Q: What does canon law say about altar girls? How did we end up with altar girls after so many centuries without them? –Ginnie
A: The whole issue of permitting girls to serve at the altar has become so ideologically contentious, on both sides of the issue, that it may be difficult to imagine that the whole controversy actually began as simply a question of Latin grammar. While approved translations of the code exist in all the major modern languages, only the Latin text is regarded as the official one.
Canon 230, which ultimately gave us altar girls, is contained in the section of the code dealing with the obligations and duties of the lay faithful, and has three paragraphs. Each contains the Latin word laici, meaning “lay people.” In order to get a complete picture, let’s take a look at each paragraph in turn.
The first paragraph (c. 230.1) states that lay men whose age and talents meet the requirements prescribed by the Bishops’ Conference, can be given the stable ministry of lector and of acolyte (altar server), through the prescribed liturgical rite. Many Catholics in the US may not be familiar with this practice at all, so it merits some discussion.
We all know that lay people can be lectors, who read the readings and psalms at Mass. In many places, this task is performed simply by volunteers. Sometimes the priest who is about to celebrate a scheduled Mass may walk to the microphone a minute or two in advance, and ask if anyone is willing to read.
Similarly, we all are familiar with the notion of altar boys (who sometimes are adult men), who assist the priest during Mass, particularly at the offertory. After some training, and with some routine practice, boys as young as 8 or 10 years old serve in this capacity. Often a parish will put together a monthly schedule, listing which boys are expected to serve at each scheduled Mass.
But canon 230.1 does not pertain to either of these situations! What is it for, then?
This paragraph actually refers exclusively to the practice, which is not seen at all in many places, of officially conferring the ministry of lectors and altar servers on qualified men. Conferral of this ministry is historically tied to the “minor orders” which traditionally formed part of a seminarian’s training to become a priest. “Acolyte” and “lector” were actually orders, which preceded (among others) the orders of “sub-deacon,” “deacon,” and finally “priest.”