Move away from altar girls reflects wider Catholic debate

Mass had just begun at Corpus Christi Catholic Church when Jennifer Zickel, a Sunday school teacher, glanced at the church bulletin and saw something that made her sick to her stomach.

Tucked in with announcements about a new electronic donation system and a church dinner at Margarita’s Mexican restaurant was news that Zickel, the mother of two girls, had been dreading: Corpus Christi would no longer train girls to be altar servers.

Zickel burst into tears and ran to the bathroom.

“I knew right then that our family couldn’t stay at this church anymore,” Zickel said, her voice breaking. “I’m a mama bear, and they’re going after my girls.”

The decision last fall by Corpus Christi’s pastor, the Rev. Michael Taylor, and the response of Zickel and about a dozen other families who left the 1,100-family South Riding church reflect ongoing tensions among American Catholics over the role of women. About 50 families from across the country wrote letters of protest to the Arlington Catholic Diocese, and a vigil is scheduled for Sunday outside the diocese’s offices.

The subject has played out unusually in the diocese, which was the next-to-last in the country to say, in 2006, that girls were eligible to help priests at the altar. (The diocese in Lincoln, Neb., still has a boys­-only policy.) Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde left the decision up to individual priests. Five years later, about 60 percent of the diocese’s 68 parishes across northern and eastern Virginia still allow only altar boys, a diocese spokeswoman said.

Some share Taylor’s belief that the positions should be reserved for boys, who may become priests and help ease a major Catholic clergy shortage. Girls who had already trained as altar servers at Corpus Christi were allowed to continue, but they cannot wear the new black, priestlike robes the boys began wearing. People who oppose altar girls see the task as priest-like and note that the church teaches priests must be male because they model Jesus.   Read more


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