Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Altar boys and altar girls serve in my parish. While altar boys grow and “graduate” into acolytes as adult men and continue to serve at the altar, is there an age threshold for altar girls beyond which they may not serve as adult women? — A.R., Gwynedd, Wales
A: The short answer would be no, there is no age limit for such service.
The question can be addressed at several levels. The roles of instituted lector and acolyte are open only to males. Canon law says:
“Canon 230 §1. Lay men who possess the age and qualifications established by decree of the conference of bishops can be admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte.
“Nevertheless, the conferral of these ministries does not grant them the right to obtain support or remuneration from the Church.”
However, the vast majority of altar boys are not eventually admitted into these ministries, and this for several reasons.
Admittance to the instituted ministries is not a requirement to be able to continue to serve at Mass.
Although the ministries are open to laymen, in practice very few dioceses make use of this possibility and tend to reserve the ministries for those pursuing the sacred orders of diaconate and priesthood.
While there does not appear to be a universal age requirement to be instituted as an acolyte, the minimum age is usually set around the time that seminarians would receive the ministries. This usually occurs during theological studies and, hence, when they are in their mid-20s.
In most parishes only a very persevering altar boy would still be serving Mass at this age.
From the perspective of women, the liturgical law allowing them to serve stems from an official interpretation of Canon 230, Paragraph 2, of the Code of Canon law on the possibility of delegating certain liturgical offices. The text of the interpretation reads as follows:
“Canon 230.2. Lay persons (laici) by temporary deputation may fulfil the function of lector during liturgical services; likewise all lay persons (laici) may carry out the functions of commentator and cantor or other functions in accordance with the norm of law.”
On 30 June 1992, the members of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts pronounced on the following question that had been raised: “Whether, among the liturgical functions that lay persons, men or women, may exercise according to Canon 230.2 of the Code of Canon Law, may also be included service at the altar (servitium ad altare).” The answer given was:
“Yes, and in accordance with instructions to be given by the Apostolic See.”
The answer of the Pontifical Council was confirmed on July 11, 1992, by Pope John Paul II, who also ordered its publication.
This led to a 1994 letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments clarifying that girls may serve at the altar. But bishops are not bound to permit them to do so, nor could the episcopal conference limit the bishop’s faculty to decide for himself. A further clarifying letter published in 2001 said priests are not compelled to have girls serve at the altar, even when their bishops grant permission.
The aforementioned letters do address the question of altar boys and girls from a pastoral perspective but make no mention of an age limit.
Nor is any age limit mentioned in the interpretation, and it is to be supposed that none was ever intended by the legislator since this would not usually be the case in a question of delegation.
Likewise, the functions specifically mentioned in Canon 230, such as reader or cantor, are normally carried out by adults, and therefore the interpretation would also cover adults being delegated to serve at the altar.
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