"I used as a child in the innocence of faith to bring myself out of bed through the cold lucid water of the Cumberland morning and to serve at the altar at earliest lonely Mass... and there between spread hands the body and the blood of Christ was created among words and lifted before God in a threshing of triplicate bells..."In 1994, the Holy See issued norms allowing a diocesan bishop to permit females to serve at the altar. Presently, in two dioceses in the USA -- including Arlington, Virginia -- it is still restricted to males.
The local chapter of Call to Action has an initiative which allows people to put "funny money" in the collection basket, which stipulates that the real thing will be used once the local bishop allows little Suzy to serve.
But why not allow her?
In July of 1999, a pastor was ordered by the Most Reverend Paul Loverde, Bishop of Arlington since March of that year, to cease using girls as altar servers. Father Horace "Tuck" Grinnell, of St Anthony's in Falls Church, informed his parishioners that the bishop "intends to make a final decision.... sometime before the end of his first year as Bishop." Six years later, His Excellency has not changed the practice. Many suggest this is at the urging of the growing ranks of younger priests of the diocese. While this writer could make a case either way, what follows is the case for retaining the current practice. This is tailored to the situation in Arlington, but could be applied elsewhere as well. The reasons fall into three areas.
1. The Priesthood
If we are going to talk about serving at the altar, we must be clear as to what it is, as well as why it is.
But first, let us be clear as to what it is not. The acolyte (or altar server, as those terms are used interchangeably for our purposes) does not exist as a living ideological statement for the rights of women, or the laity -- or anyone, for that matter. The only purpose of the acolyte is to serve the priest at the altar. They do so at his pleasure -- not the liturgy committee, not the "expert" on the parish staff, not the parish council. Therefore, no one -- man or woman, boy or girl -- has a "right" to serve Mass. It is a privilege, which was a point once driven home to many an altar boy now over the age of fifty. "Justice" or "equality" have nothing to do with it.
Most liturgical roles open to the laity can legitimately be performed by women. Historically, they originated in the minor clerical orders, which were limited to males preparing for priesthood. But while the other liturgical functions serve the assembly, only the acolyte serves the priest. There is an interaction, a reinforcement of the masculine icon of priest -- who in turn is an icon of Christ -- that is not operative in any other relationship within the sanctuary. Small wonder, then, that service at the altar inspires vocations to the priesthood.
The lack of said reinforcement, amidst the push for ordaining women, is therefore problematic as a teaching model -- and not only for the children.
2. Pastoral Judgment
The majority of those who serve will be of early and preadolescent age. Since girls begin to mature ahead of boys at this time, it is no surprise that girls soon overshadow them. (Anyone care to comment on this "injustice" imposed by Mother Nature upon the innocent?) Even the Chicago Sun Times reported on the growing trend: "In many churches, girls now outnumber boys, who historically had a lock on the job." (06/21/99)
Allowing female acolytes would lend credence to the sort of dissension that brought them about elsewhere, and which already accompanies attempts to allow them here. (A case in point is a parish in south Arlington that allows female crossbearers, appearing to have found a "loophole," which in fact does not exist.) Commenting on objections raised to their unauthorized use, Grinnell wrote in his parish bulletin, "I assumed that these letters [to the bishop] could only have come from some of the retrograde clergy of the Arlington diocese (who seem to be permanently "out to sea" on this issue)... he [the bishop] had also received some letters from lay people. I understand that some of my brothers are living in another world..." (07/11/99)
As if it were not enough that our children be rendered pawns in an ideological debate, the good Father sees fit to insult his confreres -- not to mention others of like mind. (That any priest might behave this way publicly, without retribution, is a subject for another day.)
3. The Common Good
Whether saying Mass, hearing confessions, or comforting the dying, priests do not exist for themselves. They are called by God to exist for us, both men and women. Certainly more priests would be better than less priests -- again, for both men and women. We cannot question the good intentions of those young women who legitimately serve at the altar in their localities. But we in Arlington must ask ourselves, while we still have the opportunity, is it worth cutting short those men called by Our Lord in their formative years? Can we honestly say, that even the young women themselves are served by this indulgence?
The full effects of a change in practice would be felt slowly but surely. Pastors might be forced to use girls with boys equally. (This is an improper interpretation of the law; the use of males alone is still normative, and specifically encouraged in the original decree, while the use of females is an indulgence.) Some priests might respond by not using acolytes at all. The benefits of their use would be gone forever. Then again, the decision might be left to the individual pastor. Imagine the effect on the continuity of parish life, when a new pastor has more to rearrange upon his arrival, than furniture in the sanctuary.
Either response would widen the gap between "conservative" and "liberal" parishes, thus reinforcing what this author observes to be the growing "balkanization" of the diocese. No longer would parishes be identified with those for whom they are established. Style would reign over substance, and personal whim over pastoral need. We would eventually experience many of the problems already affecting parishes elsewhere in North America. The role of acolyte as an inspiration for priestly vocations would effectively end, and the Diocese would see its distinction in this area diminished.
The final decision rests where it always has, with the Bishop of Arlington. On one hand, he has the wants of a few, perhaps the many. On the other, the needs of all. It is one thing to recognize a clear choice, quite another to make the right one.
It is usually the harder of the two.