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[...] the Vatican didn't get around to confirming that interpretation until March 15, 1994 The Congregation for Divine Worship made the announcement in classic Vatican form: a letter was addressed to bishops stating almost offhandedly that it was indeed permissible for women and girls to serve at the altar. ("The norm is already being widely applied," the Congregation noted, "by the fact that women frequently serve as lectors in the Liturgy and can also be called upon to distribute Holy Communion as Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist" - as though that inconsistency weren't the very reason this question had come up in the first place.) Although the letter skimps on explanations, it does spell out in detail the right of every individual bishop to continue to bar girls from serving at the altar. According to the Vatican, he didn't have to bother changing anything.
polls. Plans were made for a general election to establish his Mollie Wilson O’Reilly leadership, though no announcement was ever made. Then it was called off. British parliaments have a five-year term, but it is one of the prerogatives of the prime minister to call Passing On the Alb an election when it suits him—or, in constitutional terms, to My CAReeR AS AN ALTAR GiRL advise the queen to call it. Like many people, I think that this I needs reform, and that we should have fixed-term parliaments, think by now it’s safe to say that altar girls are a positive though of four years rather than five. It would have been de- part of Catholic life. Young women who serve the priest plorable if an election for which there was no constitutional at Mass benefit from taking an active role in the liturgy, necessity had taken place purely for party advantage. and the parish benefits from their service. There’s nothing A few months later the global financial crisis struck. In controversial about that opinion in my parish, and it’s prob- Britain as in the United States, the cause seems to have been ably taken for granted in your parish too. But it would be a bankers behaving badly in ways that most people can’t un- pleasant surprise to hear something similar from Rome. derstand. Brown, who knows a lot about economics, and his The Vatican stopped saying no to altar girls just fifteen chancellor Alistair Darling took short-term measures that years ago. But to this day, it has never really said yes. To be stopped the whole system from collapsing. But then Brown more precise, in 1994, the Vatican finally said, “Yes, women seemed to lose his grip. He is more given to talking about are allowed to serve the priest at Mass, according to canon possible steps forward than to actually taking them. And his law.” But the pope has never said, “Yes, it is a good thing for reputation has collapsed. Unlike Blair, he has never been at girls and women to fulfill this ministry.” ease with the media, and his attempts to appear relaxed and Nevertheless, it’s clear enough to most U.S. Catholics that, genial in front of the camera are embarrassing. Meanwhile the when the church blesses altar girls, they are in turn a blessing bankers are the objects of widespread public anger, and yet to the church. And I’d argue further that banning girls from they continue to award themselves large bonuses and don’t the sanctuary is detrimental to the girls, the parish, and the seem very bothered. Politicians and commentators survey church. My diocese waited for the official OK from Rome, the scene like gardeners after a very severe winter, looking which meant only boys could serve until I was thirteen. But for green shoots that are reluctant to appear. Unemployment I knew altar girls existed in other dioceses—some of which and house repossessions are rising, with all the accompanying had introduced them along with the other liturgical reforms social distress. In the Warwickshire town where I live, shops that followed the Second Vatican Council. This practice was are closing, just as they did in the 1980s, and those that are officially declared out of bounds in 1970, and again in 1980, open are offering large price cuts. But restaurants are still by the Congregation for Divine Worship. No reason for the well frequented, London theaters are attracting large audi- ban was given, aside from a frankly unpersuasive appeal to ences, and, in an interesting national trend, cinema-going is “norms traditional in the church.” Those preconciliar “norms” very popular. Niche products such as fine porcelain, sewing no longer prevented women from being cantors, ushers, or machines, and video games are selling well. readers at Mass. Serving the priest, however, was out of the We are told to expect tough times, and I view the prospect with rational pessimism. The Conservatives are in the lead, but they are not attracting the enthusiasm that Labour did in 1997. They are, of course, looking forward to taking over, but they must wish it was at a better time, because they will need to enact harsh financial measures. One of their spokesmen has been saying that bankers’ bonuses should be cut, which is what the public wants to hear. One shrewd columnist has Commonweal . September 11, 2009 remarked that Labour ministers tend to be in awe of financiers, whereas top Conservatives are less likely to be impressed
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