- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Altar girls will be permitted at Roman Catholic churches in Northern Virginia, expanding a practice that is common across the country, the leader of the Diocese of Arlington announced yesterday.

Arlington had been one of only two dioceses out of nearly 200 in the United States that limited the ability of women and girls to serve at the altar and assist priests during Mass. Lincoln, Neb., is the other.

The diocese, which includes 67 parishes and more than 400,000 Catholics, previously allowed females to serve in places like hospitals, nursing homes and colleges.

With the change, women and girls in Northern Virginia will now be able to serve at parishes and high schools, Bishop Paul S. Loverde said.

“Hallelujah,” said Rea Howarth of Front Royal, Va., who is active in Catholics Speak Out, a group that encourages reform of the Catholic Church. “Long we have waited.”

Mrs. Howarth said her 21-year-old daughter had wanted to be an altar girl since she was 8, and eventually decided not to be confirmed in the Catholic Church because she could not serve.

The decision to allow altar girls is ultimately up to parish priests, who must write a letter to the bishop seeking the change.

“Some of our priests have been eager to have this option allowed, and then others have not,” Bishop Loverde said. “So that’s why we’ll leave it at the local level.”

The Vatican gave bishops the authority to allow altar girls to serve at Mass in 1994, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops permitted the practice later that year. Nearly all dioceses quickly decided to allow altar girls.

Bishops who resisted the change said they wanted to preserve altar service as a pathway for boys to become priests, church officials have said.

But Bishop Loverde said he has found that dioceses of similar size that allow altar girls have more seminarians. The bishop also said he hoped that allowing altar girls would deepen their appreciation of Mass and encourage some girls to become nuns.

In the Archdiocese of Washington, which has allowed altar girls since 1994, about 50 percent of the altar servers are girls, said Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick.

In addition to allowing altar girls, Bishop Loverde also decided yesterday to allow two churches to celebrate the 1962 Latin Mass, sometimes known as the Tridentine Mass.

St. Lawrence in Alexandria and St. John the Baptist in Front Royal plan to offer the Latin Mass in addition to regular services.

Reforms by the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council allowed Mass to be celebrated in languages other than Latin, permitted folk songs and guitar-playing and allowed priests at the altar to face congregations instead of having their backs to them.

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