During the Mass, altar servers assist the priest in ceremonial functions, such as presenting him bread and wine.
In the US and to some extent in this country, the exclusion of girls from this role has been criticised. The ban, though restated, has been frequently flouted.
The decision was announced in a letter apparently sent last month to heads of local bishops' conferences by Cardinal Javierre Ortas, chief of the Vatican's department for divine worship and sacraments.
However, neither the English Bishops' Conference nor the Apostolic Nunciature (the Vatican embassy) here had received the letter yesterday. To add to the confusion, the letter itself claims the decision was made in 1992.
The decision has been approved by Pope John Paul II, an implacable opponent of women priests and of priests marrying. A Vatican spokesman said: 'It would be wrong to interpret this as the first step towards women priests.'Reuse content