Thursday, August 29, 2013

Why Homeschooled Girls Are Disinclined to be Altar Servers

My dear sister in Christ,

You asked me why, at our parish, daughters in homeschooled families don’t sign up to be altar servers, since you don't know what to tell your daughter when she’s old enough to sign up.

This can be a very touchy subject; so please understand that I write this in all charity. Charity means speaking the truth (charitably), and over the past few decades, the reasons for having only boys serve at the altar have been all but forgotten. So I’m writing this to you as an older sister recalling for her younger sister the way things were done in our family and why.

Although we’ve only become aware of it lately, we are now realizing that we grew up with many abuses in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. There are many liturgical practices that were introduced in disobedience but later were reluctantly approved (because they were in such widespread use) and are now commonly accepted: the priest’s praying the Mass facing the people, no preservation of Latin prayers or Gregorian chant as specified in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Liturgy, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion for ordinary circumstances, and receiving Holy Communion in the hand while standing, to name a few. Coupled with massive changes in the culture, all of these ruptures from tradition (little “t” tradition) have resulted in a catastrophic falling away from the faith and precipitous drop in vocations. Lately, both Ralph Martin and Pew Research have reported massive drops in every aspect of the institutional Church.

Allowing girl altar servers contributes to this. It was another change that came about in disobedience, was later grudgingly approved and now is accepted by nearly everyone. Let me be absolutely clear that the girls are not at fault – they tend to serve with generous hearts. However, when girls are introduced on an equal basis into an all-boy program, it’s only a matter of time before the boys lose interest. (Did you realize that our next-door parish has only girls on the altar server schedule now?!)

The Church has always recognized the strong connection between boys’ serving at the altar and the call to the priesthood and that “the obligation [for priests] to support groups of altar boys will always remain, not least of all due to the well known assistance that such programs have provided since time immemorial in encouraging future priestly vocations”. The few places nowadays where only boys serve at the altar [such as the Diocese of Lincoln, NE, 50+% of the parishes in Arlington, VA and sundry parishes such as in Bowie, MD, Colorado Springs, CO as well as Traditional Latin Mass parishes (e.g., FSSP, Christ the King)] can take most of the credit for filling up the seminaries. Conversely, very few vocations tend to come from parishes that pay no heed to the dictum that “it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar”.

Some ridicule the fact that boys don’t want to serve with girls, and remain unconvinced by arguments about vocations. While die-hard promoters of altar girls have the ulterior motive of pushing for women’s ordination, most people think only of girl altar servers as a matter of fairness ... justice ... equality. Yet despite the opening up of the sanctuary to females, there is certainly a preference that boys serve: “Such an authorization [for female servers] may not, in any way, exclude men or, in particular, boys from service at the altar”, emphasis added. To wit, although many Catholics don’t realize it, bishops and priests can exclude girls from serving in their dioceses and parishes. (Even the USCCB appears to be in the dark on most of these points.) Just take care that you don’t fall into the “equality” trap yourself. I trust you won’t, because I know you are well aware of the great havoc “equality” wrought in our state and across the nation this past year as the concept was key to legalizing same-sex “marriage”.

The undeniable fact of the matter is that boys and girls are different. It strikes me that parents can take the following comments to heart and apply them in raising their children:
God intends men and women to have different roles in the Church, the family, and society. This teaching of Tradition and Scripture is not restricted, within the Church, only to the role of priests and Bishops, but to many other roles as well. In the family, the husband is the head of the family, not the wife; nor does the family have two heads, husband and wife. In society, it is not the will of God to have all roles filled by both men and women without regard to gender. Some differences in roles make for a wise and orderly society.
When girls serve alongside boys at the altar, the teaching of the Church that men and women are intended by God to have different roles is contradicted by example. Children learn the incorrect idea that boys and girls, men and women, can and should have the same roles in everything. When only boys serve, children learn the correct teaching that some roles are for males only. The choice of males only as altar servers wisely reflects the wider teaching that not all roles are for persons of either gender. The use of both girls and boys at the altar contradicts by example this understanding of different roles based on gender.
And what better than Holy Mass as a context for parents to teach this to their children.

There’s one more crucial point to be made and this has to do with our collective amnesia about what’s really going on in the Mass. First here’s an example of our overcoming a bit of Mass amnesia: You remember how we had one of those “aha!” moments when we learned (from Edward Sri’s A Biblical Walk Through the Mass that we watched in preparation for the new translation of the Roman Missal) that the lavabo (priest’s washing his hands at the end of the Offertory) comes from the ritual washings that the Levite priests had to undergo before entering the Holy of Holies (Oh yeah, the priest is about to do something HUGE when he changes bread and wine into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ – he’s entering the new Holy of Holies, isn’t he?) We recovered some of our understanding of what is happening liturgically, which was to a certain extent lost on us until then.

Now I know that you know that when we go to Mass, we are not only witnessing the greatest of sacrifices, we are at the same time participating in the wedding feast of Christ, the Bridegroom, to His Bride, His Church. The priest is in persona Christi. He is the Bridegroom. But when he is served by women or girls, it is as though the bridegroom is being attended to by bridesmaids! If you were to go to a wedding and see the bridegroom with female attendants, wouldn’t you find it shocking, disturbing? Yet we’ve become so accustomed to seeing girls at the altar that we have become utterly desensitized.

I honestly don’t mean to give offense. I am by no means whatsoever insinuating that the girls are acting inappropriately or without reverence. And I’m not saying that girl altar servers are illicit – obviously that’s not the case at this time. Nor do I bear resentment towards them or their parents inasmuch as they know not what they do.

What I am saying is that we need to reflect on this. There is an unseen mystery taking place on the altar. We would do well to preserve the visible symbolism that is proper to that mystery. To that end, our surest bet would be to recover our (little “t”) traditions, particularly those that were pushed out of the Mass in defiance of Church authority. Furthermore, we have to regain our sensitivity to what is sacred and what desacralizes the liturgy. Most of our sensors are completely out of whack now and long overdue for a recalibration. Surely catechesis on the significance these lost traditions is in order.

For whatever reason, Catholic homeschooling parents tend to have a heightened appreciation for what is meant by lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi (as we pray, so do we believe and as we believe, so do we live) and pass this truth on to our children. Therefore we respect Holy Mother Church’s little “t” traditions. Not letting daughters be altar servers is not a desire to turn back the clock, but a refusal to get caught up in contributing to further secularizing liturgical practices, which would tend to hasten the collapse of the visible Church mentioned above. I’ll let Cardinal Raymond Burke conclude for me as he spoke to this last month in an interview with Zenit (my emphasis added):
Cardinal Burke: Young people are … studying the rites as they were celebrated, striving to understand the meaning and various elements of the rite and there’s a great enthusiasm for that and a great interest in it. All of it, I believe, is directed to a more intense experience of God’s presence with us through the sacred liturgy. That transcendent element was most sadly lost when the reform after the Council was, so to speak, side-tracked and manipulated for other purposes – that sense of transcendence of Christ’s action through the sacraments.
ZENIT: Does this mirror the loss of the sacred in society as a whole?
Cardinal Burke: It does indeed. There’s no question in my mind that the abuses in the sacred liturgy, reduction of the sacred liturgy to some kind of human activity, is strictly correlated with a lot of moral corruption and with a levity in catechesis that has been shocking and has left generations of Catholics ill prepared to deal with the challenges of our time by addressing the Catholic faith to those challenges. You can see it in the whole gamut of Church life.
I hope this sheds some light on the topic. Let me know what you think. Your family is in my prayers.

N.B. A few of the quotes above were taken from a response to a dubium (question from a bishop) about whether a bishop may oblige the priests in his diocese admit girl altar servers. This was answered in the negative by Cardinal Estevez, the Prefect of the CDW (Congregation for Divine Worship) in July, 2001. He concluded with the statement that that letter was to be considered normative.

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