So the recent uproar over the comments made by Cardinal Burke here and a San Francisco parish’s banning of female altar servers has caused a great disturbance in the force from where I sit. Over 50 people responded to my question asking them for their opinion on this matter. It brings up a number of issues regarding gender and the church. I’d like to restrict this discussion to current eligible roles for women and male laypeople in the church at this time, so as not to get this discussion clouded by the issue of priestly ordination.
An initial story to begin:
Not long ago, I walked into a sacristy and there was a need for lector at the mass. One of the Deacons saw me walk in and said “Oh, Mike’s here, he can do it.”
Almost immediately, a female pastoral associate replied, “We don’t need any more men up there!”
Now, I wasn’t all that offended by her remark and normally I would generally agree but, on this particular Sunday the second lector was a younger woman and all 7 eucharistic ministers were not only all women, but were all white middle-aged women!
And this was the case for the next 5 Sundays as well.
So, who really was the minority? People of color (In fairness, that usually is not the case at this parish), lay men and younger people of both sexes.
But I also wondered if I were a young man in my 20s and had walked in and had been (or wanted to be trained as) a lector, what would that response have been? Would he have felt as welcomed? Would he have been invited into something more? Would I have been so turned off by her remark that I would have dismissed the parish as being un-welcoming?
So while we certainly do want to invite women into our ministries and while we also want to invite young girls into the ministry of being altar servers, we also don’t want to do this to the exclusion of lay men and young boys and we should continue to look at just how diverse we really are.
It sometimes amazes me that quite a number of people who claim to speak for diversity and gender equality are quick to exclude others who are not part of their group. I call this militantism and it has no place in Catholic circles. Militant people are different from passionate people. There are advocates for all kinds of groups that need someone to stand up for their needs or otherwise they will be excluded. Most often, those people are indeed passionate. However, too often, there are some who are so militant about their special interest group that they become exclusionary of others. They become the very thing they hope to fight against.
Cardinal Burke, in his griping about female altar servers, is dangerously close to someone who aims to exclude here. Burke astutely sees his male priesthood shrinking and this is certainly cause for alarm. He sees male altar servers as a link to seminarian candidates. In short, he is trying to keep his species alive and sees male altar servers as a way to do procreate the priesthood. At heart, his intention is a good one and he is passionate about his cause. But the end result, is exclusionary, because he sees girls as a barrier to young boys seeking a vocation. In fact, he has said that the girls are so good at being altar servers that the boys often quit! Frankly, that means that the girls are not the problem! Perhaps the boys might need to try harder? Perhaps more training is needed for both groups? Perhaps there are exclusionary scheduling issues going on (where only the girls serve at one mass and the boys at another and they never serve together!)? Or might this even be pure nostalgia? Often you hear older priests talk about the “good old days” when only boys were serving at the altar. Our nostalgia is often not what we remember, but rather is simply an experience of the past that we liked, but didn’t result in anything deeper.
The larger question is that if some see a link between male altar servers and entry into the priesthood, what link might they see between female altar servers and their religious practices?
There’s probably not a case to be made of a link between female altar servers and entry into women’s religious communities (even more dwindling numbers exist there), but there may be a case to be made for women entering into lay ministry fields (youth ministry, campus ministers, directors of religious education, pastoral associates, etc). What about active parishioners, who run a good deal of programming in parishes and are often willing volunteers? We need these people too!
The goal here should be to integrate people of both genders into the life of the church! Jesus did not exclude anyone from his company and so we should follow in turn. So here are four points that I’d like us to consider when we are looking to be more inclusive in ministries in general.
1) Direct, personal invitation: Do we invite people to serve as lectors or extraordinary ministers of holy communion? Do we seek people out who we have come to know to try to engage them into the ministries of the altar more intentionally? Almost all of our lectors were female here at the Campus, so I’ve tried hard to get more men involved. I’ve invited two men in the last two weeks and both readily accepted and even came to the training on time.
2) Balance in all things: We only have male priests, so we should minimally start with inviting a woman to serve in some role at the altar. Perhaps as a lector, cantor or eucharistic minister. Then, the next person we should invite is another male. Can we be mindful of diversity here? Is there a younger woman or man who we could tap to balance the generational divides that too frequently separate us from one another? Can those who have been doing things for ages, move into an administrative role, doing less and training and advising more, while still modeling what to do now and again? Can everyone look beyond themselves and invite new and interested people into ministries for more participation each week? Do we only invite the educated few, leaving out those who often feel unworthy or alienated?
3) Altar Serving: Are they well-trained? Do they all have particular roles each week? I can remember four roles I was taught as an altar server:
Acolyte (Book): This server holds the book and assists at the offertory. They place the chalice on the altar and when there is no deacon, they “set the table” for the priest.
Acolyte (bell): In parishes where bells are rung, this server does this and also serves at the offertory.
Crosier: This server carries the processional cross and at high masses, assists with the incense boat. (also assists with holy water when there is a sprinkling rite).
Thurifer: This server is at high masses only and processes in with the Thurible.
And again, balance…can we schedule a boy and a girl to be the acolytes? And then rotate the third role with with a boy or a girl weekly? Maybe a more Senior member serves as the Crosier to oversee the younger servers who learn by doing? And maybe trainees start by being the crosier so they can observe more and then jump in once they know what the heck they are doing?
4) Create Called Community: And in community, we hang out together! If there’s one lesson to be learned here it is that people long to be together, to engage in conversation, to recreate together and to love one another. If there’s one thing my students have taught me is that they have the desire to be together.
Do we do more than just serve at the altar? Can we move people from the altar into other ministries–where we go beyond the parochial bounds into a place where others are in need.
Someone on my Facebook page posted the following note:
Meanwhile as the Church debates keeping girls out of altar serving, 4 million kids went hungry, 500,000 people froze with out a home, cancer has taken millions of lives, prisoners did not have the opportunity to see the way truth and the light, 8,000 parishioners died, and we missed helping 20,000 pregnancies NOT end in abortion.
So we certainly have a need to awaken this community into a “called community” that seeks diversity and inclusion for itself. And we do this not merely so things look “fair and balanced.” No we do it so that we might also be called to see others that too often we think of as different. We fail to see others sometimes as having our human dignity and we fail to claim responsibility for them. We too often continue to become exclusionary people and push those who we see as different to the margins.
And that is why we come to church, to remind ourselves not to do this.
And so we need to start modeling what this looks like this around our altars, to let all in our community see that God has not made us for division, but rather, for communion.
Can we constantly be seeking communion? And that means Males and Females TOGETHER, not one at the exclusion of another.
So altar servers, past and present, know that we have been blessed by your service. You mean more than you know. Today, invite someone who does not look like you into joining your ministry and if they tell you that you can’t, tell them that they must and be a reminder of all that is good about our church–a church that calls everyone to not exclude the other.
Most especially, from Jesus.