Zickel burst into tears and ran to the bathroom.
“I knew right then that our family couldn’t stay at this church anymore,” Zickel said, her voice breaking. “I’m a mama bear, and they’re going after my girls.”
The decision last fall by Corpus Christi’s pastor, the Rev. Michael Taylor, and the response of Zickel and about a dozen other families who left the 1,100-family South Riding church reflect ongoing tensions among American Catholics over the role of women. About 50 families from across the country wrote letters of protest to the Arlington Catholic Diocese, and a vigil is scheduled for Sunday outside the diocese’s offices.
The subject has played out unusually in the diocese, which was the next-to-last in the country to say, in 2006, that girls were eligible to help priests at the altar. (The diocese in Lincoln, Neb., still has a boys-only policy.) Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde left the decision up to individual priests. Five years later, about 60 percent of the diocese’s 68 parishes across northern and eastern Virginia still allow only altar boys, a diocese spokeswoman said.
Some share Taylor’s belief that the positions should be reserved for boys, who may become priests and help ease a major Catholic clergy shortage. Girls who had already trained as altar servers at Corpus Christi were allowed to continue, but they cannot wear the new black, priestlike robes the boys began wearing. People who oppose girl servers see the task as priest-like and note that the church teaches priests must be male because they model Jesus.
The Corpus Christi controversy highlights the sometimes-conflicting trends in contemporary Catholicism. The church is trying to hold on to its orthodox doctrine and firm worship structure while making room for cultural shifts, such as gender equality and a push by laypeople for more involvement in decision making.
For the most part, women are becoming more prominent in Catholic life. There are twice as many lay ministers — such as baptismal directors or school directors — as there are priests, and three-quarters are women. Women also increasingly serve in ritual roles during Mass, such as helping priests with Communionand doing readings.
But Catholic priests ultimately hold authority in their parishes and answer only to clergy above them, not to laypeople.
Taylor, who did not return phone calls for comment, wrote in the parish bulletin that he hoped the church would “create opportunities, and perhaps clubs” for girls as a way to help them find ways to serve the church, rather than serving at the altar. Loverde has not responded directly to requests by Zickel and others to meet, people on both sides said.