“I wish I could serve more often.”
I’ve heard this more than once from my ten-year-old son. He experienced being an altar server for the first time this year. When I asked him how he liked it, he responded with a silly, almost giddy, smile and simply said, “It was cool!”
For a ten-year-old boy, those three words say a lot.
So, his statement, “I wish I could serve more often” gives me pause.
My daughters are not old enough to be altar servers yet, but, when they are, should boys like my son be given priority? If my daughters serve at all, would they be taking the opportunity away from boys eager to fill the position? Boys who could have a front row seat to the vocation they might be called to one day?
When girls were officially permitted to fill the role of altar server at Mass 20 years ago, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments stated that:
“The Holy See wishes to recall that it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue.” [source]
This term, “obligation,” is one on which to reflect.
The Wikipedia online encyclopedia defines obligation as “a course of action that someone is required to take, whether legal or moral.”
It would appear, then, that we have a moral requirement to support having boys at the altar. As Father Edward McNamara says,
“The Holy See’s recommendation is to retain as far as possible the custom of having only boys as servers. But it leaves to the bishop the choice of permitting women and girls for a good reason and to the pastor of each parish the decision as to whether to act on the bishop’s permission.”
It is not my intent to present a right way and a wrong way with this article. I have several good friends whose daughters serve regularly, and I certainly respect their decision. Parishes, especially, that have a limited number of boys available to serve would greatly benefit from the Holy See’s allowance for female assistance. I do, however, understand the research that reveals the link between altar boys and the growth of priestly vocations.
Maybe one way that I, as a parent, can support the growth of the priesthood is by leaving the role of altar server to the boys of our parish while I help my daughters find other ways they can serve.
Father John Lankeit, rector of the Phoenix diocesan cathedral, has restructured the Cathedral’s program to allow boys to serve at the altar and girls to train as sacristans. This article explains:
“The decision was made in order to encourage young men and women to honor their God-given differentiation and complementarity, and to discern more clearly how such differentiation points to specific vocations in the Church.”
Children are searching for who they are during the vulnerable, formative years.
Father McNamara points out that:
“Preteen boys in particular are very attracted to activities that cater especially for them, and they tend to reject sharing activities with girls.”
This differentiation between the roles of girls and boys has proven to not only affect the priesthood positively, but also those vocations designated for women. A parish in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that limits altar serving to boys has seen surges in both men’s and women’s vocations.
So, do I wish my son could serve more often than once a month at a daily Mass? Absolutely. Will my daughters be trained as altar servers? Not likely, since our parish is teeming with eager young boys. Like my son, I want those boys to have the opportunity to be up there at that altar as often as possible. I want them to be an arm’s length away from a grace that was created specifically for them. I want them to be close enough to hear Jesus calling if the priesthood is the vocation for which they were created.
And as for my girls? They will have plenty of opportunity to develop their feminine strengths through the ministries designed specifically for them. Little Flowers Girls Club, the sacristan ministry, Altar Society, and pilgrimages and picnics with a local community of consecrated sisters all wait to receive my daughters’ gifts.
My children are all loved equally by the Father who created them, but they were all designed to return that love in their own, unique ways.
Do/will your daughters train to be altar servers? Why or why not? I welcome a conversation on this topic!
Copyright 2014, Charisse Tierney
About the Author
Charisse Tierney lives in Wichita, Kansas, with her husband Rob and seven children. Charisse is a stay-at-home mom, musician, NFP teacher, and a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd catechist in training. She is also a contributing author to The Catholic Mom's Prayer Companion and Family Foundations magazine. Charisse blogs at Paving the Path to Purity and can be found on Facebook.