Friday, March 24, 2006

Altar Servers

There have been two articles from the Times and Post discussing the most recent change in policy of the Diocese of Arlington: Allowing girls to be altar servers. I'm going to skip the Latin mass half of the announcement, since I think it's such a funny pairing and probably only done to "placate" people like me.

When Bishop Keating announced that the diocese would maintain its policy of all-male altar servers, I was in elementary or middle school. I remember how ridiculous my mom thought this decision was, and she encouraged me to agree with her. So I did. Ha! It makes no sense! Big deal, if most priests were altar servers! Most priests probably ate ice cream too! So silly!

But did I feel oppressed, honestly? No, because I had never desired to be an altar server. It hadn't even occurred to me. In itself, that is a significant fact because of the fact that the altar boys got out of class to serve morning mass. Even with such a powerful incentive, I did not want to be one. It just seemed to make sense. Priest, male, altar server, male. Okey dokey.

Bishop Loverde kept this policy until now. The number of men entering the seminary has been going down and down... is this going to help, really? Why the change now? What has changed?

Of course, the Church allows girls to serve in this matter. There is nothing instrinsically important about the gender of the servers. That being said, being an altar server is a great way for a boy to be introduced to what the priesthood is like. He can get to know all sorts of things, but most especially get to know the priest as a father-figure. He can learn that a priest is a real man, a real father. He can get to know other boys who share his faith and interest in the Church. A good priest can foster in his servers a deep reverence for the Sacrifice of the Mass and encourage them in their journeys- sometimes but not necessarily to the priesthood, certainly to geniune masculinity and participation in the Church. Of course, I'm speaking of a world in which priests know and live their spiritual fatherhood. Gosh, maybe I should teach at a seminary.

Perhaps this is really just a move acknowledging that not enough boys are becoming servers and for strictly practical purposes it would help if there were double the number. Ok fine. Even if that is the case, the question seems to be, "Why aren't they joining?" rather than, "Who else can we get?" We are all aware that people are more cautious about their sons being altar boys these days, perhaps for good reason. We need to rebuild trust in the priesthood, and the best-the only- way to do that is through holiness of life. Ours and theirs.

Now, as for these specific articles. Ooooooh they make me mad. I guess in the interest of charity, I should give the authors the benefit of the doubt. They obviously don't read encyclicals in their spare time, and they probably don't even have close friends who do. To the liberal (in the wide sense of American), it is perfectly ridiculous for a community of faith to exclude half of their population from a certain role. The half that appears to be more active in the first place! If the priesthood is about authority and power, then we have a big problem- I'm being disenfranchised!! Thankfully, it is not. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The priest is there to serve me! HA! They have to spend their life, give it up for my sake! Sacrifice for me, pray for me, come when I'm sick in body or soul, get accustomed to solitude. As Balthasar puts it, something like "Both the priest and the laity are responsible for the salvation of the Church and the sanctification of the world, differently." There are just some amazing misconceptions in here, full of subtle wording that gets my back up. So let me be defensive and catty for a minute (I'm a wretch after all) In the Post:

  • People are called "critics of the ban" and "supporters of the ban." I'm sorry, what ban are you talking about? Altar servers had always been male. Serving is a privilege, not a right. The bishop's decision to keep that the case cannot, in any possible way, be considered a ban!
  • This quote is great: "I understand there are some laity against it, but they are as rare as hen's teeth because most people who have children see the innate fairness of having ministries open to everyone who qualifies," Grinnell said. Um, no, they're actually not that rare at all. Here's one! And qualifies? Does anyone qualify to stand next to the Lord's altar? Fairness? What's so fair about God Himself dying for me and taking upon Himself the guilt of my sin? I don't really want fairness, frankly, I need mercy.
  • And finally, the gem that sums up the biggest danger, the teenage girl who says: "I don't think this is as much as we should get," she said, "but it's a lot better." To the uneducated laity, this is simply a step toward the female priesthood. We need education, people! Have you not read? Have you not heard? The Church has no authority to ordain women to the ministerial priesthood. Can't do it. Nope. Impossible. Check out Ordinatio Sacerdotalis for questions.
In the Times:
  • "Hallelujah," said Rea Howarth of Front Royal, Va., who is active in Catholics Speak Out, a group that encourages reform of the Catholic Church. "Long we have waited." It goes on to say that her daughter wasn't confirmed because she couldn't serve. I'm sorry but I was a kid at that time too, and guess what, it probably had a lot more to do with her mother's opinion of the Church than her own. Catholics Speak Out? How about Catholics for Holiness? Catholics for Living Their Baptismal Vows? Catholics Speak Out about Injustice and Abortion and War and Poverty? We speak out about a lot of things, thank you.
  • The decision to allow altar girls is ultimately up to parish priests, who must write a letter to the bishop seeking the change. Praise God :)
  • The bishop also said he hoped that allowing altar girls would deepen their appreciation of Mass and encourage some girls to become nuns. Unfortunately, buying into the clericalization of the laity will have precisely the opposite effect on girls. It tells the girls, "If you really want to be involved in the Church, you should be on the altar rather than in the pews" and since sisters and nuns are laity, and live their vocations as laity, this will be the opposite of helpful. When a woman becomes a sister, it is because she identifies herself with the Church- not with Christ, in the strict sense. A sister recognizes the incredible gift that God is giving her by asking her to be one with Him. She primarily receives love as a woman; She experiences Christ as the one who loves her and calls her to intimacy with Him. There really isn't a parallel between that and being an altar server, unlike the link between serving and the priesthood.

Both of the articles betray the concept of the Church as a hierarchical power structure, in which the laity has to somehow "get involved." Even the bishop's own words about the change make me nervous: the change is to help Catholics "participate more reverently, more actively, more fully" in Mass. Ok, perhaps some girls will be more active now. Ok. On a practical level, I guarantee some poor boys will be a lot LESS engaged in the mass if they are serving next to a girl. Aren't teenage hormones hard enough to deal with? That's just an aside though. The primary and fundamental issue here is:

What is the role of the laity in the Church?

Is the most important thing about the Church what it does or who She is? Until we recover the Marian dimension of the Church, which comes before the Petrine, we will face this dilemma over and over. Check out CCC #773: Mary goes before us all in the holiness that is the Church's mystery as "the bride without spot or wrinkle." This is why the "Marian" dimension of the Church precedes the "Petrine." Mary's Fiat makes Peter's office possible. Mary is under Peter, in terms of the "hierarchy" but Peter is within Mary. The laity has a specific and important role to play. It is not simply the riffraff of "people who aren't clergy." The laity have a special mission to fulfill in the Church and the world, primarily as a people made holy, a people who receive God's love and are transfigured by His Spirit. I participate fully and completely in the Mass by standing with Mary under the Cross and accepting what Christ is doing for me, and offering myself to the Father with Him. I do not have to do the reading, or lead the singing, or do the serving to be fully active in the Mass. In fact, often when I do those things it actually distracts me from doing what I am really supposed to be doing: focusing on God, entering into the Mystery, praying. That's my role, and it's more than enough for me to handle.



+ Light + said...

Oh Earthie! I fully appreciate the fruit you bear! And as my friend Sarah said, "This stuff is great!" Yes, it IS! Because it's TRUTH!! Love it!
Thank you! Way to BE woman!

AC said...

We have girl altars servers at my parish. I see it as a good way to get other people invovled in serving in the community. I was an girl altar server. It helped me to appreciated what goes on at mass and made me see how serving other people affects their lives.

Theo C said...

I favoured keeping altarboys and rather resented one bishop saying that the word altarboy was now forbidden, as was altargirl, and that we could only call them altarservers. We were originally taught that the servers were boys because they were extensions of the priest's hands, and only men could be priests. Europeans usually used men, not children as altar servers.

I guess the fact that Pope John Paul II permitted it, after the cardinal in charge of worship pulled a fast one, should be enough for me. There are no serious theological problems, but sometimes the little things can have far reaching effects-- like dominoes.

It might not be so bad if little girls dressed like Mary and had veils upon their heads. Tradition says that Mary served as a girl at the Jewish temple; maybe our girls could have her humility and modesty, seeing themselves as handmaids of the Lord?