In a break with tradition, the Vatican has officially approved having girls serve at the altar during Roman Catholic Masses but stressed yesterday that the decree is unrelated to the church's opposition to female priests.
The church's decision was not unexpected. Bishops in the United States have long expressed support for girls serving at the altar. Indeed, many U.S. Catholic parishes have had altar girls for years, but their status has been cloudy and a cause of disagreement among the faithful. The Vatican agreed to consider the issue a year ago.
Altar servers, generally between the ages of 8 and 14, assist the priest by lighting altar candles, participate in the ritual washing of the priest's hands, and present the bread and wine to the priest to be consecrated as the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the decision "a welcome one."
"I think everyone will accept it. They'll have to accept it," said the Rev. Charles Miller, who teaches homiletics and liturgy at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, Calif. "No one wants to say little girls are inferior or little girls don't deserve it."
But there was dissent. Women for Faith & Family, a conservative Catholic lay group based in St. Louis, called the decision a "pastoral error" that would cause further confusion and unduly raise hopes that women would eventually be ordained as priests.
An unknown number of Catholic parishes in the United States have had both altar boys and altar girls since the mid-1980s. These parishes relied on a change in canon law in 1983, which, unlike previous church codes, no longer specifically forbade altar girls.
Among them is St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Altadena, Calif. The Rev. Richard Prindle, the parish's pastor, said yesterday the Vatican announcement may come as a surprise to his altar servers. "I think they're probably completely unaware there was ever an issue," Father Prindle said.
Other parishes, however, have awaited an explicit authorization from the Vatican before allowing girls to serve. Now that the issue has been clarified, Father Miller said, tensions should ease. He said much of the opposition was not to girls serving at the altar as such, but doing so before the Vatican had clarified its position.
The approval, announced yesterday by the papal spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, came in a letter by the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments that was approved by Pope John Paul II. The Congregation for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts had said in 1992 that there was nothing in canon law to forbid altar girls.
Permission for the use of altar girls does not represent a major innovation, Mr. Navarro-Valls said, but rather an interpretation that church statutes concerning lay altar servers are equally applicable to both sexes.