Does the Altar Need to Be Guarded?

The Trenton diocese has invented a new order of acolytes to serve at the bishop’s liturgies in the cathedral. They are called “Guardians of the Altar.” Guardians? Really? Does the altar in Trenton need to be guarded? From whom? Girls?

It appears that plain old (“traditional”) acolytes won’t do for the bishop’s celebrations. These Guardians of the Altar are “highly trained” (in what?) to be the “elite of the servers.” Examples of the celebrations for which these super acolytes are needed, enumerated in the diocesan newspaper, the Trenton Moniter, are: ordinations, the Chrism Mass, and the Rite of Election.

Funny, but everywhere else general, all-purpose acolytes are able to handle these services just fine. Good training should be de rigeur for all liturgical ministers, especially servers. I have seen it done extremely well at the parish level and in cathedrals.

Isn’t it ironic that while Pope Francis is cutting down on ranks of monsignors, the bishop of Trenton is inventing new “ranks” for — altar servers! Apparently creating elites, not service, is what sells.

Oh yes, and they are all male.

“It has been a very, very good thing for the boys of our parish,” the religious education director said.

Ah, now we come to the nub of the issue. Relegating female altar servers to a lower status by creating bogus “special” skills that can only be performed by boys.

Sorry, but imho this isn’t good for boys, or girls, and it is not worthy of adults to play such games.


  1. Guardians of the Galaxy hits theaters in August, and it’s going to be a huge hit. They are probably just trying to tap into that energy. Maybe they will dress like Rocket Raccoon. Instead of arguing about stoles and so forth, maybe it’s time for a hearty discussion of the role of cosplay in the sanctuary.

  2. Oh dear, I could not agree with you more. What a sour taste this leaves in my mouth. Special servers in Trenton, a new bishop’s mansion in Camden… oh New Jersey, how you vex me so.

    In unrelated and completely self-serving news, if you go to the Monitor home page, page down about 2/3rds of the way, they have an article about a book project that I am a part of. File under, just sayin’! 🙂

  3. Maybe gamesmanship like this wouldn’t be used if the aggressive Catholic Left hadn’t gorilla-charged the rest of the Church in the 1980s and 1990s with altar girls. Don’t forget they were illicitly introduced in most places, and later “immemorial custom” was invoked.

    It’s awfully ironic that those same forces are now crying crocodile tears when a fairly modest corrective is applied.

    1. @Ryan Ellis – comment #3:

      For the most part, female servers appeared in the USA only after the revised Code of Canon Law came into force at the end of 1983. The legal prohibition of women serving at the altar, which had been in force until that time, was not contained in the new Code.

      Some bishops noticed the change in the Code and began allowing the change in practice. Many of them took heat from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments over the next ten years. In 1994 the Vatican Commission for the Correct Interpretation of Legal Texts issued an authentic interpretation which said, in effect, that, since late 1983, there was indeed no law any longer prohibiting women serving. (By the way, the CDWDS never sent apology letters to the US bishops they had lambasted during the previous decade.)

      So, no, female altar server were not “illicitly introduced” unless they were introduced prior to November 30, 1983.

      1. @Fr. Ron Krisman – comment #6:


        With respect, I would disagree with this. I saw girl altar servers all over the US from the mid-1970s onwards. It was the same in the UK and Europe. The change in legislation was just another example of edict catching up with practice.

        [It’s curious that the other phenomenon of the early 70s, the washing of women’s feet on Holy Thursday, was not legitimized by edict; and yet it continues everywhere (except in those dioceses where bishops seem to be afraid of people of the opposite gender).]

        One amusing story. In the Archdiocese of Westminster, the Chrism Mass had been used as a vocations drive. Servers from the parishes of the diocese were encouraged to come to the Cathedral, vested. They took no part in the Mass apart from being there in the side aisles, wearing their vestments. Cardinal Heenan had made a special point of speaking to them before the final blessing.

        Arhcbishop Basil Hume, in 1976 (notice the date), ordained bishop for less than a month, did the same thing at his first Chrism Mass in Westminster. Furthermore, he told the assembled servers that if any of them were interested in finding out more about the priesthood they would find pencils and papers on the ledges around the edges of the Cathedral. Just fill in your name and address and leave the paper with an usher.

        Every single response he had was from girl altar servers who were there in considerable numbers. Not a single boy responded. Basil had no idea that girl servers were there until the papers came back. That was the first and last time that he did that, and the servers were never invited again…

      2. @Paul Inwood – comment #11:
        Guardians? To use a theological term, it strikes me as a silly-ass idea. I’ve met Bishop O’Connell, and this move surprises me somewhat. But you never know …

        As for picking nits over church law, the prescription for washing feet of males only covers those “chosen.” Seems that if people aren’t “chosen” and anybody comes up, nothing’s being violated.

        Paul, that story about Archbishop Hume is flipping hilarious.

      3. @Paul Inwood – comment #11:

        Paul, if female altar servers were “all over the US from the mid-1970s onwards,” I certainly missed it. But you need to know that I was in Lubbock, Childress, and Paducah, Texas from 1973-1981!

        Thanks so much for relating the 1976 Chrism Mass incident at Westminster Cathedral.

      4. @Paul Inwood – comment #11:
        Hi Paul,
        Funny story but I’m going to question your timings and conclusion.

        I attended the Westminster chrism mass on maundy thursday morning every year as a server from 1977 (age 7-8 after my first communion). There was usually a big bun fight in Westminster Hall afterwards when we fought each other to get our can of coke/crisps, not so much the apples.
        – I don’t think servers were invited to the chrism mass until Hume took over from Heenan and the style of the chrism mass was remodelled. It was always a big spectacle as there was big tables extending the altar down the centre aisle with hundreds/thousands of priests concelebrating on either side. Servers were invited too and we had to make a promise after the renewal of priestly vows.
        – I certainly don’t remember any female servers until the 1980s and then only a small handful, and it would have been very obvious as we all vested together in the cathedral hall. If there were female servers around, I imagine their priests would have been smart enough not to have highlighted them at a diocesan event and certainly not under Heenan.
        – Even when female servers did start appearing they were noticeably discouraged and made to feel unwelcome by the pompous and self-important old men who ran the St Stephen’s Servers Guild.
        – Servers weren’t disinvited to the chrism mass as a consequence of the incident you describe. I attended at least to the late 1980s (if not longer) when it was decided that it would be better not to have them present and a separate servers mass was arranged.

        Sorry I don’t mean to be pedantic but I won’t have a word said against Hume – he was a fantastic pastor and a saint! Hume was well aware that the diocese had female altar servers but was pastoral enough to turn a blind eye. I even know a female who spoke to Hume about her priestly vocation and he was wise enough to give her an ambiguously worded but encouraging remark

      5. @Andrew rex – comment #24:


        If your first Chrism Mass was 1977, that would explain why you don’t know that, as mentioned in my post, servers had been formally invited for many years under Heenan, but had never been asked if they were interested in knowing more about priesthood, which happened for the first and last time when Basil did it in 1976. Thereafter, they were not formally invited, though they did indeed attend, as you experienced.

        The big table extending the altar right down to the foot of the nave was an innovation tried out for the first time in 1977, your first year. Prior to that, the cathedral’s interior layout had been as usual. The experiment continued in 1978 and was then abandoned, reverting to the usual layout. The idea had been to gather both clergy and layfolk around the table of the Lord, with priests sitting actually at the table, and their parishioners close behind them. One reason for the abandoning of the exercise was non-cooperation from the cathedral sacristans, who refused to do the enormous amount of furniture-moving that was required.

        If you didn’t see any female altar servers, then you evidently did not meet the groups from Manor House, Kentish Town, Cockfosters, Acton East, Bayswater, Carpenders Park, Northcote…..etc. Admittedly, not all of them wanted to continue coming after 1976, and some stayed away. It is also true that they did not vest in Westminster Hall in the Heenan years precisely so as not to be spotted!

        The story, by the way, is not saying anything bad against Hume: he was a new boy who simply had no idea who was in the congregation that day!

      6. @Fr. Ron Krisman – comment #6:

        Fr. Krisman:

        How would would what you say about the 1983 Code stand up to Canon 5.2?

        “Universal or particular customs beyond the law (praeter ius) which are in force until now are preserved.”

        That sounds an awful lot to me like, “where the CIC is silent, default to what has been in practice up until this time.” Why would this not cover the custom of an all-male altar server class?

      7. @Ryan Ellis – comment #25:

        Lex (law) and consuetudo (custom) are different canonical institutes, though both are forms of ius (a norm of action).

        If one has acted a certain way because of a written law (lex), once that law has been removed, it cannot then be said that the previously ordered norm of action still stands by reason of custom.

      8. @Fr. Ron Krisman – comment #27:

        Can you provide an example of a particular custom that 5.2 would be talking about, and why it is different than male altar servers?

      9. @Jim McKay – comment #45:


        I guess you didn’t read this part of the article:

        2) The Holy See respects the decision adopted by certain Bishops for specific local reasons on the basis of the provisions of Canon 230 2. At the same time, however, the Holy See wishes to recall that it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue.

      10. @Ryan Ellis – comment #46:
        Sure, but a good argument may be made against the connection between boys serving at the altar and authentic vocations to Holy Orders.

        The rampant sexism in the Church tends to disillusion many women: mothers, sisters, girlfriends, teachers, and other role models who, in the past, encouraged men and boys.

        The Holy See can offer all the respect for 1940’s methodology it wishes. But if the message gets garbled because of 21st century sensibilities, then they are actually working against their stated goal. And if they are, should we stay silent and smirk as the priesthood sinks deeper into the murk? Or should we offer positive alternatives?

        So the questions turn to this: What is Bishop O’Connell trying to accomplish? How can he be more effective? Why is there resistance to his idea? Can this resistance be easily dismissed, or should he pay close attention to it? Aren’t those dissenting from his plan able and willing to offer alternate strategies?

        And a question I would ask in any circumstance: what does this bishop, this all-boy server parish, and others do to promote the vocation of women serving the Church? Are such people aware of the difference between cloister and apostolic service? Are women religious respected and honored by such people and in such places? I think it was a CARA survey that suggested that a young man is three times likelier to be encouraged in a vocation than a young woman. Let’s keep in mind the secondary goal is numbers of priests and religious. The primary goal of liturgy is the cultivating through God’s grace the holiness of the baptized.

      11. @Fr. Ron Krisman – comment #6:
        I’ve seen a number of photos of Pope Benedict visiting parishes in Italy where female servers were used throughout his Masses. The pope didn’t seem to mind.

      12. @Fr. Ron Krisman – comment #6:

        So, why then was the discipline changed in 1994, unless it were already abrogated? Yes, the 1983 code did leave some sort of opening, but for the first decade after its implementation, it had never lawfully been interpreted that way.

      13. @David L Alexander – comment #50:
        Ron may want to comment, but actually I have a bit of context for that.

        There was a petition on Pope John Paul II’s desk for some time (years) to confirm or clarify (I am not sure of the exact term) that females were allowed, but he hadn’t ruled on it. Those in the know were aware it was pending. Among the more cautious American bishops and pastors there was reluctance to officially do anything pro-, or come down hard against it, until they knew the Pope’s mind on the subject.

        He allowed it. Then even the more conservative dioceses, like Allentown and New York (which I know something about – undoubtedly there were others too), officially allowed it, whereas before they had only tolerated it quietly. Very few places (an example would be Arlington) hung onto the prohibition once it was clear that the Pope had accepted it.

        More Roman than Rome, you know.

    2. @Ryan Ellis – comment #3:

      A few further remarks. First, the current name of the dicastery to which I referred previously is: Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. My apologies.

      Second, the pontifical council made no reference to “immemorial custom” in its authentic interpretation, and, to my knowledge, no canonist who has commented on the new law either before or after that authentic interpretation was issued, has invoked the canonical institute of “immemorial custom” as somehow justifying the change in practice.

  4. Hmmm. Maybe they are altar servers who will:

    1. Wear some from of dress shoes, rather than the ubiquitous big white sneakers.
    2. Cover their mouths when they yawn.
    3. Look lively and not like they would rather be anywhere but serving at Mass.

    Just a few thoughts! : )

  5. and what is sad is that this bishop is a Vincentian and should know better – but, then he was CUA president…guess those pontifical universities impact your thinking over time.

    The old, altar boys can’t be girls because altar boys are where we get our priest candidates….really?: Just ratcheted up a notch.

  6. One of the Guardians of the Altar said: “I feel that it is a lot better than just sitting in the pews. I like being part of the Mass and I know the things that have to get done.”

    In other words: the people in the assembly are not really part of the Mass. They’re just sitting in the pews passively.

  7. I guess if any of us were thinking that there would be a predictable “trickle down” effect from the Bishop of Rome to the local bishops, no such luck. Perhaps we should be heartened by the fact that there is an apparent cure for ultra-montanism. Very interesting.

  8. “Guardians of the Altar” sounds like pure New Jersey. Next, they’ll probably have trumpeters in Roman military attire as the bishop enters to “Ecce Sacerdos Magnus”.

  9. Paul – my experience was that it really depended upon the local bishop. So, for example, Fr. Ron was in the *conservative* panhandle of Texas under the guidance of my second cousin, Leroy Mattheissen, and folks in that area would not have received girl servers well. (But, Fr. Ron had a wonderful parish and was an excellent pastor in Lubbock which was a little more progressive given the local Texas Tech University influence).
    For example, the pastor of Holy Trinity in Dallas only allowed girl servers at the end of 1970s (Bishop Tschoepe said nothing but it was one of the only Dallas parishes to do this).
    Don’t remembering seeing any girl servers in the STL archdioceses in the early 1980s?

    But, your story of Hume makes my day!! and would agree that over time, the practice became more accepted.

  10. I get the idea behind the story, but I suspect the bishop has red berets in mind for these boys when they are not in the sanctuary, perhaps to be installed by Curtis Sliwa (I betray generation when I think of his Guardian Angels during the crime nadir of the NYC area 35 years ago…)

  11. There is clearly a need for Guardians of the Altar…but I’d suggest that 15-year-olds aren’t the proper candidates for the position.

    Two years ago, a young lady entered our cathedral during Mass and proceeded to disrobe as she walked up the center aisle. She made it halfway, both in terms of reaching the altar and reaching starkers, before a pair of ushers intercepted her. One draped his usher’s jacket over her as they escorted her back whence she came and to the help she obviously needed. I’d call them Guardians.

    (Not sure the bishop even noticed.)

  12. Nobody mentioned a daily Mass celebrated by Pope Francis where the two servers weren’t “properly” vested. And by the way, what is the “proper” vesture for altar servers? The soutane seems more the dress of “a cleric”.
    Also loved the Cardinal Hume story. In the late 80’s, while back in the UK doing formation work, I did mission appeals in the Westminster archdiocese and encoutered quite a few “altar girls”, including one, a young lady in her mid-teens, who was voted in by the boys to be their leader – she was better than they were at keeping the younger ones in line.

    1. @Brendan Kelleher svd – comment #19:

      I thought the Swiss Guards in training looked very well serving the Pope in their uniforms. They were minus helmets and battle gear. Maybe that is what the Guardians ought to be wearing!

  13. Sounds like bad theology to me. As a Byzantine Catholic, I first and foremost see the deacons as the “Guardians of the Altar”. That was definitely the case in the Great Church of Constantinople. This may not necessarily extend to the Roman Rite, but if anything, bring back the subdeacons and the deacons!

  14. In our diocese, we’re very fortunate at the moment to have a group of specially trained young men who serve at the altar during special celebrations at the cathedral. We call them seminarians. Sadly, not every diocese has as many of them as they would like or need (and neither did we for some time).

  15. Maybe His Excellency often says the EF in public. Other than that, I see no logical basis for this innovation. Personally, I wouldn’t care if female altar servers served the EF (a good argument can be made for egalitarian altar service in the EF). I’ve just written my excommunication from traditionalist-dom, and I feel fine.

  16. It sounds like these are effectively “pontifical” altar servers, with a special emphasis on promoting priestly vocations (long associated with boys who serve at the altar). Aside from the admittedly odd name, this is far from a new or unique concept.

    Must every “uncovering” of such things in whatever corner of the country be broadcasted, sensationalized, and spun? It’s like a liturgical FOX News or somesuch..

  17. I guess I interpret this article a bit differently:

    Different from the traditional altar servers of the parish, Guardians are trained to assist during celebrations with Bishop O’Connell, which can have varying traditions and rituals as well as a significant number of priests and deacons who are joining the bishop at the altar.

    “The group is specifically (trained) to serve the bishop when he is here for Mass in the cathedral and any (other) special Mass in the cathedral,” said Alvarez.

    Members of the order, who have previously served as traditional altar servers before joining, participate in quarterly trainings, as well as periodical retreats. […]

    “The group is geared towards vocations as well, so we try to talk to them about that,” said Alvarez.

    To me, this sounds like a group that is:

    1) oriented towards service in liturgies where the bishop is the presider (which tend to be more complicated than liturgies where he is not the presider, or at least contain elements that are not found at normal parish masses)
    2) oriented towards fostering priestly vocations (and thus necessarily restricted to males)

    So the name is goofy. Oh well.

    And as for the member who said he likes “being part of the Mass”, it’s not 100% clear that he meant sitting in the pews is NOT being part of the Mass. Maybe he does think that (and I’m sure there are other altar servers around the US who do), but maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he’s saying that because he likes “being part of the Mass” and because he “knows the things that need to get done”, he’d like to serve at the altar rather than remain in the pew.

    Why not attempt to contact Danny to get clarification? We can let him know what a ridiculous and sexist group he belongs to, while we’re at it.

  18. Years ago I was part of a youth baseball league. We had three levels: an elite, a development and a recreational. The board decided that this was wrong and that everyone had to be treated the same. The next year names were pulled from a hat and everyone “had their turn” to play … mixing highly trained players with those who rarely wanted to be there. Today, they have two “Blast-ball” teams and a few T-Ball teams. The league, and the excellence, is a memory from the past.

    I want to suggest that it is much the same with servers at the altar. Rarely do they have the training needed to assist at a Mass at the Cathedral. I can’t tell you how many times a person has shown up before Mass wanting to give serving a try.

    We have dumbed down so many things in the church. The choir no longer practices and so we have the same stable of eight hymns. The readers are looking at the reading for the first time in the pews before they go up to read. The pastor, whose clerical collar features prominently under his chasuble, is flipping through the Missal looking for the shortest Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs so we can move things along. As a result, all of the pillars that support good liturgy are crumbled.

    I applaud any group, by whatever name they wish to call themselves, who support excellence and demand fidelity to the art of the service of the Lord. What a blessing it must be to not have to explain everything in detail to people who don’t have a clue about what is about to happen, particularly at our most Solemn Masses.

    We need more “Guardians of the Altar”.

  19. I think we can all agree the name is the worst part of the entire project! Liturgically, pastorally, theologically,…

    In our AD, as someone else mentioned above, it’s usually seminarians. That would annoy me, but there usually aren’t quite enough (not because of the number of seminarians, but because we have no local seminary in Seattle, so there aren’t enough present). Our amazing Cathedral fills in with their best servers (male and female; and never children, adult altar servers is the custom in these parts).

    And yes, there are videos of Pope Francis at Masses in parishes in Rome with female altar servers.

  20. I find it interesting, reading the caption under the photo, that all the “Guardians” have Hispanic/Latino names. While I disagree with the reasons for forming the group as an all-male high school age group of servers, I wonder if there’s a culture component behind this, one even stronger than the conservative bent already mentioned, dissected, castigated, praised, etc. in earlier comments.

    1. @Gordon E. Trruitt – comment #33:
      While I can’t speak for the diocese of Trenton as a whole, I live in Ewing (one town north of Trenton), and Trenton — at least near the cathedral — has a high Catholic Latino population. I went to the cathedral last year for Holy Thursday Mass and was surprised to find out it was in Spanish!

  21. Authentic and well-discerned vocations come from baptized people who are already disciples. Certainly, altar servers, teen boys, and liturgy geeks can be disciples. But not only is the name goofy, but the premise behind it is flawed.

    Let’s recapture something or a previous age, but without the underpinnings of Catholic culture. Guardians are, I’m sure, an earnest and well-meaning idea. Among its obstacles: sexism, exclusivity, focus on inward service.

    If the bishop and his supporters were serious about encouraging vocations, why not engage young people in service to the poor as well as Mass, retreats, and education?

    One last question: what is Bishop O’Connell doing to encourage baptismal and religious vocations in young women?

  22. Funny, we have female altar servers for bishop Lynch’s masses at the Cathedral of St. Jude in St. Petersburg, FL. They are sharp and share duties with male altar servers.
    Btw, in response to previous comments, the duties may be complicated but the females are fully capable of performing their duties, just like the males, sometimes even better. To think that this is even an issue is mind boggling.
    Also, the diocese has MANY seminarians so I guess the gals serving at the altar aren’t scaring away the boys/potential seminarians.

  23. The idea that only boys should be trained, or could be trained, for the high rigors of worship under the bishop is totally bogus.

    There is normally a hierarchy among servers. But it’s a hierarchy of competence in the skills it takes to do the job, not a male-female hierarchy. Attention to detail, ability to understand and carry out orders, adaptability, intelligence, calm and the ability not to get flustered by new people or circumstances; experience and skill are the crucial determinants.

    You don’t put your most clueless or green servers on to serve with the bishop. Of course you put your best servers on deck to serve at the more complicated, demanding, and high profile liturgies. But this does not demand a special order, rank, or title.

    And the idea that only boys can do it well is simply false.

    What about adult servers? Some of our very best, and most admired, altar servers in the cathedral in Milwaukee (which had all adult servers when I was there) were women. Women and men worked well together, and they were a team. There was no adolescent “girls are icky” bias to impede their collaboration.

    One issue that did come up from time to time was related to sheer physical strength. We had one exceptionally heavy processional cross. Some men were better able to carry it because of their musculature. So a male server who-works-out generally carried it. Not every man could carry it. In theory a strong, athletic woman could do it. But it was usually a man who was chosen for this one task. That’s the one exception I can think of. It didn’t require a new rank or caste of muscle men.

    Women did everything else. Carrying a book, carrying the usual cross, carrying vessels at the Chrism Mass, swinging a thurible, serving at the altar: no problem. They were graceful, attentive, on the ball, and modest. To replace them with high school boys out of a fantasy that this will produce more vocations to the priesthood would have been offensive and stupid.

  24. Seems that we are moving on two tracks here – thanks to Dale, Todd, and Rita.
    Reached out to a Vincentian classmate in Philadelphia to see if he could shed light on this. Suggested that it may be an effort to reach out, include, and encourage young Hispanic youth that make up a sizable part of the cathedral boundaries (so, well intentioned). His last comment was interesting as he said: *…..appears to be missing females*
    Whatever the underlying justification, original intent, etc., would suggest that we need to move past these types of exclusionary initiatives.

  25. You know it just fries me when I read about these attempts to exclude females from these roles.
    I remember back in the ’60’s as an altar boy right before VII changes were made, women had no roles and were forbidden on the other side of the communion rail (only the Sisters were allowed there occasionally, of course only to clean the altar and change the candles). I remember lay women who had so much to offer but the closest they could get to the sanctuary was communion at the rail. When I look back, I can’t imagine how awful it must have felt to have something to offer, such wonderful gifts, but were forbidden.

    It seems that this attitude rears its ugly head every once in awhile and thank you PTB for shining light into that dark corner and commenters, Rita and Bill for showing how foolish the excuses that are used to justify this nonsense.

  26. One of the blessings for me of reading PTB regularly is that I realize how fortunate I am. Several responses (especiallly #31, this article and Rita’s Christmas posts) are examples. My diocese and my parish have problems, but not the ones I tend to read about here. My pastor varies the Eucharistic Prayer, using the Roman Canon on major feasts and holidays, the other three for most Sundays, but also Reconciliation 1 or 2 and the ones for special needs when appropriate. We have 7 choirs for 6 weekend Masses and an 8th special bilingual choir for the major liturgies of Christmas and Holy Week. It’s gotten to the point that scheduling rooms and space in the church for rehearsals is an issue. We’re not of the quality of professionals, but people sing and pray all the Mass parts, both on Sunday and at the major celebrations. We bow and kneel according to the red, because the liturgical ministers including altar servers have been trained to do so, and the congregation follows their lead.

    The altar servers have regular training and refresher sessions, and they are organized into teams that take advantage of their strengths. The “A-team” servers come from both language communities, selected because of maturity (not necessarily age-related), presence on the altar, and an ability to think on their feet . The young women tend to be better suited than young men of the same age, but with a relatively large pool it is possible to have an A-team with an even balance of genders. Different “A-team”s have trained and served admirably at the dedication of our new church, at two confirmation liturgies (one bilingual, one solely in Spanish) each year and at the various liturgies for Holy Week.

    Teams of younger servers are generally all female or all male to address the reluctance of boys to serve with girls. (I’ve never noticed a reluctance in the other direction!)

    I’ve never understood the vehemence (#3) of those who oppose having women (young or adult) as servers. If they are serving well, who…

  27. Continued: If they are serving well, who notices? If a server doesn’t serve well, they shouldn’t be on the altar regardless of their chromosomal patterns.

  28. My sister’s parish has been a powerhouse of priestly vocations and does not allow altar girls. The pastor thinks there is a connection between the two. Maybe the Bishop of Trenton does as well.

      1. @Jeffrey Pinyan (@PrayingTheMass) – comment #48:

        Because such policy (i.e., “not allow altar girls” as per Tom Piatak’s words @ comment #43), whether intentionally or not, places one group (men) over another (women), and may send a message that women are not good enough to serve at the altar.

      2. @Elisabeth Ahn – comment #51:
        + 1
        There is also the obvious factor here that they are considered “the elite.”

        Clericalism is a form of elitist behavior. A higher, more privileged, status is given to a few, who then are entitled to more deference, a higher profile, honors, etc, at the expense of others.

        The opposite of what Jesus told his disciples to aspire to, as we know.

      3. @Rita Ferrone – comment #53:
        but What Did Jesus Really Mean To Say?

        After all, aren’t prelates and clerics most truly humbled when they submit quietly to customs that are designed to highlight the gap between ultimate awesomeness and prosaic reality?

        Or something like that?

        Like … This will hurt me more than it will hurt you, says the inquisitor dolefully to the suspected heretic.

        We are well practised in rationalisation.

        (sarcasm alert)


      4. @Jeffrey Pinyan (@PrayingTheMass) – comment #59:

        First, with the all-male priesthood in the Catholic Church, clericalism and sexism are, IMO, often not unrelated; both stem from the kind of elitist thinking that Rita mentioned (@ comments #37, #53).

        Now let me ask you some questions: What is your understanding of clericalism, and where do you think it comes from?

      5. @Elisabeth Ahn – comment #60:
        If it’s sexism, call it sexism, not clericalism.

        I understand clericalism the same way I understand sexism, which is to say that just as sexism promotes one sex over another, clericalism promotes one class of people (clerics) over another (laity). It springs, initially, from the legitimate generic differences between the ordained and the non-ordained, just as sexism springs, initially, from the legitimate generic differences between males and females. But then those differences are placed within a context of power: males differ from females in such-and-such a way, and that means males are more powerful; the ordained can do certain things that the laity cannot, and that means clerics are “better” than laypeople.

        So I see clericalism present in statements like: parishes should not have “pastoral councils”, because only the priest should decide things; pastors should not need to get advice from their parishioners; laypeople cannot question or criticize the decisions of their pastors; and so on.

        I do not see clericalism present in this “Guardians of the Altar” initiative.

      6. @Jeffrey Pinyan (@JeffPinyan) – comment #77:

        1. If it’s sexism, call it sexism, not clericalism.

        It’s great that you can see the lines so clearly drawn; I do not.

        2. … the ordained can do certain things that the laity cannot, and that means clerics are “better” than laypeople.

        To apply this definition of yours to this case: only those of the Guardians of the Altar, which is “geared towards vocations” can do certain things (i.e., to assist in special Masses and liturgies) that the others (including those “regular” servers who are apparently not going to be ordained) cannot, and that means the former is “better” than the latter (i.e., the former is the “elite”; the latter is, well, not).

        Which is why I said initiatives like this may lead to fostering clericalism, and give these boys the wrong idea about what it means to serve God, to serve people.

        3. I do not see clericalism present in this “Guardians of the Altar” initiative.

        And I do, so, yeah.

      7. @Elisabeth Ahn – comment #81:
        It does not mean that the Guardians are “better” than the others. It means that the cathedral is restricting service at the altar during episcopal liturgies to men who show an interest in a priestly vocation. Just because someone wants to do something, and they’re told they cannot, does not mean they are “worse” than someone else who can do it. It just means that we can’t always get to do the things we want to do.

        I can’t preside at Mass, because I’m a layperson, not an ordained priest. Is that clericalism?

      8. @Jeffrey Pinyan (@JeffPinyan) – comment #83:

        Clearly, we read and hear the same words and interpret things differently, and if that is how you see them, then fine, I can respect that, and hopefully, you can do the same.

        As to your question, “I can’t preside at Mass, because I’m a layperson, not an ordained priest. Is that clericalism?”, assuming this was asked in good faith, I shall respond: of course not. That is not what clericalism is. Clericalism means, well, you obviously know already what it is, do you not?


      9. @Jeffrey Pinyan (@PrayingTheMass) – comment #48:
        JP – any studies done in this area suggests that this all male servers leads to vocations is, at best, weak and at worst, made up.
        Priestly vocations – almost all studies arrive at the fact that the most significant determinative factor are *mothers*.

  29. I think many of the liberals in the Church complain about clericalism in order to mask their own clericalist tendencies. It’s similar to a priest who, week after week, talks about one particular sin in his sermons. Don’t get me wrong, the right-wingers in the Church have more than a few problems too.

    1. @Sean Peters – comment #49:
      To be clear, I’m complaining about sexism, not clericalism. That I can do that, as a man, tends to move against the meme that I might be reflecting my own problem.

      Whether Pope Francis gets it or not, at some point the Church, including the institution, will have to deal with women in a real way: sacrifice, reconciliation, listening, discernment–the whole deal. Seems like they would want 60% of the active Church behind them on the priestly vocation thing. But hey: if they think making adolescent boys special will work, more power to ’em.

      As long as we’re looking at commonalities, perhaps they should talk to Donald Trautmann. He had more homegrown vocations per capita than most bishops, and he opposed MR3. Maybe there’s something to that. Just saying.

  30. Excerpted from the article:

    “It has been a very, very good thing for the boys of our parish,” he [Julio Alvarez, parish director of religious education and formation] said.
    Aside from providing support to clergy, the young men also serve as role models for their peers in the parish, he added.
    “The group is a model to all of the youth of our parish,” he said.

    As for recruiting new members to the order, [Danny Montero, age 17] says it is a simple task.

    “We really don’t have a pitch – the guys see us on the altar and they want to join us,” he said.

    Emphasis added.

    1. @Jonathan Day – comment #57:

      “We really don’t have a pitch – the guys see us on the altar and they want to join us”

      That is very nice, and all the more reason to invite all youths, not just boys, to this “special” ministry. Then, it could be a “very, very good thing” for not only the boys but also, girls of the parish. It could be a very good thing for everyone!

      And then, if they are really interested in having something “special” for the boys only, they could perhaps institute something like an all-male cleaning squad to inspire those young men to follow the path of Jesus in the true spirit of humility and service.

      Which incidentally reminds of this “classic Bergoglio story”: After becoming archbishop he was invited to have dinner at the seminary, and the rector asked if he wanted to say something to the seminarians. Bergoglio proceeded to say, “I’ll wash the plates tonight.” After that… it became fashionable for faculty to clean their own dishes.

  31. In response to

    Ryan Ellis : @Jim McKay – comment #45:

    Despite the statement quoted here that it is “well known” that altar serving develops priestly vocations, it is worth noting, I think, that the data from the US is not clear about the casual connection between priestly vocations and serving at the altar. Two thirds of newly ordained priests report having been an altar server, but without any comparison data (What percentage of priestly vocations can be attributed to serving in a parish/diocese which forbids women to do so? What percentage of men — or women — marrying in the Church were altar servers? and in the near future, what percentage of priests will report have had a mother who was an altar server?) it really doesn’t answer the question of whether restricting the ministry to males serves the Church — the entire Body of Christ — well one way or the other.

    Saying the rosary, participating in Eucharistic adoration are equally strongly correlated to becoming a priest, but we hear no arguments restricting these practices to males.

  32. Very often people have deep desires. They have a hope these wishes are truths. There is a certain charm to taking boys, girls, or both aside and instilling values in them that would develop into a desire to follow and do what we do. This is a good thing.

    The problem comes when we project these views into reality without any basis for doing so.

    American Catholics of the last century had a whole ethnic embattlement thing that supported a boom in vocations across the board. But that was 1947.

    Today mothers are less inclined to support the idea that a son become a priest. Perhaps there is a sense that one can be a “religious virtuoso” without getting ordained or vowing to religious life. Perhaps people are embittered about clergy and women religious and even actively discourage vocations out of ignorance or spite.

    One strategy is to turn the clock back. It can be easy. It absolves bishops of the need to get out of airports and back into parishes. It excuses priests who don’t encourage men and women. It presents 1947 as a magic formula. All we have to do is recreate great-grandma’s parish and we’ll have her priests.

    Today our eyes are opened, and we know a small percentage of priests abuse kids, a large percentage of bishops cover it up, women religious are waning in numbers and targets of investigations. We can’t close our eyes. We have to develop new paths of discernment. That might involve actually talking to mothers, sisters, bishops, servers, parish priests, and maybe even doing it at the same time.

    1. @Michelle Francl-Donnay – comment #67:
      No problem – find that historical facts get lost when folks have an ideology. My favorite responses come from Michael Sean Winters – here is how he summarizes the uban legends defending an ideology:

      We have previously identified WPFMTS syndrome – what Pope Francis meant to say – for those who feel compelled to explain away the clear meaning of Pope Francis’s words. (see anything from Allan – of course, he is always speculating)

      And, we have seen FDS – Francis Derangement Syndrome – afflicting those who are shocked, shocked, to find a pope speaking clearly about poverty.

      Now, we can add a third syndrome to the list: If only Pope Francis knew what I know syndrome – IOPFKWIK.

  33. I think Rita is right on. At the same time, the “Guardians” program is in keeping with what the Vatican called for when it finally affirmed that female servers were allowed. (I wrote all about that here: ) The Congregation for Divine Worship’s letter said that serving was a lay ministry and thus open to females — but that “it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue.” This elite, boys-only, vocations-focused group seems designed to line up with that faulty guideline.

    There are other ways, of course, that a parish might use service at the altar as a stepping stone to greater involvement in parish life and worship, and thus for boys an encouragement to consider the priesthood. But they’d require departing in a creative way from the “noble tradition” of encouraging boys to value the no-girls-allowed atmosphere for its own sake.

    1. @Christopher Douglas – comment #70:

      Correction: Yes to a SUPERIOR male organization… from which females, as lower caste, are excluded despite the fact that they are well able to do the ministry. That’s the story.

      There was a comment above about teams of servers, some all male, some all female, some mixed, but none put up on a pedestal as better than the others. That seems fine to me.

      1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #71:
        Superiority is in the eye of the beholder. I don’t see how this is a superior organization. Is it different? Yes. Is it set apart? Yes. Will they receive special training? Yes. But those three qualities are true of any group of servers? Is it superior? No. The only reason another group of servers isn’t as well-trained is that whoever is in charge of them doesn’t see to it. In fact, if I were in a parish, I would make it my business to have a group of servers, of whatever make-up, be so well trained, that when the Bishop comes for Confirmation, he would take note.

    2. @Christopher Douglas – comment #70:

      Mr. Douglas, I think you’ve missed the point of Camille Paglia’s piece. Paglia writes with a high degree of irony. Put another way, she is assessing certain schools of feminism (second wave, third wave) from a studied position of resignation, as if women were consigned to a position where they may compete with men for social and occupational equality but never have a say in the formation of the systems which created status and occupation. Paglia’s piece is not factual. Her article is also not necessarily her own opinion on feminism or androcentrism.

      Few, regardless of their position on women in Catholic ministry, could deny that the “Guardians of the Altar” is a bold affirmation of the male-centered organization and political construction of the Church. The question is, for many, whether or not the entire construct of Catholic ministry at this point can be shattered and remoulded to include women, or if, as Paglia muses, some systems are beyond reformation.

  34. So why doesn’t in Trenton somebody simply form a parallel group, say “Guardians of the Church”, to carry out the mission that our Pope suggests is the real one of the Church: ministering to those in need. Whether collecting and distributing clothing/toys, making and delivering sandwiches/meals, etc., the GotC, too, could have periodic retreats to discuss their lifelong Church commitment opportunities. Make it all-girls. Or make it co-ed. Whichever.

    Stop whining, Do something. And see which group survives.

    1. @Sean Keeler – comment #74:

      There is this project from one of Trenton’s deacons:

      The book includes homilies from both women and non-Catholics (disclaimer – I am a contributor).

      And back in the day when I lived in the diocese (83-87), working for the poor was perhaps the biggest activity my parish did (even when we still had no women as lectors, Eucharistic ministers or heaven forfend, altar servers). It was a formative experience, not limited to a single parish staffed by laity and clergy working together, and the project continued for many years (though the current bishop has severed its connection with the diocese.)

      By which I do not mean to draw a casual relationship between the creation of a male corps of altar servers and the elimination of a project to serve the poor!

    2. @Sean Keeler – comment #74:
      “, making and delivering sandwiches/meals”

      Yup, nothing like keeping the gals in the kitchen and sewing room where they belong 🙂

  35. Some bishops find that the World Youth Days are very effective in fostering vocations, and take part in them for that reason. Of course young women as well as young men go to WYD.

    So it seems that having diocesan events in general far more open and attractive to young people would be the way to go. And cheaper than WYD.

    Bishops need to anticipate a Francis effect on vocations. The generational effects on priestly vocations are well studied by sociologists such as Dean Hoge in his servant leader and cultic priesthood models.

    Actually the first identification of a generational effect was probably the Andrew Greeley classic America article on the New Breed which first appeared in America on May 23, 1964.
    The date is important because young people in their teens and twenties seem to be extremely sensitive to the events that are coming over the horizon, in this case Vatican II.

    While Hoge and others are not sure exactly why a different kind of “New Breed” developed in response to JP2, the pattern seems clear. Young people are very sensitive to changes going on in their environment,

    There is much in Francis that could appeal to today’s youth, being non –judgmental, service to others, etc.

    Bishops need to begin to model Francis in their own dioceses. I would suggest they go out to parishes for their daily mass (e.g. in the evening), and meet the young and the old especially those who are involved in church ministries and service to others.

    Pastors can begin this process by using their daily Mass as a way to meet the various parish members, those of various ministries, various professions, etc. Again giving young people priority at these Masses.

    Francis has made this very easy. Just download his homily summary, hand it out before Mass, have about a 5-10 minute session before Mass for people to comment or ask question about the Pope’s homily while the priest LISTENS. Use the homily time to suggest a topic or two for an after Mass discussion for those who want to stay.

    1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #80:
      What a wonderful way to inculturate that term and Christianize it, like the times for Christmas and Easter! These boys are well formed post-Vatican II Catholics in thinking to do such a thing! God bless their little hearts, as we say in the south! 🙂

  36. I never attended Catholic elementary or high school. I was never an altar server. My vocation to the priesthood was influence by many things, but none more important than my becoming aware of the power of God’s mercy as young man in need. No one should be surprised that a significant number of priests once served at the altar. As such many wore a garb that was reminiscent of clerical attire. Some of these men were found to demonstrate a certain sensitivity or attraction to “sacred” or ecclesial things. Others developed a fondness for a particular priest with whom they could relate. While that didn’t always work out well, some of these young men turned out to be good recruits for the seminary. Now if you’ve ever seen seminarians serving at Cathedral liturgies, it should be apparent that they carry themselves in a manner that distinguishes them from other groups of men their age. They have a certain esprit de corps or swagger that sets them apart. There are many bishops and priests who think serving at the altar in a well disciplined manner is a tried and true source of vocations. But has anyone noticed that the number of men attracted to the priesthood is still far short of the number needed to serve all vibrant parishes? Good luck with the “Guardian” idea, we should get a few recruits out of it. What kind of priestly ministry these men are drawn to is a question for another day.
    BTW, has anyone noticed that bishops give nothing more than lip service to the encouragement of vocations among females, whether servers or not? Methinks sexism and clericalism may be at play here. But I may be wrong.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #87:

      “What kind of priestly ministry these men are drawn to is a question for another day.”

      Actually, I think that is the crux of the issue.

      Quite coincidentally, Pope Francis dedicated today’s homily at his daily Mass at the Casa Santa Marta entirely to the priesthood, and had this to say:

      “We are anointed by the Spirit, and when a priest is far from Jesus Christ he can lose this unction… And instead of being anointed he ends up being smarmy. And how damaging to the Church are smarmy priests! Those who put their strength in artificial things, in vanity, in an attitude…in a cutesy language… But how often do we hear it said with sorrow: ‘This is a butterfly-priest,’ because they are always vain… [This kind of priest] does not have a relationship with Jesus Christ! He has lost the unction: he is smarmy.”

      Butterfly priests, heh, I love that. This extraordinary pope really does have such a way with words.

      1. @Elisabeth Ahn – comment #88:

        I am not certain what constitutes vanity according to your quotation of Pope Francis. Does vanity derive from aesthetics, such as an interest in vestment or church plate? Or, is vanity connected to an intense interest in liturgical theology and Latin philology, among other academic and intellectual pursuits? Perhaps both?

        As I have written earlier, I have noticed a disturbing trend towards an almost exclusive focus on material poverty per some Catholics’ interpretations of the writings and exhortations of Pope Francis. Yes, Catholics are enjoined to works of mercy towards the poor. In fact, this might be the most important work of mercy. Yet, I do not interpret Pope Francis's exhortations for works of mercy as a diminution of the intellectual endeavor of understanding the Mass. The Mass is the eternal dance of the eschaton and also food for the fragile and needy human heart and mind. However, a consignment of the Mass to interpretation through a social-justice lens only diminishes and even at times silences the intellectual exploration of the dance.

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