bishop and pastor are not being disobedient in allowing this, we are not being disobedient to the Church by disagreeing with it. However, even as I write this, I can see how confusing the whole thing is, and I wonder how this sort of conversation would be received by young children. I think for now it is best to stick with, “When not enough boys volunteer, sometimes girls will serve.” Perhaps as they grow, the truth of the matter will be organically understood by them. Until then, I am open to suggestions on how to handle the matter with young children.

My second story is related to the first. At lunch the other day, we were talking about this very thing, and as usual my children regurgitated the programmed response we have given them. On a whim, I decided to ask them if girls could be priests. Thinking that I must be joking, the three oldest responded in unison (almost with a laugh), “No way. Girls can’t be priests.” I decided (God only knows why) to press the issue by asking them if there were not enough boys to be priests if a girl could step up and fill in, much like she does in the absence of male altar servers. I am not sure why I asked it. Perhaps I sensed the hole in my explanation of the altar server issue; perhaps I was looking for a way to have some good old fashioned catechesis; perhaps I simply was not thinking. Whatever the reason, I pressed forward with the question.

I could not have been more proud at the response. My oldest daughter confidently responded, “No.” When I asked her why, she said, “Because priests are supposed to be like Jesus, and he was a man.” In today’s political climate, with so many people both in and out of the Church pushing for the ordination of women, we often find ourselves coming up with more and more complicated arguments defending the Church’s infallible teaching on this. Perhaps it is human nature to stack argument upon argument. For even when the first argument goes unanswered and unchallenged and the opposition digs in their heels, instead of pressing forward with that argument, we look for another in the hopes that seeing things from a different angle will win them over. For this very reason it was refreshing to hear a child return to the simple fact: Jesus was a man. In a very beautiful way, she understands the meaning of sign and sacramentality.

As icing on the cake, my second oldest daughter chimed in, “And if boys are supposed to be like Jesus, girls are supposed to be like Mary.”

While my explanation for why girls are permitted as altar servers was not quite accurate and has a hole or two in it, in the end the Holy Spirit must be working through my wife and me in some manner, because quite frankly, my children get it.

Boys are supposed to be like Jesus.
Girls are supposed to be like Mary.

And this, as Saint Paul says, is a “great mystery” (Ephesians 5).


Footnote. The intent of this article was not to present a formal explanation of my position, and therefore I chose not to go into the details of what the Church actually says in this matter. It should be, at least in a  footnote that, while the Vatican has given approval for girls serving at the altar, there is an argument to be made that this is not the preference of the Vatican. The Holy See has encouraged where ever possible, the retention of “the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar.” See this answer by Fr. Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at theRegina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaenum for a more complete explanation.

© 2013. Jake Tawney. All Rights Reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

Filed in: Faith & Spirituality • Tags:

About the Author:

Jake Tawney is a husband and father-of-six from central Ohio. He has spent nearly a decade working in education, serving as a teacher and administrator in the public school system, as well as an adjunct professor of mathematics for the Pontifical College Josephinum. When he is not helping his wife homeschool their children, Jake runs and writes for Roma locuta est, a website dedicated to all things Catholic with a particular focus on the Sacred Liturgy. Most recently, Jake has spend countless hours penning the New Translation Monday series which seeks to dissect and explain the changes to the new Roman Missal.

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  • katrina

    I’m a Altar girl I completely agree that both genders can and should serve.

  • Noreen

    I have six daughters and two sons. When my oldest daughter was in 7 th grade and the only girl not altar serving the priest asked her to join. When she said no thanks he pressed her and she told him she thought boys should serve to see if God is calling them to be priests. It was fine. She’s in high school now and her younger sisters have no desire to altar serve. As women we have many opportunities to serve. Let us find them and build up the church. Look to Our Blesse Mother.

  • Marija

    One Sunday a Protestant friend of mine went to Holy Mass with me and she was quite impressed that our Mass was not much different than her “church service.” She even remarked how pleased she was that the Catholic Church allows women to participate in the “church service”, meaning of course the women lectors and young girl altar servers she saw that morning.

    Whatever the reason the Roman Catholic Church opened the door to female altar servers I do not know. Even though it seems to have been done with some reservation, the door is now pretty much wide open to female altar servers as well as other novelties.

    We can discuss the female altar server issue all we wish, and argue with each other over the appropriateness of female altar servers, but the only thing Catholics can do about our “preference” is try to find a parish that pleases our preference. It seems like the Catholic Church has become weakened in authority and unity since Vatican II. We are becoming more like Protestant churches which offer an enormous variety of preaching, music, programs, excitement and diversity. We can now just hop from parish to parish seeking the setting and rules for Mass that make us feel good and entice us to serve according to our own preferences.

    Very sad.

  • Kathy from Kansas

    As the parent of 2 teenage boys, I could have told anyone who asked that as soon as girls were allowed to be servers, the boys would lose interest in being servers themselves. And a vicious cycle sets in: The more the boys see only girls on the altar, the less inclined they will be to become altar boys. And the fewer altar boys there are, the more girls there will be, until the girls pretty well take over that particular function.

    Anyone who couldn’t see that this would be the consequence has obviously never raised sons!

  • Marija

    Thank you, Mr. Tawney, for initiating this interesting discussion. Maybe it will inspire you to write an essay regarding the historical and traditional positions of the Roman Catholic Church on who is allowed to serve at the altar. I would like to read it! 🙂

    For now, here are two items the readers might be interested to know about:

    In the Encyclical Allatae Sunt on July, 26, 1755, Pope Benedict XIV stated in paragraph 29:

    Pope Gelasius in his ninth letter (chap. 26) to the bishops of Lucania condemned the evil practice which had been introduced of women serving the priest at the celebration of Mass. Since this abuse had spread to the Greeks, Innocent IV strictly forbade it in his letter to the bishop of Tusculum: “Women should not dare to serve at the altar; they should be altogether refused this ministry.” We too have forbidden this practice in the same words in Our oft-repeated constitution Etsi Pastoralis, sect. 6, no. 21.”
    In 1970 the Vatican condemned female altar serving in Liturgicae instaurationes as well as in 1980’s Inaestimabile donum. Not until a circular letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to presidents of episcopal conferences on March 15, 1994, did the Vatican officially allow female altar serving.


    In July 2001, the Holy See’s Congregation for Divine Worship issued a response to a bishop’s question (dubium) concerning the possible admission of girls and women as altar servers. The response, a further explanation of the Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conference, March 15, 1994, no. 2, that granted permission for bishops to admit female altar servers, made it clear that only a diocesan bishop may decide whether to permit female servers in his diocese; furthermore, that no priest is obliged to have female servers, even in dioceses where this is permitted. The letter stressed that no one has a “right” to serve at the altar, and also strongly reaffirmed that altar boys should be encouraged.

    • Bruce

      We need to support the priests who refuse to play along with this touchy feely clericalism of super laity.

      They get hammered every time they try to get rid of altar girls. They need our loud and vocal support.

    • Bruce

      And women cannot be ordained. This has been infallibly declared.

  • Mary Ann

    I am certainly grateful that the U.S. Catholic bishops decided to allow females to be altar servers, lectors and Eucharistic Ministers, but I realize that some people don’t feel it’s the right decision for them. I can only speak from our family’s wonderful experience – with my son and daughters altar serving and myself a Eucharistic Minister – that it has been an honor in every respect. It is a privileged and reverent “up close” encounter with the Lord which has opened our hearts and eyes to see everything in a more loving way.

    • I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but this argument is essentially the argument from experience or an argument from “ends-justifies-the means.” The same argument could be applied for women’s ordination, so I think we should treat lightly in offering such explanations.

    • Bruce

      You know, I take some offense that us “unwashed masses” in the pews do not have a “privileged and reverent up close” encounter with the Lord at Mass.

      Excuse Me?

      If being a lay minister in an alb is what it takes to have an “up close encounter” with the Lord, shouldn’t the laity demand to be jammed into the Sanctuary with you? What gives you the right to have an “up close and privileged” encounter, but not us?


      Your argument is nothing but a poorly-hidden form of clericalism – the worst type. In this form, the laity are thought to be lower and unimportant unless they are in the Sanctuary wandering around and looking important. You want to be some sort of “super laity” that has all but destroyed the Diocese of Rochester in New York (see the Cleansing Fire website).

      Altar servers, lectors, and lay extraordinary ministers are not required for Mass. Your participation is not needed for the “up close” experience you crave.

      If Holy Communion – where CHRIST ENTERS INTO YOU – is not “up close” and “privileged” enough, there is something wrong with you.

      Just say no to altar girls and the overuse of lay ministers. If you see them, save your money and go elsewhere.

    • Mary Ann

      Bruce, I hope you feel better after your verbal stoning of me over the internet. The description of my experience of serving as a Eucharistic Minister as being “a privileged and reverent, up close encounter with the Lord” was my best attempt to explain the joy this ministry actually brings my heart. My feelings of closeness to the Jesus are sincerely felt, in no way denigrating the rest of the congregation (unwashed masses??) and not spoken from a position of superiority. If you interpreted it that way, you unfortunately misunderstood. I became a Eucharistic Minister at the suggestion of our parish priest and have come to love Jesus in a much deeper way for the experience. We are only given so many meaningful opportunities in life, and I’m glad I took this one. I’m sorry that you don’t agree with the bishop’s decision, but that doesn’t obligate me to defend my joyful acceptance of it. There are indeed many ways to feel close to Jesus, but every way should help you become more loving, like Him.

    • Burce,

      I agree with you in content, but some charity in tone would help.



    • Bruce

      Okay, I hear you, but I find it mystifying that Holy Communion is not enough of a close and deep encounter with God. Perhaps that is because with the loss of communion rails, kneeling, reverence, and the introduction of lay ministers, no one thinks it is really that important anymore.

      I too have worked as an EMHC in the past. I cannot tell you how often disinterested folk come up, hold out one hand (the other occupied by Starbucks or in one’s pocket) and mumble something before fumbling the Blessed Sacrament into their mouths. They. Don’t. Care.

      I notice they’re usually more careful with the priest. With lay ministers, they don’t care. It is a problem.

      I’ll stand by it. If lay ministry is what you need to feel “closer” to Christ, you have a problem.

  • Bruce

    There isn’t a real solid reason to have female altar servers. I have yet to read one and my daughters will not be doing it. We see it as a path to the priesthood. I would like to see acolytes back – male only of course – to help bolster that.

  • I served as an altar boy. I was a great experience. Alter girls and female Eucharistic Ministers distract me. Female lectors drive me crazy with “THE W-O-R-D OF THE L-O-R-D !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  • I have avoided commenting on this too much because, as I wrote, “The intent of this article was not to present a formal explanation of my position, and therefore I chose not to go into the details of what the Church actually says in this matter.” Please see the footnote and accompanying link for a more thorough treatment of the matter. However, let me make four points worth considering.

    1. Christina – your comments are brilliant. Thank you for sharing. They have given me a lot to think about.

    2. While assisting at Mass in some function or another is not contradictory to femininity, there is a strong argument that assisting ON THE ALTAR (I don’t mean to shout, but I don’t have italics) is something that is specifically male in nature. This is because of its proximity to the act of sacrifice. Most, if not all, of what an altar server does, is directly related to the act of sacrifice, particularly as the liturgy progresses towards the Liturgy of the Eucharist. A sacrificial action is a priestly action, so when altar servers assist a priest in the act of sacrificing, they become like “little priests.” Please understand this correctly – in no way am I claiming they have received Holy Orders. That being said, we should remember that the acolyte was once one of the minor orders, and non-acolyte altar servers were only called on when actual acolytes were no available. Thus, they were seen in some way as substitutes for the acolytes, in which case it would make sense that the single-gender orders would logically be extended to the role of altar server as well. (It should also be noted that another of the minor orders was the lector, but I fear that opening up the question of gender in this role will send most people over the edge.)

    3. Point #2 brings me to point #3. We can certainly allow the presence of females in the role of alter servers, but we must do so with the recognition that it will CHANGE THE MEANING OF WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN ALTAR SERVER. Those who want to say that the altar server is no necessarily a path to priestly vocation have already redefined the role, because in the not-too-distant past, this is EXACTLY what it was – so much so that, as point out of #3, it was seen as a substitute for a minor order. If we are going to redefine what it means to be an altar server so as to remove all gender-specific references and understandings, then we have quite a case to make. The liturgy, together with all of its roles and actions, is not something that we are free to redefine. It is a gift that is given to us that we are to revere, honor, and accept graciously for the reality that it is. We should tread lightly in redefining something that existed in the Catholic liturgy for 1980-plus years.

    4. This is short and sweet: I have not seen any argument in these comments that defends female altar servers that cannot at the same time be used to defend female ordination. I know that every commenter has been careful to state, “I do not believe in female ordination,” but the ARGUMENTS do not make that distinction. Thus, once again, tread lightly.

    Thank you to all who have read and commented. I tend to be very “mathematical” when I discuss things, so I know that can come off as cold and calculated. Rest assured, I appreciated the conversation, and I welcome further discussion. You all make writing worth it.

    Many blessings,


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  • Marija

    That females can experience “blessings” in being altar servers I do not doubt. I reckon it all depends on how we define the word “blessings.” Who wants to deprive anyone of a blessing? That is the goal of our present day culture, “equal rights” for all and not depriving anyone of blessings upon whatever they wish to do or be.

    There is definitely something wrong with this, I believe; but I am not wise enough to analyze the issue in light of God’s Word. That is one reason we have the Magisterium to help guide us into righteousness. Why has the Church for centuries kept priests and altar servers male? Altar servers can be a step into priesthood, an inspiration into priesthood. Female altar servers, at least right now, cannot enjoy that inspiration, but we may see them in our generation, who knows? That mean old Catholic Church depriving females of blessings…….

    I am currently reading a book entitled THE VICARS OF CHRIST by Charles Coulombe which has given me much hope that the gates of hell will not prevail against God’s Holy Church. So many wicked things have entered the Church over the years since its founding to scandalize her and yet she continues on for over 2000 years. And yes, glorious and good things too! Thanks be to God. I trust the Holy Spirit to guide the Church and do not fear the world’s recommendations how we can make the Catholic Church more “user friendly.”

    So much misinformation out there for the average Catholic as well as such an unfortunate basic lack of Church history.

  • Christina

    Mary Ann, no one is doubting that you feel you have done the best for your daughters. And you were allowed to do it, so nothing you did was wrong or sinful. However, those men and women who are advocating that the altar serving should be returned to it’s rightful situation of all males are only trying to the best of our ability to teach true feminism and true masculinity. Both males and females are called to serve at the Lord’s feet, this is true. But equality does not mean sameness, unlike what the world teaches us. Throughout the Bible and especially the New Testament, women have been serving the Lord, in their true feminine manner. The issue is that feminine serving is often hidden and humble, and most women don’t like. Again, think about Mary. Her service is hidden and humble, visible yes, but not often. The church has always upheld Mary as the role model for women. Upholding an all male altar serving greatly assists those who are trying their best to encourage true femininity and true masculinity in their children against the world’s view. And yes, if a girl can be “on” the altar serving, then why not as a priest? It sends mixed messages.

    And to think that an all male altar serving only partly encourages the priesthood is to minimize the priesthood and the necessity of listening to the Lord. The Lord is still calling men and women to religious life, but that “unmistakeable” call is often not heard because of mixed messages the world is sending regarding serving, femininity, masculinity, and the meaning of vocation. In fact, the parishes and locations that are booming with vocations are those that encourage the true serving based on gender – I don’t have specific at my fingertips, but am happy to be corrected by you or anyone – and while those that have mixed genders serving are still vocationally dry. This is only a correlation of course.

    In terms of practicality in serving, I cannot speak for your daughter, nor do I want to, but most of the female altar servers I have encountered serve because their friends are or because they like taking “leadership” roles and being in front of people. I have rarely encountered the girl who wants to sit at the Lord’s feet as a reason for serving. And in fact, at nearly all of the Masses I have attended where there are girl servers, the girls are the ones giggling on the altar, sending eye message to their fellow servers, or even to people in the pews. Having said this, I do agree that most girls probably do have good experience as altar serving. But should a few girls’ good experiences, come at the expense of our boys’ experiences that could potentially foster a vocation to the priesthood?

    By all means, bring the children to the Lord!!! Bring them to adoration where they can truly sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to what He is calling them to do! Bring them to Mass more often than just on Sunday morning. But “letting the children come to” Him does not necessarily mean that they need to “participate” in a visible role in front of the congregation. Sometimes the most active participation and the most holy is the act of reception.

    • Marija

      Beautiful commentary, Christina. Thank you.

    • Mary Ann

      Christina, I don’t feel that encouraging girls to altar serve is incompatible with their femininity, nor does it threaten their fellow server’s masculinity. I think the act of assisting during Mass is gender-neutral. It is a beautiful opportunity to be close to Jesus, to feel His presence more intensely and to be particularly aware and responsive to the miracle of transubstantiation. In this very secular, materialistic world, just the fact that our girls desire to be altar servers means they are paying attention to the spiritual promptings in their life. It may be these first, decisive steps that form a pattern of more public affirmation of their Catholic faith in the future.

      You bring up good points of the necessary roles of masculinity and femininity in our world, but I don’t think being feminine is limited to only hidden, humble service. There are many examples of strong women who served Christ in very public ways in the New Testament. Think of Veronica’s public bravery in wiping Jesus’ blood stained face despite the threat of the Roman guards, or of Martha who served Jesus by hosting a lavish meal in his honor, or Mary Magdalene who publicly anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive oil in front of the invited guests. While Mary, Christ’s mother was humble, she was also one of the most courageous women of all time. Our daughters can derive qualities from all of these women in building their strong Christian character.

  • Marija

    Inaestimable Donum (1980) explicitly stated that women would not be permitted to act as altar servers. Feminists and their clerical supporters contested this point and claimed that Canon 230/2 could be interpreted to permit female altar servers. The Vatican rejected this interpretation, but unrelenting pressure from United States bishops brought about surrender in 1994. Msgr. J.F. McCarthy, American canonist, wrote the following conclusion: “The implication is that the general liturgical norm prohibiting female altar servers remains in existence, so that in general women may not serve at the altar unless a local ordinary intervenes by a positive act and grants permission for his territorial jurisdiction. Thus the Congregation has clarified the authentic interpretation to mean that an indult is given to diocesan bishops to permit the use of female servers.”

    Today we have female altar servers, female lectors and female “Eucharistic ministers.” What is the next step? Female priests.

    As an adult convert to the Roman Catholic Church I was quite disappointed to find it caving in to the world’s voices to put it on the same level as all the other Christian denominations.

    Boys are supposed to be like Jesus.
    Girls are supposed to be like Mary.

    • Nancy

      Thank you Marija: I did not know this. It seems many priests do not follow Canon Law. What can be done? I have already brought up items to my Pastor and feel like I am complaining too much. I do let him know all the good he is doing, though. There is so much misinformation!

    • Mary Ann

      Not to play “devil’s advocate” but what if Inaestimable Donum (1980) is re-interpretted tomorrow? My point is, don’t become spiritually paralyzed by the legal nuances of every Church document. The fact that you never heard of Inaestimable Donum is probably alright, I haven’t either. It doesn’t mean we are lazy Catholics, it just means we trust our hearts more than our minds in some spiritual matters, which isn’t a bad thing.

      I don’t believe that women should become priests, but discouraging girls from serving at the altar would be a mistake. Nancy, the fact that your daughter has the desire to be an altar server and that it brings her such joy, is proof that grace is at work here. These are such impressionable years in the life of our children. The closeness she feels to Jesus (both physically and emotionally) is something she will always remember, well into her adult life. As parents, we have a responsibility to teach our children the faith – not only the ‘nuts and bolts’ of our beliefs but also to foster in them a deep, trusting and loving relationship with Jesus. Luckily, God Himself is assisting us in this daunting task! God is always inviting us to draw closer to Himself, no matter what stage we are in life. Our children’s openness to His call by serving at the altar is a beautiful response to Him, and something that should be encouraged for both boys and girls.

  • Angie

    I agree with Mary. The approval was finally given for girls to serve when I was in about 7th or 8th grade. I chose not to do it, nor did my young sister. However, I’ve seen lots of girls that have done it, and I see it as nothing but a positive. While I agree that there are different jobs or specialties that should be reserved for men or women, I also think that in service to others, it should not be limited to one or the other wherever it is feasibly possible to integrate them, for example Pope Francis’ foot washing ceremony. I am not saying that goes for women priests, because that would be wrong.

  • Mary Ann

    I think the reason the Vatican allows girls to be altar servers is the realization that there is no good reason to exclude them. The premise that only giving boys the honor of serving at the altar will encourage more priestly vocations is only partly true. If Jesus is ‘calling’ a young man to the priesthood, the call will be unmistakably clear, whether or not he ever served.

    I have two daughters and one son, and all of my children were given the privilege of serving at the Lord’s table. It has deepened the faith of all three of my children to be so near to Jesus, and I’m confident it will continue to have a positive effect in their lives. Our parish is blessed with many boys and girl servers, and I have not seen any decrease in boys’ participation resulting from girls being included. If anything, boys drop out because of scheduling conflicts with sports teams.

    If your daughters ever asked you to allow them to serve, would you permit them? Wouldn’t denying them the honor be almost like shielding your girls from Jesus’ loving embrace 2000 years ago when he said “Let the children come to me and do not stop them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

    • Nancy

      I am on the fence with this. Personally, I would prefer altar servers to be all boys. But, since my parish has always had girls, and my daughter who is in 7th grade, started serving in 4th grade, I let her decide. I show her articles such as this one, and she understands but she says, “Mom, I love being up there! I understand the mass so much better!” When she is in the pew, she has a hard time focusing because she has a little bit of ADD ( like me) . She doesn’t care for our “contemporary choir” (nor do I) which is constantly singing and singing and singing…. (not very well, I might add) and it’s all just way too easy to not focus on the altar. I understand this, and until The Holy See says NO, I will allow her to help. I do tell her to back off a little and let the boys do most of the work.

    • katrina

      Honestly I don’t agree with what she has to say because anyone should be able to serve