Monday, March 27, 2006

"I will go to the altar of God..."

One week ago today, the Diocese of Arlington announced that women and girls would be permitted to serve at the altar, a privilege heretofore allowed only to men and boys. Arlington was one of two dioceses in the USA which restricted altar service in parishes to males, since the Holy See permitted local bishops to open the role to females in 1994*. With this decision, only the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, reserves the privilege for males. Amid the blogosphere and e-mail chatter on the topic, this writer had an opportunity to reflect on his own experience...

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When I was a little boy, the Mass was still in Latin, the classical texts still in use. I remember being too small to see over the heads of the grownups, but my Dad got me a pocket-size Latin-English missal by the time I entered the third grade, and I could follow with the priest and the servers. The Church in "the Queen City of the West" could not have been accused of a "low Mass mentality." Before the day began at the parish school, a daily High Mass was the norm. Students sang the chants they learned from the Ward Method, and the "Archdiocesan Young People's Hymnal" was used as the older children sang hymns like "O Esca Viatorum" in two parts. (Interestingly, there were no indignant harpies telling us to "shoosh" when we responded to the priest turning to us and saying "Orate fratres..." or "Ecce agnus Dei..." One wonders how we ever managed!)

By the time I old enough to serve in the mid-sixties, certain changes were already being made. But the old high altar was still present in my parish church for as long as possible, the Mass settings were still in Latin (with a magnificent Gloria composed by our organist and sung by our choir), and our beloved pastor, Father Carl Steinbicker, took it upon himself to train all who entered the Holy of Holies.

The first year was an apprenticeship, when we didn't do the Mass yet, but memorized our parts as we were relegated to the Friday rosary and Benediction. Father would call out the mysteries, but the boys led the people in the Hail Marys. Those who served well (yours truly included) would be taken on field trips. A wealthy parishioner had a mansion across the river, and Father used his friendship with them to gain us access to the pool. There were jaunts to amusement parks and all that as well. But looking back, I get the distinct impression that we really were being encouraged to consider a vocation to the priesthood. To put it another way, we were being trained, in advance!

And of that age group, three of us entered the seminary. One is now a married priest of the Byzantine Rite. Another was vice-rector at North American College in Rome during the 1990s (and known to many younger priests of the Arlington Diocese), and is now rector at the seminary in Cincinnati. Not too shabby.

What did the girls make of all this? Quite honestly, I don't remember. In fact, I can't recall that it mattered. But I know that we as upcoming Catholic gentlemen were expected to be courteous to the ladies among us. In the third grade, dear old Mrs Gilligan assigned each of us boys a girl, to take her coat and hang it up in the morning. When we lined up for lunch, the girls' line went first. We even had separate lines at the bus stop. In time, we didn't have to make the offer; the girls just assumed it. In the midst of all this courtesy, the idea of girls serving at the altar didn't seem to come up. Then again, neither was any set of rules for "acting like a lady" toward the gentlemen.

Life in that parish went on after I left in 1980, as one might expect. But several years later, it changed forever.

It seems the old professor in the rectory was replaced by a younger, more "dynamic" pastor, who eventually came under pressure to use girls as altar servers. The discipline of the time forbade this. So he announced in the bulletin that the role of "altar server" would be eliminated, to be replaced by a position known as "altar attendant," which would include both boys and girls. But, the important point of this story is that, twelve years after it became a legitimate form of service, those who serve at the altar in the parish where I grew up, to this very day, are still referred to as "altar attendants." But as transparent and as juvenile as all this sounds -- and I have the bulletin announcement on file, so I can prove it -- everybody at the time bought it. Hook, line, and sinker! Everyone, that is, except for my old man, who actually called him up on the phone and gave him a good going-over. Compare this to hundreds of otherwise perfectly intelligent and mature adults, many of whom I have known since childhood, who hold real jobs and pay mortgages just like real grownups.

(Maybe Abe Lincoln was wrong; seems you really can fool all the people all the time.)


I've had occasion to serve Mass as an adult. I've served for the Old Mass as well as the reformed, for the Roman Rite as well as the Byzantine Rite. I trained servers for conventions, and even did a concelebration of Dominicans at the Basilica of the National Shrine. Once, a visiting archbishop came from the Philippines, for a special Mass of local countrymen. Sal and I showed up some time before, to find them woefully unprepared, with two boys in shorts and sneakers who had never served a bishop, corralled at the last minute. The parish didn't even provide access to the sacred vessels in the sacristy. With little time to spare, and a nervous archbishop wondering what would happen next, I stepped in and got the key from the secretary ("Will you be needing communion ministers?" "Madame, we aren't even gonna have Communion unless we move quickly, if you please..."), delegated tasks to the boys, and was putting my own vestments on even as the procession began. After all, someone had to know when to remove and replace the archbishop's mitre. He appeared quite relieved to know that I had shown up and saved him from some discomfort. Such was also the case the following Sunday morning at the same parish, when he processed to the altar -- alone. I went to the sacristy, vested quickly, and approached his chair from the side just as the opening prayer was finished. Genuflecting in his presence and kissing his ring, he greeted me with a smile of relief as I said in a low voice: "Your Excellency, I was in the neighborhood, and thought you could use a hand." It seemed the right thing to do at the time.

As much as I still love serving at God's altar, I realize there's more to the task than playing dress-up, and that it is by no means an entitlement. That I am aware of this is bred in the bone, no thanks to me, but to those who trained me long ago. Will we be able to say the same of the girls when they reach adulthood?

Over the years, in my self-directed study of the liturgical arts, I found a case for liberalizing the practice and opening the role to females. The traditional restriction was not so much against service at the altar, as it was the presbyterium, the place of presiding, essentially the sanctuary. With permission for women to read the Scriptures before the Gospel in 1971, the barrier had effectively been lifted. If women were qualified to conduct Communion services under extraordinary circumstances, what was the point in selectively retaining the barrier? To put it another way, the best reason to eliminate the practice was that there was no compelling reason left to retain it.

In the meantime, I was for a few years associated with a Jesuit parish in the city, one which shall remain nameless. I used to attempt to volunteer for the acolyte position, but was constantly told all the slots were filled. About that time, the openings multiplied for the sake of female participation, some years before Rome granted permission. I remember hearing the adults chatter amongst themselves about how they were defying the Archbishop, and appearing to be downright proud of it. As a sacristan of that parish in later years, it seemed to me that some of the women who served had a chip on their shoulders a mile wide. They weren't much help between the Masses either.

At that point, it occurred to me that this function had less to do with genuine service, and more to do with appearances. I had always been taught that it was a privilege to serve at the altar, something reinforced even in adulthood, when I served on occasion. With time and sufficient reflection, I came to prefer the traditional observance (and I've written about that in an earlier piece entitled "They also serve...". Yet even by then, the presence of women in the sanctuary bothered me less than the baggage they (or their parents) often carried with them.

The pattern became clear. When males served, it was a privilege; when females served, it was a statement. Justice, in the end, was still to be found wanting.


This deprivation is initially apparent as Arlington comes to join the rest of the country. We may tell ourselves we are doing this out of fairness. But both stand to be treated very differently, one from the other. If a pastor tells little Johnny, no, we have all we need, thank you, he doesn't have to worry about the fallout when Mass is over. Can the good Father say that about little Suzy?

The "Particular Norms for Altar Servers in the Diocese of Arlington", published by the Diocese, is downloadable from their website, and is unlikely to be read by most of the faithful. While the related article in the Arlington Catholic Herald is informative, it is not complete. This document is worth a closer look.

Some provisions take the Holy See's universal norms into account: "[T]he 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 also led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue." (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences, Prot. n. 2482/93, March 15, 1994) All well and good, but that won't discourage those parishes whose people and/or pastor have been agitating for this. It certainly won't mean diddley to the two pastors who have been quoted in the local press, and who have openly attempted to flaunt the rules themselves until now.

Returning to the "Particular Norms," there is sufficient emphasis given to the discretion of the pastor, and the need for prior consultation with confreres in the same assignment, and the parish pastoral council. The priest's discretionary role is in keeping with the universal norms as well, and it underscores the nature of the acolytal role, as one whose essential purpose is to serve the priest, as opposed to a cause or a committee. While there is room for "pastoral sensitivity" when dealing with those young ladies whose service may not be preferred by a priest assigned to a Mass on short notice, it is clear that the use of males as a traditional norm is not to be discounted in the long run. Indeed, should the indulgence outlive its usefulness, there is provision for a pastor to return to the practice of males only.

There is attention given to the need for understanding the responsibilities involved, and for proper training. This would have been a good idea anyway. At one parish I used to frequent, the role of altar service went noticeably downhill in just a few years, with boys missing the procession and stumbling into the sanctuary late with continued regularity. In other places, they have been little more than decoration, such that one would wonder why pastors even bothered with them.

One of the more unique provisions concerns not only the proper decorum, but "...servers must be instructed to exercise good judgment with regard to clothing that may be visible outside of their vesture, so as to avoid items (including but not limited to ostentatious or excessive jewelry, bright colors, glitter or spangles, athletic or other inappropriate footwear, etc.) that might be distracting to the faithful or otherwise detract from the dignity of the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Makeup and hair color, if any, must be minimal and present a natural and wholesome appearance. Any tattoos or piercings (other than ears) should be discouraged and, if present, must be covered to the greatest extent practicable." Watching a young lady at the altar cross her legs to show how little she has on underneath her robe, will not speak well for her presence there. (Happened at my sister's wedding. Good Lord, what do their mothers tell them anyway???)

Another noteworthy provision involves a common challenge nationwide, where females tend to predominate the ranks of altar servers once they are introduced: "[S]pecial effort must be made to retain males to serve at the altar as well, such that females do not tend to predominate. Reasonable steps are to be taken to ensure that former servers continue... If, over time, female servers come to predominate at a parish and the situation is not rectified by the pastor, permission for the use of female servers at that parish may be withdrawn by the Bishop." This would appear to respect both the universal norms, and the sensibilities of boys of pre- and early adolescent age, concerning their social interaction with females.

Perhaps the most curious provision of all (were the above not enough) concerns the differences in vesture: "If female altar servers are used, they must be vested in albs or similar altar robes. Cassocks and surplices may not be worn by female servers. For male servers, albs may be worn, or vesture of cassocks and surplices may be chosen, at the pastor's discretion." No reason is given for this difference. One might speculate that this is meant to respect in advance, the pre-disposition of a given parish towards a more conservative approach to liturgy. Obviously any pastor can run out and spend up to a couple thousand dollars on a complete set of albs. Obviously, someone might want to donate that much to the parish, if only their little Suzie would be allowed to serve Mass. Obviously there's a lesson here somewhere.

Then again, if my little Johnny wants to serve, and the pastor tells me the ranks are full, and I observe that most of them are girls... well, there's a lesson here too. Not to mention a chance to tie up the good Father in paperwork.


It should be made clear to the reader of this essay, that this writer has no harsh words for the young lady who genuinely aspires to serve at the altar with the proper disposition. One local "samizdat" newsletter opined that "girl altar boys" were the work of the devil. I'm not sure I'd go that far. No, my quarrel is not with Suzie; it's with her parents and the other ambitious adults around her. Many of them are not motivated by the notion of service. In so doing, they give their opponents all the ammunition they need, and set a bad example for their daughters. This swarm of aging adolescents delight in flaunting their defiance of a legitimate authority at any chance, and rub the noses of their detractors in their success. Their behavior is a distraction from the true message of the Gospel, as service becomes less about our actions, and more about appearances. What is worse, it turns the Eucharist, "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen gentium, 11; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1324), into an ideological battleground. The young ladies quoted in the local press have learned the wrong lesson in the course of their endeavor. They and their enablers serve no one but themselves.

At the end of the day, two things will remain sacred. First, where the Catholic Church is concerned, only men will be called to the priesthood. And second, when a luxury liner goes down at sea, only men will be called to give up their spaces in the lifeboats.

Can someone tell me what's "fair" about that?

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* The manner in which this permission was granted is not exactly cause for a boast. The late Pope John Paul II did not approve female altar servers per se. What he actually did was approve the interpretation of a particular canon, so as to suggest that nothing would impede such an innovation. There is actually a difference, especially for one known to have confided to others: "If we allow altar girls, we will soon have no altar boys." Vatican insiders have long been aware that when the late Pope signed on the matter in question, he was in considerable abdominal discomfort, a fact known to those in the Curia who wished to move this initiative forward. When the announcement was actually made in 1994, it was premature. In order for it to be law, it had to have been published in the "Acts of the Apostolic See," which is the record of all legislative and administrative decisions. As such, it would be given what is called a "protocol number." Alas, this announcement did not have one, and so was illicit at the start. Many canonists throughout the world were astonished at the handling of the matter. Indeed, the late former Arlington Bishop John Keating, who sat on the commission for interpretation of legislative texts (which reviewed the matter in question originally) and was an eminent canonist in his day, was as surprised as anyone by the eventual announcement.


Carrie said...

What did the girls make of all this? Quite honestly, I don't remember.

Actually I was around back then and do remember. It never occurred to me or to any of my friends that a girl could serve Mass--that a girl would want to serve Mass--since obviously that was what boys did, and since obviously it was a trial run for priestly vocations.


Back then women served at the altar by laundering the altar linens and by cleaning the sanctuary...duties that were accepted activity for women that carried their own measure of dignity, unlike today; and duties that we knew were just as important as what servers did. Women were proud to launder the altar linens.

as service becomes less about what is done, and more about what is seen

Very perceptive. Keeping the sanctuary clean is one of those services that isn't seen but must be done by someone. Being seen in the sanctuary was not a motivator for women back in the 50s, unless it was being seen on cleaning day. Today, of course, "women's work" carries a bad connotation of inadequacy and slavery. Along with an end to sexual division of labor has come disrespect for anything that was formerly seen as activities of women exclusively.

Denise said...

You are exactly right when you say the issue is not with the young girls serving but with their parents. These parents have abandoned the notion of humble servant and are now seeing the role of altar server as a position of celebrity which must be sought for their darling daughters. Doesn't it remind you of James and John's mother asking Jesus to make her sons his favored ones?

Anonymous said...

Guess I missed that display since, as the bride, I was seated on the altar, too ...

Jen P said...

Please don't tell me that women washed linens and that was equally respectable service. Hogwash.

The priesthood isn't open to women. God ordained that -- and I accept it. But to imply that women's domestic service is their "equal" option is a load of hooey. Domesticity has a place and it's valuable. But men can wash linens, too. Men generally DON'T do women's work precisely because it's women's work. Why wouldn't women come to find it demeaning, too?

(I do laundry, btw. But I don't like being told that my nature makes laundry an especially appropriate calling.)


Anonymous said...

Excellent article.

Anonymous said...

Now that this particular Djin has been let out of the bottle, so to speak, how do we reclaim the sanctuary without making it an indictment against the individual girls?

What if a new pastor wants to abolish "altar girls"? Is there a reasonable way to go about it?

Anonymous said...

Jen P,

I knew there was a reason I like you! (As I head downstairs to do some laundry!)

earthie said...

Thank you for that thoughtful post. Mine was a bit more knee-jerk but the same basic idea. I think I'll email the Bishop in Lincoln, just to say "keep it up"!

David L Alexander said...

Tony, thou hast writ:

"What if a new pastor wants to abolish 'altar girls'? Is there a reasonable way to go about it?"

There is already provision for this in the local norms. See the paragraph that begins: "Another noteworthy provision involves a common challenge nationwide, where females tend to predominate the ranks of altar servers..."

Anonymous said...


While there is a provision in the norms for discontinuing the use of female altar servers at a parish, it's not the provision you discuss in the "Another noteworthy provision ..." paragraph (which deals with discontinuation by the Bishop if female servers come to predominate at a parish). Instead, it's paragraph 3 of the Norms, which basically sets the same process for discontinuing them as for instituting them:

"If, after female altar servers have been introduced at a parish, further consultation by the pastor at a subsequent date with the pastoral council and parochial vicars and deacons (if any) indicates that the use of female servers is no longer pastorally advantageous, the use of female servers may be discontinued by the pastor. The pastor must advise the Bishop in writing of the outcome of the consultation and receive a written confirmation from the Bishop prior to the discontinuation of a policy of using female servers at parish liturgical celebrations.

Of course, that would be for a "formal" discontinuation as a matter of policy. Informally, each individual priest (including the pastor) has the right to not use female servers at his Masses. So as a practical matter, if all priests at a parish choose not to use female servers, the practice could end even before the formal "policy discontinuation" steps have been completed.


David L Alexander said...


I believe I identified the provision correctly. Obviously there are two methods by which female altar service can be discontinued; either at the pastor's discretion, or that of the bishop. The latter might come as the result of his own evaluation, or that of parishioners who are dismayed by the girls "taking over" at the expense of the boys, and are met with the pastor's refusal to rectify the situation. It is this particular scenario which I find unique, that a bishop can decide to remove the indulgence, whatever the pastor's wishes.

Either way, the distinction between the norm and the indulgence is upheld, as is the right of the priest to determine (within certain limitations) how he is served.

I honestly don't think most parishes in the diocese are going to adopt the practice. The generation of priests which would have supported this indulgence is passing away, and a more conservative wave of young priests is taking their place as pastors.

Anonymous said...

Firstly, I just wanted to say that I'm here via catholic_girl's blog.

Secondly, I wanted to say that the issues you raise with female servers (or rather the parents of female servers) has never been an issue at my home parish. I honestly don't know if girls were allowed to serve in 1994, or if a "loophole" was found before that. I started serving in 1996, probably about a year and a half after I made my First Communion and served regularly until last summer. I have served on the odd occasion since, and will probably be needed at Easter. For us, serving was never a statement, always a privilege - for both male and female servers. The numbers are roughly equal (perhaps there are slightly more girls, but there are slightly more girls in the parish) and there are around 60 servers. I believe that the reason that there was never a sense of "we're making a statement, we have a right to be here too" was that it was always accepted that the altar servers were both male and female. We had the most incredible sacristan, whose recent death has left a gaping hole. He always made sure that the servers understood that it was a privilege to serve, and ensured that behavious on the altar was as it should be. In fact, I only ever saw one person cross their legs - a boy - and I can tell you that he never did it again...

And all the altar servers wear albs.

Sorry for rambling.

David L Alexander said...

"For us, serving was never a statement, always a privilege - for both male and female servers."

Yo... Padmez! If you and your posse can pull it off with the proper disposition, more power to y'all. Just know that's not the case in most places. That's one reason our own bishop is getting so much negative mail over it. (That, and some people love to complain, which is sad.)

As to those who "cross their legs" at the altar, the point was not the posture, but what the young lady did (or in this case, did not) have on underneath. We were always taught to sit knees together with hands folded in our lap.

Rambling is fine. By the way, interesting website. Rock on.

Anonymous said...

We too had "knees together, hands joined" drummed into us. I would have a problem with an altar server's posture if they sat with their legs crossed though (male or female) - to me it looks rather casual and inappropriate, nevermind the clothing (or lack thereof) underneath.

I'm sorry to hear that my parish's experience is not reflected elsewhere though.

M. Alexander said...

Excellent post David. Good reminder to me that I don't visit here nearly enough

Femininity, tact, reserve, grace, these are the virtues that make women and young ladies attractive.

Can't parents who want to teach their daughters to compete with boys introduce to them to wrestling or something other than the Mass? Something that I don't have to attend?

Anonymous said...

Just a comment on why Arlington rightly forbids female altar servers from wearing cassock and surplice. While the alb is a garment for all the baptized (the white garment received at baptism), the cassock is a male garment (the proper habit of the diocesan cleric, at least in former times). It is most definitely not a "dress" but a man's long coat with a history going back to the middle ages. For a girl to wear a cassock amounts to cross-dressing.