One somewhat-controversial topic in liturgical circles is whether altar servers ought to be all boys, or boys and girls.
Serving at the altar used to be a no-girls-allowed thing until fairly recently. (Girls still can't serve at Masses in the extraordinary form.) Even now, bishops are permitted to restrict altar-serving to males in their own dioceses, and where bishops have permitted girls to serve in this way, pastors are permitted to restrict it to males in their own parishes.
Unsurprisingly, some folks would rather live in a parish with children of both genders serving at the altar, and some folks would rather it be only boys. I suppose the arguments on the side of girl altar servers are pretty obvious: Rome permits it, so there is nothing inherently wrong about it; men and women are equal before the Lord, and even if men and women properly play different roles it is rather complicated to explain that to children; girls who want to serve should be able to, etc. Arguments against it have to do with the reality that the priesthood is open only to men, that vocations to the priesthood are nurtured in altar service, and that more boys serve when altar serving is restricted to boys.
I attend a parish in which only boys are altar servers (though adult men and women both assist as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, and sometimes assist with serving). Anecdotally, the notion that more boys serve when girls are excluded is supported here: We have upwards of a dozen servers at each ordinary Mass, and 75 is not unheard of.
I think I prefer the boys-only tradition, as long as it is accompanied by careful catechesis, because it is more supportive of our male-only priesthood -- it echoes the reasoning, and it brings more boys into close contact with the Eucharist, and it is a seed for vocations. I think the dearth of altar servers today (typically only one to three at many parishes) is an unintended consequence of opening the role to girls. (Who would have expected that fewer children would serve if twice as many became eligible?) But I don't fault pastors and bishops for choosing to permit girls to serve, now that permission is available. Rome permits it, and that means the decision is theirs to make.
I wonder if perhaps a more fruitful attitude would help both boys and girls who serve at the altar. Pope Benedict recently gave remarks to a pilgrimage audience of French altar servers, both boys and girls:
Pope Benedict told the young people they were blessed to be "particularly close to Christ Jesus in the Eucharist. You have the enormous privilege of being close to the altar, close to the Lord."
The pope prayed that being an altar server would help the young people deepen their friendship with Christ and enthusiastically share God's love with their friends and families.
"And, if one day you feel called to follow the path to the priesthood or religious life, respond generously," he told the youngsters.
Luckily for you, I can read French, so I can give you the whole quote from the Vatican website. Here is my translation:
It is with affection that I greet the dear altar servers, come from France for their national pilgrimage to Rome, as well as Monsignor Breton, the other bishops who are here and the chaperones of this important group.
Dear young people, the service that you faithfully carry out permits you to be particularly close to Christ Jesus in the Eucharist. You have the enormous privilege to be near the altar, near the Lord. Be conscious of the importance of this service for the Church and for yourselves. Let it be for you the opportunity to grow a friendship, a personal relationship with Jesus. Don't be afraid to transmit with enthusiasm to those around you the joy that you receive from his presence! Let your entire life be resplendent with the happiness that comes from this nearness to the Lord Jesus! And if one day you hear the call to follow him on the way of priesthood or the religious life, respond to him with generosity!
To all of you I wish a good pilgrimage to the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul!
I generally accept that one of the purposes of having young boys serve at the altar was to nurture vocations to the priesthood, and that's why I generally support the decisions of pastors to restrict altar service to males (though, as I tried to express, I am not hostile to the pastoral decision to permit girls to serve at the altar). I know there are plenty of traditionally-minded Catholics who feel similarly to me, that boys-only altar service will better serve the Church's need for priesthood vocations.
But Pope Benedict's remarks make me wonder if we who feel this way haven't perhaps lost some of our focus on vocations in general. After all, vocations to the priesthood are not more noble than other vocations to religious life (or than marriage, for that matter). Perhaps part of the lack of reverence and lack of appreciation of the importance of altar service is not really caused by the admission of girls, though perhaps that change might have triggered events that revealed more symptoms of the problem. Maybe the problem is that we aren't looking on altar service as a place where religious vocations of all types are planted and grow.
At least in our parish, where the connection between vocation to the priesthood and service at the altar is preached explicitly, and where the pastor has made it clear that he is deliberately reinforcing the connection by restricting altar service to boys, families willingly and joyfully encourage (or require) their sons to serve at the altar and hope that from among these boys new priests will step forward.
But why not, in a parish where girls are permitted to serve, still try to make a connection between service at the altar and vocations to the priesthood, or to consecrated virginity, or to contemplative religious life, or to active religious life as a sister or brother? Why couldn't it be, in such a parish, that families willingly encourage sons and daughters to serve, and express hope that from among these boys and girls that new priests, brothers, sisters, vowed lives of service to the Lord, will emerge?
I admit that I have never really seen such a connection made explicitly, except in the parish I attend now. I have always attributed it to the boys-only policy. But maybe the real reason is something deeper than which of two permitted pastoral choices the pastor has made.