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Altar Servers and Priests: From the View of the Child

April 10, AD2013 29 Comments

I have two entertaining stories to offer, both related in a manner of speaking. First is a conversation that took place amongst friends of mine. Using generic names and some license to paraphrase:

Setting: A performance of Irish Dancers.

Announcer: The following dance is a dance that has traditionally been an all-female dance.

Fr. Smith (Jokingly): I can’t hardly believe that a group would limit an activity to one gender!

(The small group gets the obvious reference to the priesthood as well as the good priest\’s humor.)

Announcer (Next act): This next dance used to be an all-male dance, but was eventually changed to include both boys and girls. Because we have no boys involved in our group, this will also be performed by all girls.

Fr. Smith (Smiles): Now that doesn’t seem right. If the girls got to keep their all-female dance, why did the boys have to give theirs up?

Mom: It’s just like the altar servers, Father.  Once the girls were admitted, the boys lost interest.

The above conversation is radically simplified but was real nonetheless. It helps to illustrate a very important point. We can go on all day about the many reasons that altar serving should be limited to boys, but one fact that often goes overlooked, probably because it is more sociological than theological, is that once the activity became open to both genders, the boys lost interest. I have often wondered why this is, but it seems difficult to deny that it is true.

The difficulty with this discussion is that the Church has in fact given the okay for female altar servers. (Please note that the Church does not mandate that a parish or Diocese allow females to assist at the altar. There any many examples of parishes and at least a few examples of a diocese that reserve altar serving for males. The fact that these parishes and diocese are in the minority makes for a very sticky conversation with our own children. We have chosen to take a nuanced approach to it. When you ask our children who should be serving at the altar, they will tell you that it should be boys. When you ask them why there are girls up there, they will tell you that when there aren’t enough boys to volunteer, sometimes a girl will serve.

They answer this way because we have told them that this is the answer. I am not sure if we are entirely honest with them in this matter, but quite frankly I don’t have a better response. I suppose that the most honest response is, “Well, it really should only be boys, but the Church lets girls do it.” The problem with this is the conflict it causes when we try to teach out children about obedience to the Church. The issue is muddled by the fact that the allowance of girls on the altar is not an act of disobedience to the Church. As I pointed out, the Vatican has given the okay. But how do you explain to a seven-year-old the difference between allowing female servers and disallowing their exclusion. (At the risk of repeating myself, the Vatican does not mandate that individual dioceses and/or parishes must allow females on the altar.)

Further, how do you explain that we as parents disagree with the fact that our diocese and parish allow girls on the altar. Just as the bishop and pastor are not being disobedient in allowing this, we are not being disobedient to the Church by disagreeing with it. However, even as I write this, I can see how confusing the whole thing is, and I wonder how this sort of conversation would be received by young children. I think for now it is best to stick with, “When not enough boys volunteer, sometimes girls will serve.” Perhaps as they grow, the truth of the matter will be organically understood by them. Until then, I am open to suggestions on how to handle the matter with young children.

My second story is related to the first. At lunch the other day, we were talking about this very thing, and as usual my children regurgitated the programmed response we have given them. On a whim, I decided to ask them if girls could be priests. Thinking that I must be joking, the three oldest responded in unison (almost with a laugh), “No way. Girls can’t be priests.” I decided (God only knows why) to press the issue by asking them if there were not enough boys to be priests if a girl could step up and fill in, much like she does in the absence of male altar servers. I am not sure why I asked it. Perhaps I sensed the hole in my explanation of the altar server issue; perhaps I was looking for a way to have some good old fashioned catechesis; perhaps I simply was not thinking. Whatever the reason, I pressed forward with the question.

I could not have been more proud at the response. My oldest daughter confidently responded, “No.” When I asked her why, she said, “Because priests are supposed to be like Jesus, and he was a man.” In today’s political climate, with so many people both in and out of the Church pushing for the ordination of women, we often find ourselves coming up with more and more complicated arguments defending the Church’s infallible teaching on this. Perhaps it is human nature to stack argument upon argument. For even when the first argument goes unanswered and unchallenged and the opposition digs in their heels, instead of pressing forward with that argument, we look for another in the hopes that seeing things from a different angle will win them over. For this very reason it was refreshing to hear a child return to the simple fact: Jesus was a man. In a very beautiful way, she understands the meaning of sign and sacramentality.

As icing on the cake, my second oldest daughter chimed in, “And if boys are supposed to be like Jesus, girls are supposed to be like Mary.”

While my explanation for why girls are permitted as altar servers was not quite accurate and has a hole or two in it, in the end the Holy Spirit must be working through my wife and me in some manner, because quite frankly, my children get it.

Boys are supposed to be like Jesus.
Girls are supposed to be like Mary.

And this, as Saint Paul says, is a “great mystery” (Ephesians 5).

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Footnote. The intent of this article was not to present a formal explanation of my position, and therefore I chose not to go into the details of what the Church actually says in this matter. It should be, at least in a  footnote that, while the Vatican has given approval for girls serving at the altar, there is an argument to be made that this is not the preference of the Vatican. The Holy See has encouraged where ever possible, the retention of “the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar.” See this answer by Fr. Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at theRegina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaenum for a more complete explanation.

© 2013. Jake Tawney. All Rights Reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

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About the Author:

Jake Tawney is a husband and father-of-six from central Ohio. He has spent nearly a decade working in education, serving as a teacher and administrator in the public school system, as well as an adjunct professor of mathematics for the Pontifical College Josephinum. When he is not helping his wife homeschool their children, Jake runs and writes for Roma locuta est, a website dedicated to all things Catholic with a particular focus on the Sacred Liturgy. Most recently, Jake has spend countless hours penning the New Translation Monday series which seeks to dissect and explain the changes to the new Roman Missal.

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