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A Shift at Arlington Altar
Female Servers Make Debut at Our Lady Queen of Peace

By Caryle Murphy and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 27, 2006; B01

Despite the short notice, they were more than ready to make parish history yesterday at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Arlington.

Emily Wallis held the lectionary open while the priest read from it. Angela Barbieri brought the ceremonial vial of water to the altar. And Margaret Lister followed the priest down the aisle to shake hands with her congregation, just as she'd always seen altar boys do.

"It was fun," Margaret, 7, said later. "I always wanted to be on the altar. I wanted to see what it was like to be helping the priest."

This particular priest, the Rev. Leonard J. Tuozzolo, was just as excited as his female helpers in their floor-length white robes called albs.

"This is very historical," the pastor, vested in Lent's penitential purple, said at yesterday's 9:30 a.m. Mass, during which female servers directly assisted in the liturgy. "We're no longer gender-restricted."

His assembled parishioners, including squirming children, young families and elderly couples, responded with loud applause and "Yays!"

"We're accepting applications" for altar girls, joked Tuozzolo, who then hastened to reassure people such as Bryan Burgess, 10, a red-headed altar boy also serving at yesterday's Mass.

"We want young men to know," said the priest, "that they're as welcome as they used to be."

Until now, the Arlington Diocese had been one of only two dioceses in the nation -- the other is in Lincoln, Neb. -- that forbade females from assisting at the altar during Mass. But in a surprise announcement Tuesday, Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde lifted the ban.

When the Vatican ruled in 1994 that girls could assist at Mass, Loverde's predecessor, Bishop John R. Keating, declined to take that option for his diocese. Loverde had maintained Keating's policy until last week.

Diocesan spokesman Soren Johnson said calls and e-mails responding to the change were mixed but declined to say which side had a heavier volume.

Michael Flach, editor of the Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocese's newspaper, said he was surprised at the sparse feedback. He said when Keating refused to allow altar girls in 1994, there were "real strong feelings on both sides."

Several diocesan observers said Loverde had moved slowly because his diocese, which includes 67 parishes in 21 Virginia counties, is very divided between conservative and liberal Catholics. He seemed to be trying to please both by twinning his altar girl decision with another allowing two parishes to offer the all-Latin or Tridentine Mass, the standard way of saying Mass until the 1960s and one beloved by traditionalists.

Lyn McGee, who has 11-year-old twins -- a boy and a girl -- said she is glad she no longer has to explain to daughter Taylor why only her brother Conor could assist the priest at St. Anthony of Padua Parish near Baileys Crossroads in Fairfax County. St. Anthony is expected to begin allowing altar girls soon.

Taylor is more engaged in the Mass than her brother, McGee said, and she notices such things as his untied shoelaces. She believes that she can help him fix such things if she's a participant, McGee added. "She said, 'I can finally put him together before he walks down the aisle! He always has something dragging,' " McGee recalled.

Conservative Catholics, however, are displeased, and some fear that Loverde's move is the first step toward accepting female clergy.

Dappled Things, a conservative blog run by the Rev. James A. Tucker of Our Lady of Angels in Woodbridge, reported receiving a "mountain" of e-mails, mostly opposed to the change, as were nearly 120 posts on the national blog "Open Book" at http://amywelborn.typepad.com/ .

A mother named "Denise" expressed her concerns on Open Book. "The nature of young boys is that when you introduce girls into the activity, it lowers the value or status of the activity in their eyes and the boys' participation decreases," she wrote. "From these boys come our priests and the Arlington Diocese has been blessed with abundant seminarians. Why would we jeopardize that now?"

The Rev. Brian G. Bashista, head of the diocese's Office of Vocations, said there is no evidence of a connection between the sex of altar servers and the number of men entering the seminary. The most influential factors in men becoming priests or women becoming nuns are family and faithful priests, he said.

"This is a difficult time for some people," he said of the introduction of female altar servers, "and we need to be prayerfully patient." Noting that this is something "permitted by the universal church," he added, "We are just as faithful and just as traditional by embracing it as we were before. But I know others don't see it that way."

Under Loverde's new rules, parishes that want to allow altar girls must poll their councils and leadership, send Loverde a letter and wait for formal diocesan approval to move forward.

By Friday, two parishes had gotten that approval: Good Shepherd, in the Mount Vernon Area of Fairfax, and Our Lady Queen of Peace, whose congregation strongly favors allowing altar girls.

"The way we look at it in our community," said parishioner Marguerite Greig, "is that we're all called to serve at God's table."

Ian Moar, father of Christine Kline, 15, who unsuccessfully petitioned Loverde years ago to allow altar girls, said his family is happy that the diocese no longer promotes "what we consider a sexist policy."

"I'm very proud to be part of today," Barbieri, 26, said at the end of Mass as she shook hands with fellow congregants at the door. "We had kind of pulled back as far as equality in the church, and now we're taking a step in the right direction."

"Congratulations!" said one man as he pumped her hand.

"Good to see you up there!" said another.

Barbieri, who works in catering, said she intends to continue assisting in the liturgy, although perhaps not as she did yesterday, which she said was a chance to fulfill a long-held desire.

"I don't know if there is an age limit on altar girls," she joked.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company