Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Altar BOYS: There's a Good Reason for That

I received the following wonderful news in an email the other day:

After Mass yesterday, Father asked for a few moments of our time. He announced that one of the young men who serve during the Mass is entering the seminary next week.

The young man then gave a brief talk. He had discovered the Latin Mass about 5 years ago and started attending. Father is very good at spotting new faces in the crowd, and after a few Masses, he suggested to the young man that if he wanted a greater understanding of Our Lord, then he might consider serving at the altar.

The young man thought about it, then agreed. He was given some instruction, and was allowed to serve during the Low Mass. Eventually he served at the High Mass.

He didn't know Latin when he began, but as we know, it's something that grows on you. :)

The young man acknowledged the influence that serving has had on his decision to answer the Call. It was the proximity to God, among other things. The young man also called for other boys and men in the community to step up. He said that it's a privilege available to all baptized Catholic men, and one that should be taken advantage of. 

Interestingly, on the same day, I received another email from a different friend alerting me to an article in the 2/9 on-line edition of The Wanderer: “The Anomaly of ‘Altar Girls’”, by Fr. Brian W. Harrison, OS. The article is well worth reading in its entirety. I point here to a few paragraphs which mesh nicely with the story related above. First, Fr. Harrison points out the lack of precedent for female altar servers (all emphases mine):

It must be said in the first place that the absolute novelty of female altar service practice is in itself troubling. For when a given liturgical custom has not only existed, but has been continuously and emphatically reaffirmed and insisted upon since the patristic era, there must be a presumption that such a custom is very probably Apostolic in origin, reflecting the will — a marked preference or even a requirement — of Christ Himself.

In the Vatican journal Notitiæ ( Vol. 16, 1980), the liturgical scholar Aimé-Georges Martimort … goes on to quote Pope St. Gelasius in 494, who wrote to the bishops of Sicily and southern Italy: “We have heard with sorrow of the great contempt with which the sacred mysteries have been treated. It has reached the point where women have been encouraged to serve at the altar, and to carry out roles that are not suited to their sex, having been assigned exclusively to those of masculine gender.”

Every edition of the Roman Missal from 1570 till 1962 carried the prohibition of female altar service, as did the 1917 Code of Canon Law (c. 813, §2), not to mention the earlier documents of the postconciliar liturgical reform itself. 

But if the emphatic and uninterrupted tradition of the Church reserved the sanctuary, and especially the altar itself, for ministers of the male sex, what was the main reason for this? Many have noted that the admission of “altar girls” often has the effect of discouraging young boys from a service no longer seen as masculine in character, so that a fruitful source of future priestly vocations is thereby placed at risk. It has also been pointed out that a further obstacle is posed by this innovation to reunion with the Eastern Orthodox, who roundly reject it.

But such objections do not get to the heart of the matter, which is pinpointed by Martimort as “. . . the link which was understood to unite the lesser ministries to the priesthood itself, to the point where they had become the normal stages leading to the priesthood. This link is already present in the perspective of St. Cyprian [d. 258].”

Thus, the Church’s unwillingness from time immemorial to have females acting at the altar has clearly been linked to the fact that altar service is closely related to the ministerial priesthood, which, as John Paul II reaffirmed definitively in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, can never possibly be conferred upon women.

Fr. Harrison also discusses his opinion that it is not objectionable to have females serve as readers or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. He points out the fallacy of an “all or nothing” scenario – the notion that females must be given either unrestricted access to liturgical service, or none at all. The important factor is whether the ministry is seen as leading to the priesthood. He notes:

There are precedents dating back to the patristic era for the reading of the Epistle (sometimes even the Gospel), and for the administration of Communion under extraordinary circumstances, to be carried out by persons not seen as in any way as being on the road to the priesthood. Altar service, on the other hand, has always traditionally been envisaged as something strictly reserved for those with the potential to become priests; and precisely for that reason it has been permitted to young boys as well as more mature males.
The server is presented visually and symbolically in that role by his male, clerical dress (cassock and surplice), by his location at the altar, and by his actions, which provide proximate assistance and preparation for the quintessentially priestly act: the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

But in recent years the Latin-Rite Church, by inviting females to serve at the place of priestly sacrifice dressed in the sacerdotal garb of alb or cassock, seems to be speaking with a forked tongue. At the level of her purely verbal communication the Church promulgates documents excluding women’s ordination irrevocably; but in her “body language” during the Eucharist — her most sacred liturgical action — she is now insinuating the exact opposite. The presence of female servers at the altar is a silent but eloquent challenge to the Church’s infallible teaching that women can never be priests.

I think the story at the beginning of this post of the young man who has answered the call to the priesthood due largely to his service at the altar aptly illustrates the significance of Fr. Harrison’s historical analysis. Serving at the altar is an important “stepping stone” toward the priesthood.

Fr. Harrsion also points out that:

…the Congregation for Divine Worship ruled in 2001 that no bishop may require any of his priests to celebrate with female servers. Male only altar service is described as a “noble tradition” which is “always very appropriate.”

… Female altar service is a novelty that clearly will not be rolled back overnight; so at this early stage, the best scenario would be one in which an increasing number of priests — and, hopefully, bishops — show themselves willing to face down the predictable opposition and lead by personal example, returning to the practice of celebrating with male servers only. And they will be greatly assisted in doing that if increasing numbers of lay Catholics (of both sexes) openly support and encourage them in this initiative.

Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to just make a friendly comment to your own parish priest in this regard; simply making a positive comment about the presence of male altar servers (if there are any!), rather than a negative one about female altar servers, could make the point in a non-abrasive way. Priests who know they can count on some support will certainly be more likely to make the change.

Let us pray for a return to the traditions the Church has held for hundreds of years!


Here is a comment received via email which notes some important details: 

In response to a dubium submitted by a bishop to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on whether a bishop had the authority to compel his priests to employ the use of females to serve at the altar, the then-Prefect, Cardinal Medina Estevez replied in 2001 in the negative. In explaining this, he concluded: "Therefore, in the event that Your Excellency found it opportune to authorize service of women at the altar, it would remain important to explain clearly to the faithful the nature of this innovation, lest confusion might be introduced, thereby hampering the development of priestly vocations." (July 27, 2001; Prot. 2451/00/L, emphasis added)

In doing so he was merely restating the provisions of the 1994 Circular Letter to the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences on this issue, in which it was decreed:

1) Canon 230 #2 has a permissive and not a preceptive character: Laici . . . possunt. Hence the permission given in this regard by some Bishops can in no way be considered as binding on other Bishops. In fact, it is the competence of each Bishop, in his diocese, after hearing the opinion of the Episcopal Conference, to make a prudential judgment on what to do, with a view to the ordered development of liturgical life in his own diocese.

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.

3) If in some diocese, on the basis of Canon 230 #2, the Bishop permits that, for particular reasons, women may also serve at the altar, this decision must be clearly explained to the faithful, in the light of the above-mentioned norm. It shall also be made clear that the norm is already being widely applied, by the fact that women frequently serve as lectors in the Liturgy and can also be called upon to distribute Holy Communion as Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist and to carry out other functions, according to the provisions of the same Canon 230 #3.

4) It must also be clearly understood that the liturgical services mentioned above are carried out by lay people ex temporanea deputatione, according to the judgment of the Bishop, without lay people, be they men or women, having any right to exercise them.

The two requirements for employing the use of women and girls to serve at the altar - a) that it be done only for specific reasons ["equal opportunity" is not a valid reason] and b) that the decision be clearly explained to the faithful – have, to quote Hamlet,  been "more honour'd in the breach than the observance." (Act 1, Scene 4) In my experience, I know of not a single bishop who has fulfilled these requirements in permitting the use of female altar servers.

Secondly, to the specific situation in the Diocese of Baker: in the eighteen years since the publication of this Circular Letter, our Diocese has seen only two native sons ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese (there is, possibly, a third, but I am not certain as to whether he fits into that time frame). While our Diocese has never known an abundance of vocations to the priesthood, it would seem that there is some correlation between the introduction of the use of female altar servers in our Diocese and the near catastrophic decline in native vocations since that date.

1 comment:

  1. I'm fortunate to live in the Diocese of Lincoln where (I believe) we remain the only diocese not to have altar girls. For a diocese populated by 95,000 Catholics we enjoy a high ratio of seminarians and an abundance of wonderful young priests. In our parish a few years ago we were praying daily in support of our five seminarians. We have two that remain. Of the other three, one became a priest, one entered Fr. Groeschel's order in New York, and the other decided after two years that he did not have a vocation to the priesthood. Under Bishop Bruskewitz good shepherding we have also built a minor seminary, St. Gregory the Great. I myself have two sons as well as a daughter and am active in parish life. I know of no clammoring by girls to join their brothers at our altars. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist, just that I've not heard it from any of my relatives and friends throughout the diocese.


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