08 June 2010

Altar girls: permissible but not prudent

That the Holy Father has given permission for the use of altar girls tells us that the practice cannot be illegal or sacramentally invalidating. 

The question is whether or not it is prudent to ask girls to serve. Given what we know about 1) the reluctance of boys to take on roles that girls are encouraged to take; 2) how altar service leads to priestly vocations; and 3) the feminist agenda behind how altar girls came out--it seems to me that it is not prudent to invite young girls to serve in a parish setting.

Whether we like it or not, young boys do not rush to take on roles that girls are encouraged to take.  If 40 years of feminist indoctrination pushing the idea that equality means sameness hasn't convinced 10 y.o. boys that girls' role aren't icky, then I don't know what will convince them.  There is almost nothing more important to a 10 y.o. boy than to be seen as "not a girl."  We can argue ourselves into the dirt about how wrong this is, but we might as well stand outside at dawn and argue with the sun that it ought to be rising in the west!

There is ample evidence that altar service often leads to priestly vocations.  Since priests are indispensable to the ministry of the Church, we can't set aside the practice of all-male altar service simply b/c boys ought to know better.  

Those who pushed hardest for female servers in the 70's and 80's did so out of a philosophical and political agenda alien to the Church's understanding of the essential differences btw men and women.  The most damaging element of this agenda is the idea that ministers are merely functional; that is, there is nothing more to ministerial service than performing a function during a sacred service.  If a girl can "do the job," let her do it.  This notion is fine for all secular jobs, but ministerial service is not merely functional; it is also sacramental.  The early proponents of female servers often claimed that their stand was "prophetic" and would help Catholics "get used" to the idea of women on the altar when the Church finally got around to ordaining women as priests.  This exact argument was made in the Episcopal Church--that opposition to female priests was rooted in an aesthetic discomfort--and look at what's happened to that venerable institution.

So, girls serving the altar is permissible but probably not prudent, especially in a parish setting.

As I noted in an earlier post, I have asked women to serve Mass at the University of Dallas.  This came about primarily b/c none of the men I asked would serve.  There were several reasons the guys gave for not serving, but the most prominent was, "Sorry, Father, but I haven't been to confession."  This same reason was often given by both men and women when asked to serve as EMHC.  At one point in my last semester at U.D. I started postponing the start of Mass until I had all the help I needed.  I had to do this four or five times--postponing the start of Mass up to 20 mins!--before my message got through. 

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  1. If there are some liturgical functions open to the lay faithful and altar serving is one of these, then it should make no difference whether the service is carried out by a boy or girl.
    I understand your point about altar service encouraging priestly vocations, but God surely does not call only those who have served in a parish in this way? Surely it is of value for both sexes to explore their personal "diakonia" in this way.
    Having said that, I am no supporter of feminists who don't want women to be equal to men, but rather wish to see themselves as superior to men!

  2. Anonymous10:38 AM

    Dear Fragrance --

    What you're overlooking is Father's comment about serving being NOT merely functional. We know that the maleness of the priest is essential matter for Holy Orders. The maleness of servers isn't essential in the same way, but nevertheless, as extensions of the priest -- his additional hands and feet, so to speak -- their maleness supports and reinforces his. No one disputes that girls and women can perform the serving task competently and conscientiously, but what they can't do is reflect and underscore the maleness of the priest, whose maleness as alter Christus penetrates to the heart of the sacrificial mystery.

    Why on earth would we want to obscure this?

    Encouraging vocations is only the tip of the iceberg.


  3. Father,
    A question... if your UD boys would not agree to serve at Mass, why did you feel compelled to ask women? Certainly, you are not required to have one or more servers to celebrate Mass. I attended a beautiful liturgy this morning at the convent of the Nashville Dominicans. There were 200+ habited sisters there. And the priest celebrated Mass just fine without any servers. This required the priest to spend a little extra time doing things normally reserved for the altar server(s), but I found that extra time gave me more space to contemplate and pray.

    Just wondering...

  4. Cathy D10:51 AM

    What is the average age of altar servers? In our parish, kids are trained in the 6th grade, and it's mostly 6th, 7th and 8th graders serving. In an informal survey (of my inlaws parishes) I found that their parishes have younger kids serving, 4th through 6th grades. This came up when my one sister in law was looking for 2 servers for her wedding. My son is an active server going into 8th grade. He was happy to do it. My nephew, however, said no, because in his parish it's something for "little kids".

  5. Anonymous11:52 AM

    Fine in the convent or cloister Not in the parish.

    I think the novelty of altar girls is ultimately destructive to the priesthood. It really emasculates altar serving to the eyes of boys and young men. Ultimately it undermines vocations to the priesthood by reducing the amount of young men that might otherwise be called to cultivate a vocation through being a server.

  6. Never having been associated with the feminist agenda, I have no idea what your allusion to that has to do with girls serving at the altar. My daughter served around '89-'94 give or take. Her service had nothing to do with a feminist agenda. Why even bring that up? If you want to bring it up, could you name names? Could you give data to support that? I've been an observant practicing Catholic for over six decades and was never exposed to such a thing as that in connection with young ladies serving at the altar. It was all about serving Our Lord.

    As I said in a previous comment, it's too bad if boys don't want to do things with girls and vice-versa. Yes they think girls are icky and girls think the same of boys. Sometimes we must do things we don't like with people we don't like, and as my father often said, "Grin and bear it." And as other good people have said, "Offer it up."

    I doubt that altar service in and of itself directly leads to priestly vocations, but would certainly be a factor---one factor among a complex of factors. It may not even be an essential factor. Look at all the men entering the priesthood who never served---who were not even Catholic in their childhood. If a young man has a vocation then serving with girls will not take it away.

    If the Holy Father says it's okay, then it's okay! Do we really have to take the theology of priesthood---alter Christus, and apply it to the children who serve as Anonymous suggests? In fact, I think his/her comments are extreme---like saying altar girls are ultimately destructive of the priesthood. Servers are not mini-priests.

  7. Anonymous3:53 PM

    I doubt that altar service in and of itself directly leads to priestly vocations

    Happens all the time, Ruth Ann. No one claims it happens invariably, but the connection is powerful and important. FYI, I oversee an acolyte program at an American parish. We have about 20 men ranging from late teens to their 50s. Three will be leaving us this Fall, to enter the seminary. Another is still discerning. One is still in college, but has his eye on the Jesuits. One is considering the permanent diaconate. A couple of others are studying college theology and may seek seminary admission in the future. I'm very proud of these men and grateful for our program that's allowed them to grow spiritually.

    If a young man has a vocation then serving with girls will not take it away.

    Vocations get derailed all the time. Good discernment and spiritual direction are supposed to lessen the risk, but it still happens.

    his/her comments are extreme---like saying altar girls are ultimately destructive of the priesthood.

    No, my comments are not like that. My point is that altar girls can be a roadblock to boys who may be called to the priesthood, and that they definitely impoverish the liturgy by obscuring the fullness of the priestly identity.

    Servers are not mini-priests.

    I understand that in Italy they're called just that: "chierichetti".


  8. If it is the case that woman was taken from man, not as a separate creation, but as an "elaboration" on the original, Christ, being male assumes not only all men but all women as well (woman having been given her substance from man)then I am not sure that the presence of female altar servers undermines the position of the masculine priest.
    And sn't every Christian (male or female) an alter Christus?

  9. Anonymous5:37 PM

    As I said in a previous comment, it's too bad if boys don't want to do things with girls and vice-versa. Yes they think girls are icky and girls think the same of boys. Sometimes we must do things we don't like with people we don't like, and as my father often said, "Grin and bear it." And as other good people have said, "Offer it up."

    This isn't very satisfying in the face of the undeniable fact that boys are choosing to vote with their feet. No one can be forced to be an altar server. We can either be smug about offering it, or we could actually remove the stumbling blocks. I vote the latter.

  10. Folks, let's keep it civil, please!

    Skeeton, I frequently celebrated public Masses w/o a server. In the Ordinary Form servers aren't strictly necessary since the responses are made by the whole congregation, etc. For the Sunday morning Masses at the campus church--mostly local people rather than students--a man from the congregation would set the altar, help with the gifts, and sit back down. Frankly, a well-trained server just makes everything go more smoothly.

  11. Ruth Ann, I was a feminist for many years both as an Episcopalian and a Catholic. No one thought girls should be allowed to serve until the feminist movement reached its peak in the US in the early 80's. Several parishes and dioceses started allowing girls to serve contra clear rules against the idea. When the complaints to Rome finally got loud enough and frequent enough to get a response, supporters of girls serving cried, "But we've been doing it for years now!" This is counts as prophetic in some dissident circles.

    The fact that you see altar service as a way of giving girls a certain sort of spiritual experience is an indication that the idea of called-service has lost its shine. We don't serve anyone b/c it offers us an opportunity for personal growth. If growth happens, then good. But service is sacrificial and we are called to it.

    Excluding girls from altar service is in NO way an indication that the Church values girls less or thinks that girls are less holy or worthy. Opponents of girls serving often sound as though they are saying that females "pollute" the sanctuary, etc. This is nonsense. There are dioceses where pastors have set up all female altar guilds that along side all male altar servers. It's simply a matter of maintaining the sacramental character of the Mass. Of course, since girls are permitted to serve, we cannot say that the Mass is invalidated when they serve. But we can say that the character of the priestly ministry at Mass is changed.

  12. Fr. Powell, the tenor of many of the comments strikes me as negative toward women/girls.

    Again, if the leaders of our Church, including the pope, allow girls to serve at the altar, then, it's okay.

    If the character of the priestly ministry is somehow changed, is that so terrible? I do not even understand what that means. The bread and wine still become the body and blood of our Lord, do they not?

    Your statement that "No one thought girls should be allowed to serve until the feminist movement reached its peak in the US in the early 80's" isn't really true. I, for one, thought girls should be allowed to be altar servers decades before the '80s, and I wasn't alone. I wasn't a feminist, either--just a regular practical Catholic.

  13. Ruth Ann,

    Some of the opposition to altar girls may be misogynistic. . .mine isn't. I won't reel off all the women in my life who have been there b/c I wanted them there: my dissertation director, my doctor, my ministry supervisors, etc.

    I should have been more precise. No one before the 80's argued publicly for altar girls much less actually used them.

    As I said in the post, the question is not whether or not altar girls are permissible. They are. The question is whether or not a pastor should take that permission and go with it. This isn't a legal problem but a pastoral one.

  14. Anonymous11:57 AM

    Ruth Ann --

    I think you may be overlooking some important dimensions of the Mass by regarding it as purely a functional affair: the people hear Holy Scripture proclaimed, then the priest confects the Sacrament, which is distributed, and finally the people are sent on their way. All of this is undoubtedly there, but much more also. When I say the service of women "impoverishes" the liturgy, I'm not taking a swipe at womanly dignity (quite the opposite, in fact), but pointing out that the liturgy is(or at least is intended to be) crammed with meaningful signs in addition to the great Sign which is the Sacrament itself.

    Yes, it would be a terrible thing to obscure the distinctive uniqueness of the priestly ministry.

    Dear Fragrance -- each of us is called to be conformed to Christ, to become his image in some way. But the calling of the priest is essentially different from that of lay people. Holy Scripture itself pointedly asserts that we are created either male or female. God's will in creating this sexual complementarity isn't something we can breeze past as unimportant. In both Old and New Testaments, God relates to his people in a spousal context; this too is no accident. Though I'm a (married) man, I accept that as one of the Church my relationship to God has a female dimension. At the same time, as a husband, I accept that my relationship to my wife isn't a license for tyranny but is ordered to service, protection, self-denial, and self-emptying. The priestly identity arises from and uniquely participates in not only the maleness of Christ but his spousal regard for his Church.

    These are great mysteries -- as Paul has written. It would be very wrong to deprive the people of sacred mystery, for in doing so they're deprived of God.