When she was a young girl, Logan Crotty dreamed of becoming a Catholic priest.

She had always had an insatiable desire for intimacy with God and for a place of importance within God's mission, the Church. When she became an altar server at her parish, those desires became directed toward the priesthood.

Crotty described watching her older sister serve at the altar. She said she was thrilled by her sister's experiences of intimacy with God and the sacraments.

In her young mind, she began associating the heights of holiness with the priesthood.

"I didn't really have a particular reason for wanting to be a priest, other than this desire to be holy and to serve the Lord and to be close to him," Crotty told CNA. "By being a priest – I saw that as the highest place you could reach and the most that you could give to be close to our Lord."

"No one really corrected me," she said.

Crotty hit a major stumbling block in the fourth grade; after years of serving at the altar and dreaming of a promotion of sorts to the priesthood, she learned that the Catholic Church does not ordain women priests.

"I was left feeling kind of lost, I think, when I reached that place of understanding that this would not be a desire that could ever be fulfilled (through the priesthood)."

Years later, she discovered the writings of St. Therese of Lisieux, who also had dreams of becoming a Catholic priest. She said the 19th-century saint's life and writings revealed to her the true role God has for women in the Church.

"It was recognizing that holiness and devotion can occur in very simple and hidden ways," she said. "(And) recognizing that maybe it wasn't fully a desire for the priesthood so much as it was a desire for holiness that had no direction other than this one role I had seen."

Crotty noted that she had never met any religious sisters when she was younger.

"If you haven't encountered the possibilities as a Catholic woman for your life, then it's very hard to discern what those might be," she said, adding that the priesthood was the only vocation she had witnessed as a young girl because of her years of serving at the altar.

The connection that Crotty saw between altar serving and the priesthood, and the resulting incoherence that she experienced as a young girl, illustrates part of the reasoning behind one San Francisco priest's recent decision to make altar serving at his parish available only to boys.

"The priesthood is a male charism in Catholic understanding," Father Joseph Illo, administrator of Star of the Sea Parish, told CNA. "Assisting in the sacrifice of the Mass is a priestly act."

While women are technically permitted under Church law to be altar servers, Fr. Illo said, "on a symbolic level, it's a priestly act."

Fr. Illo isn't alone in his decision. Other priests and bishops have also returned to the practice of male-only altar servers, citing a connection between serving at the altar and the priesthood.

Only boys can serve at the altar in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska where vocations to the priesthood are flourishing. And a recent study by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops revealed that 82 percent of men studying for the priesthood last year served at the altar before entering the seminary.  

In a 2001 letter, the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship clarified that if a bishop does decide to allow girls to serve at the altar, "it would remain important to explain clearly to the faithful the nature of this innovation, lest confusion might be introduced, thereby hampering the development of priestly vocations."

It also stressed that for the non-ordained faithful, service at the altar is not a right.

Despite the Congregation's statements, Fr. Illo's decision was met with harsh criticism from some San Francisco locals.

"It's disturbing and it's troubling," women commented to CBS' San Francisco affiliate. "A step in the wrong direction."

One young girl at Star of the Sea school told CBS the policy change "makes me feel like I'm not good enough."

Crotty, who is now a youth minister at St. Odilia's Catholic Community in Shoreview, MN, said the emotional reaction to Fr. Illo's decision is understandable.
"We don't necessarily have conversations that are clear and articulate about what it means to be man and woman," Crotty said. "So, to present something like this can very easily affect people to their core and cause a very emotional and disappointed reaction."

"It's not an easy thing to immediately understand. But, it's written in our hearts. The truth is there and once you've encountered it, everything changes."

Holy Name Parish in Denver changed its altar serving policy about six months ago. Now, altar serving is reserved for boys.

But Holy Name's pastor, Father Daniel Cardo, has established a new sacristan program for girls in the parish. The "Sacristans of Little Therese of Lisieux" have a schedule and responsibility, similar to the altar boys. Members prepare materials before and after Mass.

"I think for the most part it's working very well," Fr. Cardo told CNA. "They love it and they have great pride in their work... Sometimes even more than the boys being altar servers! You see now two very distinct groups."

Fr. Cardo said the new sacristan group accentuates the young girls' "feminine genius" – in the words of St. John Paul II – by showcasing their sense of reverence and attentiveness to detail.  

The sacristans and altar servers also challenge each other to excellence in their different roles at Holy Name.

"In that way, the girls have a necessary place...and the boys have another necessary part which helps to promote vocations."

Fr. Cardo believes the arrangement considers what is best for both the boys and the girls in his parish. He said most parents want their children to be involved in Mass so that they are less distracted.

Both altar serving and the sacristan program keep boys and girls involved in Mass in ways that respect their masculinity and femininity, he explained.

"It's not just about what's right or wrong. It's about what's best," he said. "And this could be better, among other things, because it helps promote in an adequate and personalized way, vocations for girls and boys."

Crotty said she wishes her parish had had a similar sacristan program when she was younger.

"When I heard about Fr. Daniel's design for ministry for these young people, I was just so excited," she said. "I think I really could have benefited from that and it took a long time to come to understand everything I had experienced."

She noted that it was not a matter of "boys should be altar servers and girls should not be involved," but rather involvement in different ways.

"I think that is to the Church's detriment not to nourish these young female souls. But to prevent this confusion from occurring in the lives of those young female souls. And to really nourish and foster priestly vocations among young men. That needs to be the purpose and the goal."