The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Not priests, but girls will do as altar girls
- step to gender equality

Thiruvananthapuram, March 26: They may not be good enough to be priests, but girls in Kerala now have a chance to serve God at the altar. And they are putting the boys in the shade.

In a small but definite step towards gender equality, the Catholic Church in Kerala has allowed girls for altar services.

Father Paul Thelekkat, the spokesperson for the Syro-Malabar Church, said Cardinal Mar Varkey Vitahayathil recently gave the go-ahead to the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese to implement the decision of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

The girls can now assist the priest in various services, including Holy Mass, baptism, first communion, confirmation, wedding and funeral.

Dressed in flowing vestments, they will appear alongside boys, lighting candles, burning incense and carrying articles needed for Mass to and from the altar.

The bishops’ conference has, however, slapped an age bar. Only girls below 14 will be recruited. “It’ll foster religious calling among the youth,” said Father Thelekkat.

But the “ultimate calling” of priesthood is still denied to girls. They can at best aspire to be nuns.

On why the church is stopping a notch less on gender equality, Father Thelekkat said: “It’s an inviolable tradition of the church, from Jesus down to the apostles to the Holy See. Jesus had women followers but his 12 disciples are men. Apostles also kept up the tradition, never recruiting women to the higher echelons of divine service.”

The decision follows the Vatican fiat issued during the time of the late John Paul II.

At a meeting last month, bishops had decided that appointing altar girls would not be an obligation, but a choice, for parish councils.

Girls in Kerala may be thanking the Lord for the turn in their fortunes, but there is a flip side to their success story ' they are proving to be smarter and more efficient than the boys.

“From my experience, I’ve seen altar girls being more sensitive and responsive. Often, the priest may have to gesture some errands during a church service and girls decode the message much faster, leaving altar boys groping,” said Father Francis Ezhanikkat, who introduced altar girls at the church.

Some churches now complain that girls are often seen dominating the altar, making the boys feel slighted.

Authorities say they are wary of losing the boys, who they are banking on to fill up the dwindling stock of the clergy.

The Latin Church at Muttada in Thiruvananthapuram has even stopped recruiting girls.

Outside Kerala, though, girls have been working in altars for a long time.

“At the Fatima Shrine at Entally on CIT Road (in Calcutta), I’ve seen this. At the Holy Ghost Church in Bangalore, there are at east 15 altar girls and 60 altar boys,” said Father Ezhanikkat.

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