Italian Altar Servers: Gender

Figure 1.--Here we see a group of altar servers, both boys and girls. We begin to see girl altar severs in the 1970s, but they became more common only in the 1990s. Some of the more traditional congregations still fo not have altar girls. This photograph was taken in Cilavegna, 40 km west of Milan. Notice the older boys at the back wear black rather than red cassocks.

The term 'altar boy' is becoming increasingly dated. Now the non-gender based term altar server is more accurate. In recent years this experience has been opened to girls. We are not sure when this happened. An Italian reader tells us that it first occurred in a few churches (1970s). Girlls dis not begin serving in appreciable numbers until later (1990s). Some conservative churches still do not permit it. Basically the Vatican has allowed each local church to decide. We are not sure why the Church allowed this. Changing attitudes toward men and women are surely a factor. Presumably they did not want a major fight on the issue which would only damage the Church among women who were in fact a main stay of the faithfull. They were already involved in the contentious opriesthood issue and may have decided a fight about altar servers was just not worth it. Leaving it up to he local churches seems a non-contentious way of dealing with the issue. We suspect difficulties recruiting boys may be another factor as Italy is becoming increasingly secular. Today altar girls are very common in Italy. That was not the case 30 years ago. The Italian term for red striped robe is 'tarcisiana'. Is a vestment worn by altar boys and altar girls. Altar boys wear also cassocks and surplices, but in Italy usually altar girls wear only "tarcisiana". The white robes are albs, as those worn by priests. Older altar servers, that can't wear tarcisiana (to small), wear albs. The altar servers wore both both red and black cassocks. Notice the younger children wear red while the older boys in the back wear black (figure 1). An Italian reader tells us, "There is no general rule about the red and black cassocks. Each congregation has its own conventions. However, it is the younger servers whob wear the red cassocks. Elsewhere they may wear white tunics, and there are many congregation where all the altar servers wear tunics. It is a matter of traditions and also of economy. Cassocks and surplices are more expencive than tunics."


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Created: 7:39 PM 7/3/2013
Last updated: 8:15 AM 7/4/2013