Warning: Girl Altar Servers May Cause Bad Liturgy!

I distinctly recall, some twenty-five years ago, crouching on my parents’ living room floor, my arms slung over a blue velveteen armchair, sobbing.  My sobs, however, weren’t related to the more mundane matters of middle school drama.  “What if I can’t remember all the responses I’m supposed to make during Mass!?” I gasped between sniffles.

Twenty-five years ago this fall (1992 for those of you who are counting), I was among the first girls in my Roman Catholic gradeschool to be offered the opportunity to be trained as an altar server.  Our parish in southern Indiana, it turns out, had actually anticipated the formal recognition of girl altar servers, which came in April of 1994 from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, by two years.  The Archdiocese of Indianapolis formally welcomed girls as altar servers a few months after the CDWDS recognition with new norms for the Archdiocese.  Our parish’s 1992 training session joined us with a number of Roman Catholic parishes throughout the United States which had been allowing girls to serve since the mid-1980’s (following the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which did not expressly forbid girls from serving).

Now, my rather inauspicious beginning, replete with tears and self-doubt, might suggest that a boy (who would not have cried, of course) could have handled the pressure of becoming an altar server with more aplomb.  Yet, amidst all the other altar servers in my class, only I and one other boy remained a dedicated altar server through our senior year of high school.  And it was not the boy in my class who won the “server of the year” award in eighth grade!  Serving, for me, was more than a good way to gain “service points” for confirmation, get out of class during the day, or even make $5 for serving a funeral.  I loved being an altar server, and I kept doing it, because I loved…serving.

Serving at Mass was the first way I began to learn how to love the Church through my work.  It was also the first way in which I learned “liturgical style”—how to move without being obtrusive, how to adopt appropriate postures, and how to be attentive to (and solve) liturgical mishaps as they arose (e.g., a bad incense hand-off, or a missing cruet).  Being a server brought me inside the Mass, in a way I’d never experienced as a parishioner in the pews.  Altar serving was ministry, Martha-style—and I rejoiced in doing it.

Yet, as many of us have experienced, the phenomenon of girls taking on the role of “altar server” has been, and perhaps has increasingly become, a point of contention.  Even when Indianapolis’ Archbishop Daniel Buechlein first reflected positively upon girls becoming altar servers in the Archdiocese, he was careful to explain that “Servers represent the worshipping assembly at the altar in a role that is distinctive from that of ordained ministers” (“Seeking the Face of the Lord,” The Criterion, April 22, 1994).  There was, and has been, historic concern that allowing girls to be altar servers might become a slippery slope toward female ordination in the Roman Catholic tradition.

On this note, a friend sent me an article a couple of years ago on just this issue; a parish pastor in San Francisco, CA had recently released an “official statement” on banning girls from altar serving.  Unfortunately, the original article my friend sent is no longer to be found—but I happily discovered a favorite clip I’d excerpted.  The pastor wrote:

At the risk of generalizing, I suspect young men serving with young women might just distract them from the sacrifice of the Mass, and perhaps even from a priestly vocation.

Aside from simply being distracting, girls might prevent boys from serving 4985133.pngbecause “young boys don’t want to do things [like serving] with girls,” or, even worse, because girls are better at serving, they might “intimidate” the boys and prevent boys from serving at all!

Yet, I believe that arguments regarding “distraction” or “intimidation” are surpassed by far greater problems.  What happens when women are involved with liturgy?  According to a 2015 article which appeared in Crisis, when females are involved with liturgy, we get bad liturgy.  As the author explains:

When men are in charge of liturgy, they generally favor austerity, solemnity and reverence. They are far more likely to have ‘high’ liturgical sensibilities. When women claim a more central role, we frequently see a slide into lower and more culturally idiosyncratic practices. It generally starts with campy banners and popular-style hymnody, but may end with synthesizers and scantily-clad liturgical dancers. These liturgies are not beautiful or uplifting. They’re more like a never-ending hug from a grasping, obsequious aunt.

Now, I, too, have bad memories of felt-and-burlap banners.  But I am distressed by the gender binary which is presented by this contrast of women’s approach to liturgical style and men’s approach.  Is there not neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, in Christ?  Is not altar serving a ministry, specifically, for the lay faithful?  Who are we to say that half of the lay faithful (e.g., the female half) has bad liturgical taste?  Or, even more painfully, that young girls exist as mere distractions to building up calls for vocations among our young boys?

I am perhaps contemplating the role of girls in parish ministry because I am expecting my first baby, my daughter, to arrive any day now.  I am wondering what her response to the Church’s call to missionary discipleship will be—and if she will spend any time sobbing in our living room, wondering if she might be good enough for service.  I am hopeful that my husband and I can encourage her to do good work for the house of God—and that being a lay female does not prevent her from doing so.

 

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28 comments

  1. I am reminded of a former parish of mine, in a blue collar-ish area of the urban core of Greater Boston, where a vigorous new curate arrived circa 1990 on the heels of a new pastor. Within a month or two, he took the occasion of a regular mid-morning Sunday Mass to ask for adult men in the parish to be willing to act as altar servers for funerals and daily Masses during the week.

    Seated in front of him were sisters from the nearby convent who had been serving in this role (not to the exclusion of men) for many years under previous pastors. This was how they found out they would not be doing that any more.

    He made quite a brutta figura to the parish community (which was far from brimming with malefactors of liturgical naughtiness, but did have a long and appreciative relationship with the sisters of this convent in our midst) with this gesture, and dug his heels in to defend it. He went on to eventual promotion as a pastor, and now pastors at a parish near the city where I live; he has chilled somewhat since the vigor of his youth, shall we say.

    Around this time, Cardinal Law came to preside at the annual anniversary Mass for said convent of sisters, at our parish church. As the procession assembled, one of the silver jubilarians brought the processional cross, which she was designated to bear in the procession. Cardinal Law’s MC nixed that on the spot. If memory serves the procession proceeded sans processional cross.

    Such memories.

  2. Katherine many congratulations. I’ll pray for a safe delivery and a healthy baby.

    If I were ever to write a book on “How to Kill the Catholic Church in the United States”, I might reprint that Crisis article as my first chapter. It’s hard enough to be genuinely counter-cultural as a follower of Jesus, on matters such as keeping holy the Sabbath, living simply, practicing justice in the workplace and treating the environment as God’s creation, without inventing new reasons for alienating people we should be welcoming.

  3. This altar boy didn’t cry from nerves, but did get very sick to his stomach!

    … and won “server of the year” in seventh grade. Though I continue to wrestle with giving awards for liturgical service, maybe for perfect attendance.

    I think that a serious point made by the article to which you refer is the matter of boys/men/males not wanting to be involved with an activity in which girls/women/females are equitably included, and at which they may even excel. My strictly anecdotal experience is that this has had a disproportionate impact in the arts (is your children’s choir really a girls’ choir?) and liturgical/lay ministry – most often when I look at who the EMs of communion are, they are disproportionately female.

    Not to say that excluding women from these activities/roles is the way to address this, but rather by forming young men into a spirit of living and working in mutuality with others (other males as well as females, and – who knows? – even those who are not identifying within the binary gender structure) without being threatened when others are empowered. And, like your daughter, may her male contemporaries realize that there is a life of service to be offered even outside the typical/hierarchical channels or offices of ecclesial structure.

  4. The female servers at the liturgies in which I participate are all excellent. Once I praised one of them (a young adult) and she said “Well, I should be good at it — I’ve been a server since I was ten years old!” I felt a great joy to hear this, because I remember when it was first permitted, and can remember well when it was forbidden. And now, here she is, years later, exercising exemplary service at the altar. She has done so for so long that she doesn’t even recall a time when she would have been refused for being female. It’s something beautiful. A gift and the fulfillment of a dream for the liturgy to include female ministers as normal.

    The arguments against female altar servers that Katie quotes echo classic anti-women arguments. Women can’t function well outside the home, is what it really boils down to, and men are emasculated when working alongside competent women. We know these claims are not true, unless society is so organized that rigid gender roles are upheld at every level. Or so we should by now.

    One more observation. Performance anxiety is not limited to girls! A priest I know tells a funny story about the first Mass at which he served as an altar boy. He was so nervous, he did something wrong. Afterwards, he went to the celebrant quite upset, and said in distress, “Father, I made a mistake!” The priest, an old monsignor who smoked cigars (this was years ago), waved the cigar at him and said “Mistakes are how we learn, my boy. Make plenty of them!” Would that girls and women could hear that message as well. It’s OK to make mistakes, and we shouldn’t be afraid of doing so; that is how we learn.

    1. Just for the record, as a young boy altar server, I was terrified to leave the altar with my torch during midnight mass and therefore wet myself… and my cassock. Talk about making a mistake AND being unable to function well outside the home! 🙂

  5. I don’t remember being inordinately nervous about being a server, but I know that I was very poorly trained at two parishes in a row. I don’t know much about pedagogy for children, but I would say that the way not to train new altar servers is to stand in front of a group of them and tell them for half an hour what they’re supposed to do and what they’re not supposed to do. Whatever I learned about serving, I learned by doing, watching more experienced kids do it, and via some kindly correction by priests.

    I also witnessed priests “from the old school” take aside altar servers who had made mistakes, and yell, scream and otherwise intimidate them, leaving them shaking and crying. I’d wager that approach killed more potential vocations than allowing girls to serve alongside boys.

  6. It seems some who think girl cooties will contaminate the liturgy think the are more pure than the pope who often has girl altar servers at the Masses he has said when he visits in the parishes out in the Rome diocese. Some have even been the ones to hold his crozier and miter. I would love it if he mandated for girls to serve when he presides at a Mass in St Peter’s. What a strong signal that would send!

  7. Although it’s hard to believe, there are still a handful of parishes around here which discriminate against female altar servers. How are we to teach the justice of the kingdom with our words if we proclaim the opposite with our actions?

    1. I’m in agreement with your point, Allen, but we also need to remember that to many – both inside and outside our sanctuary walls – as long as women are prohibited from receiving holy orders (or prohibited from receiving all 7 sacraments) the justice of God’s reign still would not be fully proclaimed, even with female altar servers.

      1. Are you saying that God was unjust in establishing an all male priesthood (contrary to the practice of the pagan neighbors) in the Old Testament or that Jesus was unjust in choosing only men to be apostles?

      2. Friends,
        We’re not going to debate the ordination of women to the priesthood in the commbox of Pray Tell! Let’s stay on the topic of the post, which is female altar servers.
        As we all know, there are people who believe that the exclusion of women is unjust and contrary to Christ’s will, and there are people who believe that the all-male priesthood is Christ’s will. Let’s leave it at that.
        Thank you for your understanding.
        awr

      3. Any disciple of Jesus who was sent to evangelise was an apostle. Fr Forte is confusing ‘the Twelve’ with ‘apostles.’ Luke 10:1 tells us about the 72 apostles (literally) sent out by Jesus. Their gender is not specified.

      1. It’s actually a pastor’s choice anywhere.

        See Notitiae – 421-422 Vol 37 (2001) Num/ 8-9 – pp 397-399
        Prot. N.2451/00/L

  8. The fear of women taking over has prevented, in knee jerk fashion, women in many places in the Church. For an institution that touts the gender specific maleness of Christ and to his gender specific male Apostles as the reason females are eliminated from orders and that young females will harm serving for males because boys don’t want to do what girls do, please drop the fear mongering. The Church contributes in very subtle ways that if men are uncomfortable with the presence of women, it’s a justifiable reason to eliminate them. That reasoning leaks onto so many other areas of Western life. Gentlemen, grow a pair and stop blaming girls, women, and femininity for all that is wrong with the Church. This has nothing to do with lace, burlap banners or some tilted theology of the body…this has to do with power.

  9. View from the pew
    Regarding: “When men are in charge of liturgy, they generally favor austerity, solemnity and reverence. ” [quoted in article above]
    – The memories that are recalled by this sentence include pastors who spend hours selecting the most expensive vestments and altar raiment and then informing the Ladies Altar Society that they will need to raise $$thousands to pay for them. Other memories are of liturgies were the surplices and albs have more lace than a bride’s veil. Let us not forget the overdone seasonal decorations that are inflicted on parishes by clerics who would be set designers.
    – More importantly, it strikes anyone who is a parent that an environment that nurtures any of the vocations must be one that represents the world in which the vocation will be exercised. That is, those called to the presbyterate jolly well should be accustom to the company of girls and women whom they will most definitely serve and with whom they will work in a number of ministries.

    1. Why would anyone wish to read such a defense? Pope Francis has stated clearly there is “no going back”. There is in Christ no Jew nor Greek, no Man nor Woman, no Slave nor Free Person. We are all one in Christ regardless of gender. Surely a Church which has rightly exalted the humble handmaiden of Nazareth will, in time, come to recognize the radical equality of all men and women who have been saved by grace. Or, is there a heaven for men that is superior to that of the heaven for women?

      1. Well, as the Professor admits, “undoubtedly a better letter could be drafted.” Probably best to leave that right there.

  10. This is the first I’ve seen of that Crisis magazine article and the Burke statement, but both are spot-on in their tendency in stating stuff, respectively, that is disgustingly ignorant and highly offensive.

    But let’s just test this evidence-free hypothesis of (male-dominated) “austerity” and (female-dominated) “camp”; were or were not such resplendent accoutrements (those lacy albs, episcopal silk gloves, bejeweled miters, bedecked thuribles, gleaming flowery chasubles, gold fixtures, and cappae magnae are absolutely fabulous, no?) more prevalent in the pre-Vatican era, when only the men were allowed within the railing–oh, and these days at just about every liturgy H.E. Burke presides?

  11. Even if Crisis’s Rachel Lu is right about what happens when men and women respectively are in charge of liturgy, Mass servers are not in charge. I have not observed altar boys “favoring austerity, solemnity, and reverence” (they seem to have quite limited capacity for those things) or altar girls encouraging “a slide into lower and more culturally idiosyncratic practices.”

  12. Is there actually any evidence if parishes with male and female servers or with male servers only are more successful in fostering vocations to the priesthood, religious life, or active life in the parish as adults?

    I also wonder if ‘mixed’ groups of servers are possible in the long term – my anecdotal evidence from Germany suggests that serving at the altar is now regarded widely as something for girls only, so that few boys join and most of them quit soon again.

    1. The English experience is different.

      (1) Girl altar servers are undoubtedly more responsible in their approach to their ministry. They behave better and serve better.

      (2) Most parishes have both male and female altar servers ministering together. Far from the girls repelling the boys, they are in fact attracted by the presence of girls, particularly as they get older..

      (3) There are of course a small number of parishes where only boys are allowed to serve, but they tend to be those where there is a choir of men and boys only as well. Most parishes are not staffed by priests with that kind of agenda.

      Sidenote: At one time, St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral in Sydney, Australia, had a policy that only adult men were allowed to serve. No boys, let alone girls. The then MC had a plausible-sounding “theological” justification for it…. I wonder if that policy still persists.

  13. In the late 1970s and early 80s the archdiocese of Westminster used to use the Chrism Mass as a vocations drive. Altar servers from all over the diocese would be invited to attend, wearing their vestments. They crammed into the cathedral each year.

    On one occasion Cardinal Basil Hume waxed lyrical about the priesthood at the end of the Mass. Addressing the assembled altar servers, he told them that around the edge of the cathedral they would find pieces of paper and pencils. Anyone interested in knowing more about becoming a priest was invited to write their name and address on a paper and hand it to a steward. Unbeknown to Hume, one parish had brought its entire contingent of servers, including a dozen girls (girl altar servers were unusual in England at that time, though a fair sprinkling of parishes had them “under the radar”). Hume duly received the pieces of paper, and to his consternation found that every single one was signed by a girl — not a single boy had expressed interest in knowing more about becoming a priest. That was the last time that Westminster used the Chrism Mass as a way of promoting vocations!

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