Altar Girls and the Priesthood Shortage

Dedicating this week’s post to discussions on altar servers has proved to open the floodgates. As the first post to the first discussion claims “Altar girls are an abomination and have repressed priestly vocations.”

Now at first blush I want to dismiss this comment, because the word abomination is outrageous. Altar girls may not be your cup of tea but to call these young ladies a word like that is simply stupid and mean!

But as you know, dear readers, I am King of Fairness, so I also want to think about the second part of this statement in a wider way. And also to talk about a second element–are there more altar girls because the boys simply stay away now?

“To say that these adolescents and young teen have been the cause of the repression of priestly vocations since 1995 gives these girls a whole lot of power that they probably don’t know they have. That’s quite a statement!” said one pastoral associate I know. I think that’s one accurate way to look at it. The decline in priestly vocations come from a wealth of sources and I don’t think we can pin in on the rise of altar girls or even female lay ministers for that matter.

However, my own altar boy experience cautions me a bit. Not because I don’t think girls should be on the altar as servers but because the experience beyond the altar was a bonding experience for us boys. We were more than just altar servers we were a church organization that engaged in service, recreational activities (especially) and trips. I don’t think I would have had a problem with girls being along for the ride on any of these (in fact, often we would have girls join us for the trips to Six Flags, etc.) but it may have changed the group dynamic a bit and thus it may indeed have soured some of the guys on taking part.

So my thought is the following: all should be invited to serve at the altar. All should be invited to social activities beyond that service at the altar as well. But we also should take some time to encourage activities for single sex groups that’s appropriate as well.

Lastly, I had the pleasure of serving mass with Cardinal O’Connor, who was a proponent of girls serving at the altar, as a young man. He always greeted his servers and he would even remember names if you were there a second time. He also would encourage boys to think about becoming priests and young girls to consider lives as sisters. That indeed is important for both to hear and more importantly, it’s important for the women to have models of Sisters in their lives that they can emulate. Otherwise, it can become the bait and switch where girls may think that they can become priests. And as open as many of us are to that idea, it doesn’t seem to be on the horizon just yet, if at all. Therefore, we need to give them trusted mentors who they can look to and who they might wish to become more like as women.

But to shun girls from the altar because they’re more eager to help than the boys are, or the boys want to use the altar boys like the Hee-man woman haters club is just not a great idea.

And just look at the way that this young lady to the left of John Paul II is looking at him…is that worth 1000 words? Is she not going to be moved by that moment to be closer to God and the church in her life?

I have a call into CARA to see if they have any data on Altar girls and will look online later to see what I can find.

A Server’s Prayer

I was talking with a parent recently about altar servers and recalled that before I served mass as a young man we had posted in the sacristy a prayer that we were supposed to recite both before and after mass. I haven’t seen this done anywhere else and I know it often centered me. I still say them as best I can remember them before I attend mass, especially when I lector or do a reflection or am an extraordinary minister of the eucharist.

I tried to recall both from memory so here’s my best shot. If anyone can remember where they came from, please let me know. I can’t seem to find them anywhere. I still love these prayers although the first one seems a bit penitent in places. Yet for young people maybe that’s kind of good.

A Server’s Prayer Before Mass
Open my mouth, O’ Lord
To Bless Your Holy Name
Cleanse my heart of all evil
And distracting thoughts
Enlighten my understanding
Enflame my will
That I may serve worthily at your Holy Altar

O Mary, Mother of Christ the High Priest
Obtain for me the important grace
Of knowing my vocation in life.
Grant me a true spirit of faith, and humble obedience
So I may ever behold the priest as the representative of Christ
And willingly follow him in the way and the truth and the life of Christ Amen.

I really love this prayer.

A Server’s Prayer After Mass
O Lord Jesus Christ, eternal high priest
I thank you for the privilege
of having served at your Holy Altar.

Now as I put aside the garments of that service
I ask that I may at all times think of you.
May I ever seek you and find you
May I always follow you.

Ever ready in your service may
I always come to do your will
in all things.

And by your grace
persevere until the end. Amen.

If anyone knows the author, I’d like to give them credit. So comment away.

Also, do you have an altar boy or altar girl story that you’d like to share? Send them on over. I’ll be sharing some of my favorites this week.

Misbehaving Children at Mass

One of the hallmarks of our parish is the openness to families with small children. Parents often remark on how welcome they feel and how they don’t feel horrible when their kids cry at mass. Our pastor never chastises parents if their kids aren’t able to get through mass without crying to his credit. There’s nothing worse than a parent getting a guilt trip because of a cranky baby who doesn’t know any better and is just reacting naturally.

But this story in Canada’s National Post gave me some pause:

Years ago I asked a close friend why she dragged her children to Mass every Sunday. Children in church always look as if they are in the midst of slow-motion fits. They squirm, they stretch, they fall over and lay down on the kneelers, then they drool when they fall into a bored stupor. They try to be quiet but you can see it is a form of torture. All their little instincts scream, “Run!” “Yell!” “Play!” and “Get me out of here!”

Then, when they get really cranky, their mothers and fathers pick them up and walk them around the church to keep them distracted.

One young boy I know used to keep track of the length of the sermon just to pass the time. When the priest was done with his homily, the boy would whisper, “32 minutes,” and smile.

Now let me make a good distinction here. There’s a huge difference between a baby (0-2), a toddler (3-5) and a child (5-12). I think all parish staff members have to be patient with children who are not of “reading” age –meaning the babies and the toddlers. These are the kids that we can expect parents to have to occupy their time with keeping them somewhat “entertained” so that they’ll not disturb others.

However, school age children being rambunctious at mass are another matter. If those kids are allowed to remain misbehaving at mass, I place the blame on mom and dad. A 6 year old knows how to sit quietly and doesn’t need a coloring book and shouldn’t be allowed to play with the kneelers.

Now it’s easy for me to say. I don’t have children of my own and my nieces and nephew aren’t Catholic. So when I’m around children at mass, I’m usually devoid of any responsibility for them.

But I began to think back on my own experience as a child and what my mom and dad would do with the likes of me when we went to church. I’ll share three experiences from their wisdom.

The first is that they made going to church sound exciting. It never seemed like obligation or something that we had to do, even though I grew up in a fairly traditional Catholic environment where that attitude was prevalent. Mom would get me dressed up appropriately for mass and then would tell me a bit about the stories “from the Bible” that we were going to hear. Usually the upcoming Gospel for that Sunday but occasionally it would be something from the Hebrew scriptures if that was appropriate. I had my own children’s bible and my mom would say “When we get to church you’re going to hear the grown up version of this story. Try to pay attention and I’ll help you follow along.”

That indeed is my second piece of advice. Help your child to follow along with mass. Heck, if nothing else it’s an opportunity to help your child READ at a higher level–to hear grown up words and to see them in a missalette (where you can find the readings for mass as well as the Order of mass in most parishes). Liturgists often say that we shouldn’t use missalettes and I’ve always found that troubling as a high “sensor” on the Myers-Briggs. I like to read along and thankfully there’s a solution or two for those who may not have access to missalettes. One is simply to buy Magnificat magazine which not only includes those mass readings but also has morning and evening prayer. The other is to use iMissal on your iPhone which I do each week. Simply point to the parts of mass that are going on or maybe even whisper the words into their ear. I think when my mom did that with me and would “correct” me and tell me to pay attention to what was going on–it gave me the idea that indeed, something important was going on. I got a love for mass that I don’t think I would have if not for my mom and dad’s “instruction.”

The last thing was one of the big mistakes that my dad and sister made. At communion time once when I think I was about 5 I didn’t really understand what was going on. When my mom was with me she’d either stay with me until dad and Kathy (my sister) would come back from communion and then she’d go up when they returned (which is also why she always sat on the aisle) or she’d simply walk up with me. When she was unable to attend mass one Sunday, (she was hospitalized) my dad and sister simply asked me, “Michael, will you be OK to sit here by yourself? We’re going up to communion but we’ll be right back.” I nervously said “OK” but of course once they got out of my view, I cried. Loudly.

Never, ever leave a child alone at mass! For weeks I didn’t want to go back to church after that.

Far too often I have seen children who should know better playing with kneelers, laying down in pews, coloring, playing with toys or sitting in another room altogether and left to their own devices.

We’re not passing the faith along by doing any of this. And while it’s inconvenient and while it may not let us concentrate on the liturgy in the ways we might be most comfortable with, we still have a responsibility to the children.

So parents, what do you think? Am I being unreasonable?

Should Ashes Be Given Out at the Mall?

So yesterday, Bishop Trautman of Erie, PA, went to a local mall (where, to be fair, he had a chapel built in 2008) and gave out Ashes and hear confessions with another priest. I remember in college priests being outside of the classroom buildings giving out ashes. A priest I know told a story of giving out Ashes on a bus and at random subway stops in New York City.

The question I raise is the appropriateness of this. My take is that it is a great idea. We need to be public in our proclamation of faith and because Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, this provides us with an opportunity to get a bit creative.

Now all that being said, I also think that we need to provide an invitation to come to mass as well when we make those trips. So not only do you need to give out the ashes but perhaps a holy card with a Lenten meditation and directions to your church on it. It’s important to provide a link back.

What do you think? Is this appropriate? What other innovative methods have you heard people doing on Ash Wednesday?

Nice Ash!

Next week is the start of Lent and that means that people will line up to get their ashes.  I’m headed over to the campus that day to give and receive ashes.  Having the shiny chrome dome that I have I’m a priest’s dream on Ash Wednesday.  All that surface area to draw a nice huge cross on is just too tempting.

Here is last year’s work.  Awful job.  I hope Fr. Jack can do a better job this year.

If you are on the Buffalo South campus come on over to Diefendorf Hall and we’ll be downstairs in the lecture hall starting at noon.

And then go and take a picture of your Ash and send it to

More on the Fingerprinting Priest and Confirmation

I missed commenting on this part of the fingerprinting priest story.

The pupils will mark their fingerprints every time they go to church over three years and if they attend 200 Masses they will be freed from the obligation of having to pass an exam prior to their confirmation.

So now we are rewarding students for something they should be doing anyway? That’s not even smart parenting. “I’ll give you an ice cream cone if you do your homework.”

Well, not quite, 3 times 52 would be the weekly obligation which is 156 masses. So he’s looking for people to attend 44 more times… divided by 3 …is roughly 15 times a year– a bit more than once a month. Add some holy days of obligation, and this is hardly tough.

Go to mass every day in lent …you’re 4 away– as long as you don’t miss on Sunday. Add an Advent season and you’ve made it easy.

Also, what’s to stop some kid from sneaking in and swiping on off-hours? I’m assuming there’s a time code. But I can also come in and then leave early…do I also have to “swipe out.”

Lastly, is it any wonder that most children are catechetically stupid? That may sound a bit harsh, but indeed there are people who don’t know the difference between the Old and New Testament. They can’t name an old testament prophet, nor 3 apostles out of 12. One catechist told me that most students can’t say the Hail Mary or Our Father without assistance.

I’m not a “when I was your age” person because when I was getting confirmed while we indeed had to memorize a lot of things if we didn’t quite learn it all, the pastor would cave into the parent who complained that their son/daughter wasn’t getting confirmed. Cannonically speaking the sacrament can’t be “refused” but it can be “delayed.” Perhaps we should be a bit tougher in making sure that people are really ready to be confirmed, that they take it seriously and most importantly that they have a plan to continue to contribute to the life of the church…and then we need to hold them to that promise in some way.

Now in fairness, since I am King of Fairness, perhaps mass provides people the grace they need to actually contribute to the life of the church, to garner more information and to learn more about Christ. What do y’all think?

Don’t Lie About Going to Mass…Father has fingerprints


Just when you think you’ve seen it all or Technology inside the church, Polish-style
“A Polish priest has installed an electronic reader in his church for schoolchildren to leave their fingerprints in order to monitor their attendance at Mass, the Gazeta Wyborcza daily said Friday.
The pupils will mark their fingerprints every time they go to church over three years and if they attend 200 Masses they will be freed from the obligation of having to pass an exam prior to their confirmation, the paper said.
The pupils in the southern town of Gryfow Slaski told the daily they liked the idea and also the priest, Grzegorz Sowa, who invented it.

A major hat tip to my colleague, Patty Spear for pointing this my way.

Mass Etiquette: Do Catholics Sing? And Should We Practice Before Mass?

Last week we talked about babies crying at mass, attire for worship and now I’d like to examine a third topic.

Do Catholics sing?

Now granted, I’m no Frank Sinatra, but I tend to at least try to sing at mass because i strongly feel like it is part of our mandated participation in the liturgy (the work of the people). But I also think that there is a strong faction of people who would much rather listen than sing, especially if your choir is great!

I’ve been attending a mass that has no music lately–or, I should say, no accompaniment. And I must say I really miss the organ which helps people like me who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, at least think they aren’t butchering the song.

Good choir directors hold their singers to higher standards but also besides sounding good, the job of the choir and especially of the cantor (if your parish uses one) is to be inviting. You are the leader of song but that does not mean that you are “performing.” You are “leading prayer-song” and we should all be participating with you. Your job is to help us sing with you. You can sing and we can follow you. Without you, we may indeed be lost. This is another reason that the music should indeed be good quality at mass. You play better tennis with better tennis players–and you sing better with people who have been trained to do so well, even if you haven’t been.

Now all that being said, I think that the little practices that choir directors do before mass are a bit overdone. What people want in music at mass is good quality and singable music–things that we don’t really have to stretch too far to sing ourselves. My thought is that if we have to practice it, then we probably shouldn’t sing it.

I do like a lot of the call and response hymns/songs that are out there these days and favored by a much younger demographic. They do in fact give room for the Cantor to lead and for us to respond to the prayer-leader. It’s a great way for the laity to play a proper part in the liturgy as well.

I also think that the music should reflect the ritual. So we might have a very rousing and lively opening hymn (AKA the processional hymn) or even a beautiful processional featuring classical Bach. But come communion time, something much more contemplative is called for, and we may opt for a Taize chant or even Gregorian chant.

Here’s a great article on the 8 myths about music at mass. One myth that adds to my comment about choirs performing:

Myth 3. Choirs are only there to support congregational singing.

In the early church, the faithful sang much of the Mass. There were, however, certain melodies and texts that developed over time that some found difficult to sing.

Choirs, or scholae cantorum, were developed with trained singers who not only supported congregational singing, but also performed some pieces on their own. Europe saw the development of famous choir schools and Catholic education has always included the teaching of music in its curricula. The advent of part-singing made choirs even more necessary to the Mass.

Choirs can be beneficial in leading the faithful in song, but they also can have their own role apart from the congregation. Active participation does not mean that everyone has to do the same things at the same time; it implies an interior participation by listening and contemplation as much as engaging in following the Mass and observing ritual gestures.

Paid professional cantors and choirs have been a part of the Catholic musical tradition for many centuries and continue to inspire Christians in their worship beyond what is accessible to the ordinary pew-singer. Vatican II explicitly urges the development of such choirs and musical education in schools.

What are your pet peeves about music at mass? Are you bored by the old-school hymns or are you inspired by the sounds of the pipe organ? Do diva cantors and awesome choirs inspire you to sing more–or do they make you more passive and more apt to simply listen rather than participate? Do you sing out loud or are you embarrassed? What’s the deal?

Do You Wear Your Sunday Best?

Do you get dressed up for Sunday mass? I have to say it’s not always a priority for me when I’m not in a ministry role at mass as a lector of eucharistic minister but I grew up with that being a mandatory practice in my home.

Deacon Greg pointed us to this blog article which mentions attire as “something Father should never say.”

I have to say that I’ve seen this as a problematic practice on all sides of the equation. Some stories:

1) A colleague of mine went to his parent’s parish one summer while visiting. He showed up with a nice pair of shorts on and a golf shirt on a day that was 95 degrees in the shade. The priest came up to him and said, “You don’t usually come to mass here, do you?” My friend told the priest that this was his parent’s parish and that he was visiting.

“Yeah, obviously,” was the priest’s response. “We don’t wear shorts here.”

Now if the priest thought that this style of dress was inappropriate for mass, then that is his opinion. Personally, I’d be happy to see that someone prioritized mass on their vacation–something that many people in the “three piece suit on Sunday variety” often don’t do and excuse themselves from their obligation quietly. Secondly, way to welcome this visitor to the parish, Father Rude Pants!

I’d like to offer the following as poor form that seems to go out the window when it comes to church. If you has just met someone you didn’t know, you’d hardly greet them with “Hey you really should dress better!” You’d offer some words of welcome, make small talk and ask them what brought them into your meeting. Not in the Church of the Holy Insulter, apparently is that good manners.

2) A young man was a lector in a parish that I was active in for some time and he showed up one Sunday wearing jeans and a nice crisp white shirt untucked. He looked fine, dressed up for perhaps a casual evening in the city. His hair was combed and his shirt ironed. A woman in the parish came up to him and “suggested” that maybe he should dress more appropriately if he was going to be on the altar.

Needless to say, the young man is yet to return after the incident. He was so insulted. This was a man who had gone through RCIA at the parish and had made it into his parish home. All gone! With one remark.

3) My favorite story: A Cantor in a parish I know is quite possibly the most beautiful woman I have ever seen (save my wife, of course). She always looked fabulous and he voice is amazing and inviting. In my opinion she is the perfect cantor. A woman once took issue with the length of her skirt.

“Young lady, your skirt is much too short!” she yelled at her one day after mass. (It wasn’t, BTW)

Cantor woman rolled with it. “Oh no, most of the time they’re much shorter.”

This only infuriated the woman more. She ran to the pastor and raged at him.

“THAT….THAT….cantor’s skirt is entirely inappropriate for mass, Father.”

Father’s response: “Lady, let me tell you something. That cantor is probably responsible for a good deal of people showing up here every week. I’d guess that 85% of the male population is here because of her and probably 16% of the women.”

Lady stormed off. And pastor was right.

Now I will offer the following…

I think we should dress at least somewhat appropriate for mass. The larger question is that who becomes the arbiter for this? A golf shirt and a nice pair of pants is appropriate for men in my opinion,,,a button down shirt is even nicer. But some would say that anything less than a shirt and tie is awful. Women can wear a nice skirt or dress but certainly a nice pair of pants is fine as well. I would say we should think “business casual” while others favor a more formal style. I do sometimes wear jeans, but I don’t wear torn jeans or filthy clothes and even that would be inappropriate for some.

I may also say that it’s not our job to be the fashion police. And there are more than a few ministry professionals that could use some help from our good friend Peacebang, the esteemed Rev Victoria Weinstein who provides such fashionista advice and those who could use the most help are often the first to scream about others.

Beach attire is usually not appropriate for mass but I would also say that if given the choice of rushing back from the beach to make mass or missing it altogether because of what you’re wearing, I’ll permit the tank top and flip flops. Otherwise we kind of miss the point.

Lastly, some people claim that some people just can’t afford nice clothes and to say something to someone about their attire is elitist. I say simply: Horsefeathers!

Those who can’t afford good clothes are almost never the ones who are dressed inappropriately. In fact, they are often the best dressed. When I was In Nicaragua (a developing nation, I might add), it was very important to dress up for church. No bare shoulders for the women, a shirt with a collar for men, shoes, not sneakers or flip flops. It was a matter of respect.

And therein, lies our lesson. This is about respect on all sides. We should respect that this is special time and we should at least make an attempt to look our best or at least not disheveled. I don’t think that’s asking too much.

But we also need to show some respect to those who come to church, to get to know them on some level before we issue a criticism to them. Would we dare turn away a homeless person who showed up for mass? I doubt it, but we can be a lot more haughty in our judgment with those who we think should know better.

What in your opinion is appropriate mass attire?

Photo credit: Getty Images

Mass Etiquette: When babies cry at mass I want to….

Deacon Greg gets a major hat tip for this one that I will now turn into a series of shoulds and shouldn’ts at mass. These will come complete with stories of real events that happened at mass and the resulting fallout from the event.

The good Deacon points us today to this blog which talks about things that “Father should never say…”

What Father says, “Please, be mindful of your children during Mass. We have a cry room.” What parents hear: “Your kids are disruptive brats and you cannot control them. They have no place at Mass, so why do you insist on ruining our prayer with these public displays of your failed parenting? Go somewhere else!”

I probably agree with Father here that parents are certainly resentful of priests who point out how their children are being a disturbance. I would also say that if we are really about being pro-life, a crying baby should be music to our ears. A family’s presence at mass should indeed be a celebration for us all.


I do like the idea of a cry room for noisy babies. It’s not a room that people should opt to sit in at mass simply because they have a baby. It should be a place that people CAN go to WHEN their child starts screaming and wailing and is becoming a disturbance. I would also note that parents wouldn’t bring a crying baby into a show at a Broadway theatre–but they are often pretty much OK with having them be a disturbance at mass. That seems to be inconsistent to me.

The “rambunctious child” who should know better is more of my concern. I’ve seen this more often. A kid who simply is not engaged and doesn’t sit still during mass. They are probably 2 or 3 and they are often given everything to play with from keys to racecars to coloring books. Granted mass is not exactly a Sesame Street production that might hold their attention (especially in certain parishes!) but I do think that a parent can whisper to a child to teach them what is happening without it being much of a disturbance. My own mother often taught me to read during mass by having me listen to the priest’s words and following along in the missalette.

A further however…

“Father” and even “lay minister” should be pastorally sensitive to parents at all costs. We should consider what it took for this family to get their children fed, dressed, looking presentable, avoiding meltdowns and traffic jams to get to mass. Here is perhaps the worst story I have ever heard:

A priest in a parish that I won’t name was preaching his homily. A woman was seated near the front with her 4 young boys all close in age, say 7, 5, 3, and an infant in her arms. Her boys (as they will tend to do) began to get rambunctious during mass. One would punch the other in the arm only to be kicked back. The other would kick the kneeler. The baby spit up. This young mother had all she could do to maintain order. Any parent can probably relate. The boys would indeed listen to her when she told them to cut it out but there was certainly a constant need for her scolding them or centering them back on the mass.

At one point mother snapped her fingers at the boys and leaned over to them, kissed one on the head and pulled him closer to her to keep him from killing his little brother. At that juncture the priest on the altar screamed out one word: “YOU!” and he pointed his finger right at the woman.

“YOU ARE A TERRIBLE MOTHER! NOW TAKE THOSE KIDS AND GET OUT OF HERE AND DON’T COME BACK UNTIL THEY ARE BETTER BEHAVED! I have worked very hard on this homily all week and your children are disturbing the entire parish!”

Yikes! Father, you might want to try the decaf. I doubt that they were disturbing anyone except maybe a few nearby parishioners who seemed to be more sympathetic to their cause than anything else.

The mother started up the aisle with kids in tow, eyes downcast. Over 20 parishioners walked out with her in protest of the priest’s arrogance and found the next parish up the block to be much more accommodating to this young lady and her kids.

If I were pastor (and I’m not) I would state at the beginning of mass just “How wonderful it is to see so many families at mass. We are a parish that welcomes all people and how blessed we are to see the children here with their parents. Just one logistical item, we don’t want to lose your presence here so we have constructed a cry room for children that become too rambunctious or who start crying. We don’t encourage you to sit there throughout the entire mass, nor do we wish to exile you there. HOWEVER, if it is obvious to you and to those around you that baby or child is simply too noisy or is in the midst of a meltdown please feel free to take them to the crying room until they can calm down and more peacefully and comfortably sit amongst the congregation.

As laity, I think we also have a responsibility to help young parents. Maybe grabbing the diaper bag from them when they have their hands full? Maybe offering to baby sit for them so they can have a respite for themselves? Maybe bringing them some water or offering to help them with some other matter? We are a community of faith and that means we need to be concerned for the needs of all–babies included.

This is really all about courtesy in my opinion, from all sides. What do you think? When babies cry at mass what do you want to do or wish would happen?