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Shawn Vestal: Family pushes parish to change course, after decision to stop allowing girls as altar servers

UPDATED: Sun., Oct. 20, 2019

Emily Leonard, left, and her mom, Cindy Leonard (Leonard family / Courtesy photo)
Emily Leonard, left, and her mom, Cindy Leonard (Leonard family / Courtesy photo)

In 1985, when she was growing up in Everett, Cindy Leonard was becoming the faithful Catholic she remains to this day, one Sunday at a time.

She attributes a large part of that to the fact that she was among the first generation of girls in Catholic history given the chance to help priests conduct the sacred ceremony of the Mass. Traditionally, only boys had been allowed to do so.

“I was in the first class of girls who got to serve,” said Leonard, who now lives with her family in Reardan. “It was a different level of commitment. … I would ride my bike the mile to Mass to serve and ride my bike home.”

So when the priest of their parish drew aside Leonard’s daughter, Emily, after Mass on Sept. 1, and told her she would no longer allowed to be an altar server – after doing so for nearly five years – it was a deeply personal blow not just for Emily, but for the entire family.

“He told our daughter, who is 13 years old, that even though she’s the best server, she could no longer serve because she’s a girl,” said Ryan Leonard, his voice still reflecting hurt and astonishment at the decision weeks later.

Their parish priest, the Rev. Dale Tuckerman, reversed course a month later, after the Leonards and others in the parish objected. But initially Tuckerman, the Leonards say, told her – as he later told her family, and eventually told the parish – that in a time of dwindling interest among boys in the priesthood, it was important to encourage boys to be altar servers as a first step toward the priesthood.

Because girls are often so good at being altar servers, he said, including them in the ritual was intimidating to boys.

The decision meant that not only would Emily no longer serve, but no others would, either, including a couple of girls who were about to reach the age of confirmation.

“I started to cry,” Emily Leonard said about her reaction to hearing Tuckerman’s explanation at a meeting with her parents. “Before we left, I said, ‘Please let the girls who are being confirmed the chance to serve once. … It’s a different way to connect to God. You are joyful and happy.’ ”

She said the decision upset her as much for the younger girls behind her as for herself.

“There is a joy,” she said. “One of our girls (who is about to be confirmed) loves to pray the rosary. If she could serve, it would give her great joy. … The opportunity should be there.”

‘Very reverent and very joyful’

The decision and subsequent discussions about it have been heartbreaking for the Leonards, and the decision to speak about it publicly has also been wrenching. Reardan is a small community, and the parish is smaller still. Ryan Leonard is a science teacher in Reardan, and Cindy Leonard is the elementary science curriculum coordinator for Spokane Public Schools.

They say most of their fellow parishioners support them. Ryan Leonard said Emily would frequently hear praise from other members of the congregation about her altar service.

“She is very reverent and very joyful up there,” he said. “Every time she serves, people in our parish tell her, ‘We love seeing you up there because you’re so reverent and joyful.’ ”

Tuckerman’s initial decision seems to have been unique in the Catholic diocese, where altar girls are common. Catholics note that altar girls have served at Masses where Bishop Thomas Daly officiated, and the diocese issued a statement about this case noting both that it allows girls in altar service – and that the tradition of boys performing altar service has been an important way of promoting interest in the priesthood.

“The Diocese of Spokane, guided by national norms and universal Church norms established by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican, respectively, allows both young men and young women to serve at the altar,” the statement said. “The Vatican grants bishops the right to allow female altar servers; Bishops, however, are not allowed by the Vatican to require priests to have female altar servers.”

The statement also quoted a Vatican statement from 2004 emphasizing the “laudable” tradition of boys serving at the altar as a pathway to the priesthood, noting “a great number of sacred ministers over the course of the centuries have come from boys such as these.”

‘It isn’t only about boys’

The concern over a lack of boys entering the priesthood and the debate over whether to allow altar girls to serve during Mass are not unique to Reardan. It’s one of those lines along which American Catholics sometimes find themselves split into traditional or progressive camps, divides that have intensified in some ways during the time of Pope Francis, who has taken a more liberal line on some social issues that have been opposed by traditionalists.

Tuckerman did not want to be interviewed for this story, but he explained his position briefly in a phone message. He talked about the need to consider ways to bring more boys into preparation for the priesthood and noted that it was an approach that other parishes around the country have tried.

However, he said, “it became clear that it wasn’t an appropriate time to make that change.”

Writing in Crisis magazine in 2015, Rachel Yu, a philosophy professor and convert to Catholicism, argued that girls should not be altar servers chiefly as a way to preserve the role as an entree into the priesthood. But she also wrote that a “more thorny problem” is the fact that male altar servers are generally more likely to have what she called “high” liturgical sensibilities – austerity, solemnity and reverence.

“When women claim a more central role,” she wrote, “we frequently see a slide into lower and more culturally idiosyncratic practices. It generally starts with campy banners and popular-style hymnody, but may end with synthesizers and scantily-clad liturgical dancers. These liturgies are not beautiful or uplifting. They’re more like a never-ending hug from a grasping, obsequious aunt.”

Writing in U.S. Catholic magazine, a longtime female altar server took a different view. Mary Kathleen Cahill noted that several parishes had returned to all-boy altar service in 2011, and took issue – as one who served and trained altar servers – with the reasoning.

“First off, I don’t think my presence scared away any boys who would have served had I been male instead of female,” she wrote. “But it isn’t only about the boys. … Without being an altar server as a child, I would never have cared as much about the Mass or learned as much about my faith – that it is something done in community, that God is indeed present in the little things we do, and that faith is something I actively do, not something I simply hear. Being an altar server taught me to take ownership of my faith.”

Pope Francis addressed 60,000 altar servers – male and female – in St. Peter’s Square at Vatican City last August, encouraging them to bring others to Christ.

“There is no need for lots of words,” the Pope said. “More important are your actions, your closeness, your desire to serve. Young people – and everyone else for that matter – need friends who can give a good example, who are ready to act without expecting anything in return.”

‘It’s a gift’

The Leonards hope the reversal of the decision by Tuckerman will remain the approach in their parish.

Cindy Leonard said that, in deciding whether to speak about the matter publicly, she was as concerned about other parishes and their decision-making on this question as she was about their family’s experience. She said she hopes that, if there are other parishes in the Spokane Diocese that might be considering a similar move, parishioners will have a better chance to discuss and debate it with church leadership – and to consider not just the impact on boys and the priesthood but on Catholic girls, as well.

“I was shocked by this choice, and my friends outside our parish immediately asked, ‘Is this coming from the Bishop?’ ” she said. “I would hope Catholics in the diocese would have an opportunity to think about this and consider how to deal with it in their own parishes.”

Because she knows firsthand the effect that helping to perform the church’s sacred, central ritual has, she can’t understand why anyone would want to deny the experience to girls.

“Any kind of service is a gift – it’s a gift to be able to serve,” she said. “To have a form of service taken away is like having a gift taken away, and it doesn’t make any sense.”