No More Lasses Serving The Masses?
Recently, the rector of the Cathedral parish in Galveston, Texas, announced that he would be limiting altar service to males only, citing the role as a means of fostering priestly vocations. Could this be the start of a trend?
IMAGE: St Stephen's Church, Hamilton OH, 1934
Relax, kids, it isn't gonna happen anytime soon. But according to Father Zuhlsdorf, if William Oddie of The Catholic Herald in the UK had his way, the role of acolyte (altar server) would once again be restricted to boys and men.
One of the guests at dinner one evening was Archbishop André Vingt-Trois of Tours (now Cardinal Archbishop of Paris). The subject of conversation at one point was the way in which, in the local Parish Church, presumably in an attempt to involve women in the celebration of the Mass, not only were all the readers women but so also were all the servers girls; my wife (not I) compared it to a farmyard, with the priest as the cock strutting about in the middle of a flock of hens.
IMAGE: St Andrew's Boys Choir, Milford OH, December 1966. The author is third from the right.
Thankfully, it gets better.
Until about the mid-1990s, I was in favor of using female altar servers, albeit reluctantly. A handout prepared by Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio for the 1987 Synod on the Laity called for retaining the traditional practice. I found his arguments inconclusive. As women were permitted to serve as lectors within the sanctuary since 1971, I concluded that the traditional restriction of women from the "presbyterium" -- the place of presiding, the sanctuary; at Mass, in this case -- was broken, thus any rule against female altar servers would have been implicitly abrogated.
IMAGE: Female altar servers are still not permitted in the Diocese of Rome, which does not prevent at least a few surprises.
What changed my mind? One factor was the people who broke the rules and did it anyway. My home parish in Ohio announced they were eliminating "altar servers" which could only be male, and was introducing something of their own called "altar attendants," which served the same purpose as altar servers, but could be male and/or female. Virtually the entire parish went along with their intelligence being insulted (except for Dad, who gave the pastor a good scolding over the phone one evening). There were also other places where they were illicitly used. I had always been taught that serving at the altar was a privilege, but this was obviously meaningless to those who were making some sort of point about the role of women in the Church.
How could I tell their motives, you ask? Well, bragging about it was a big tip-off.
IMAGE: Acolytes in the Eastern churches wear an ornate tunic known to the Greeks as a "sticharion." It is similar in form to a dalmatic in the Western church, but is usually longer.
And then, there was the matter of HOW the indulgence came about. What started out as the Holy Father being asked to rule on the interpretation of a point in canon law, ended with a form signed under duress, that failed to go through the due process. As a result, when the alleged "permission" was announced, the decree itself lacked what is called a "protocol number," which would have verified its licitness, having been published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (The Official Acts of the Apostolic See, the Vatican's equivalent of the Federal Register here in the States). A bit of face-saving was necessary to make it lawful, the genie being completely out of the bottle by then, and canonists around the world have been bewildered ever since. (Click here.)
When the Bishop of Arlington gave permission for female acolytes in parishes several years ago, most proponents of the change would have cited the wishes of younger, stiff-necked, misogynist, conservative priests as the ones who would prevent its implementation. Rather, it was more likely the boys themselves who were already serving. In parishes where they were asked, most said they would walk away from it. So, in a diocese of 68 parishes and 6 missions, there may be no more than a dozen which use altar girls. And even then, the local norms are written in a way that prevents the girls from becoming a majority. Thus the endorsement of traditional practice, enshrined even in the 1994 indulgence, is preserved in any case.
IMAGE: November 2010. The author as Senior Master of Ceremonies at St John the Beloved Church, McLean VA, holding a replica of the "Botafumeiro", a famous thurible found in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain. More information: http://tinyurl.com/27nj2ow
Every liturgical function performed by laity, save one, serves the assembly. Only the acolyte serves the priest. There is a relationship there that is unlike that of any other function. Small wonder that service at the altar has long been associated with fostering vocations to the priesthood. In my own parish work, I can attest to this, as to even attempt to encourage vocations with a mixed-gender group would have the unfortunate effect of treating boys and girls unequally. As to altar service being a means for vocations to the Religious life, this makes little sense, as functioning at the altar is an essential role of a priest, and since women cannot be priests ...
To this day, the parish where I grew up still refers to them as "altar attendants." It pains me to say this about people with whom I spent my childhood, but if they can fall for this, they can fall for anything, don't you think?
Or don't you?