The girl altar server debate is raging again in the wake of the news from San Francisco that a parish pastor has decided that only boys can serve at his parish. After reading this article in Crux, I have been giving the issue some thought. Some of the girls who have served at the altar for me over the last 5 years have been very positively impacted by the experience and have been very reverent and capable servers. Serving has given them a unique understanding of the liturgy and an opportunity to get to know their priests.
This is also why it is such an important ministry for those called to the priesthood to be involved in. As the vocation director for our diocese, I encourage every boy or young man to serve at Mass. Boys and young men are able to encounter the priesthood in a very unique and powerful way as servers, and many times this either opens the door to a priestly vocation, or opens that door more.
For this reason, I have heard some people recently state that allowing women to serve somehow is part of a broader movement that will eventually press for women to be become priests. The idea seems to be that since it is only priests who rightly belong in the sanctuary, if we let women in there we should watch out because soon they will be clamoring to be ordained! But I'm not sure how we can claim that the sanctuary is only the place for priests and those destined to become them. The Church has opened the sanctuary to the ministry of non-priests, provided that they minister as lay persons and do not attempt to take on a clerical role. Today women serve as readers, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, and sacristans - all of which are important liturgical ministries.
There has been a lot of confusion and debate over liturgical ministry since the council. What roles within the sanctuary are specifically clerical? What roles are open to all of the baptized? We went from a time when almost all activities in the sanctuary were carried out by clerics to a time when it was claimed that the cleric was only needed for the consecration. I think most Catholics now understand that this was a mistake. The impoverishment of priestly liturgical ministry and the amplification of lay liturgical ministry into what Pope Francis calls a "lay clericalism" turned the Church in on itself and proved disastrous for priestly vocations.
Recent years have seen a gradual movement to once again reserve to clerics many aspects of liturgy that had in some cases been widely delegated to laity after the council. The most common reason given is that there were widespread liturgical abuses - although in many cases priests were complicit in committing them. But I think another reason also drives the effort to shift liturgical ministry back toward clerics. There has been a renewed desire to recover the sacredness of the liturgy. When everyone and their mother in law is tramping around the sanctuary it is hard to understand how it is a sacred place. Sacred places tend to be reserved, set apart, protected. You take off your sandals, cover your head, lower your eyes in an act of worship, acknowledging God’s authority and rule over you. The priest is the one set apart to go in there, to be the guardian of the sanctuary, the one whose responsibility it is to ensure that the sacredness of the space and the liturgy is maintained. And so the desire to recover the sacredness of the liturgy often goes hand and hand with efforts to reserve greater portions of liturgical ministry to clerics.
I've been in parishes for a number of years - and I will say without a doubt that one of the most difficult things a priest does in our post-conciliar age is to ensure that laity who minister in the sanctuary are properly trained and prepared to carry out their ministry in a way that is reverent and reflects the sacred. In my experience, many times they are not. All too often, linens are treated like napkins, hosts carted to and fro like candy, sacred books and vessels banged around, scriptures proclaimed incoherently, and sacristies and sanctuaries filled with small talk. In the face of this kind of malformation, it is tempting to just kick everyone out. And there have been times, times when I have had enough – when I have, in a hopefully not too exasperated tone, asked Extraordinary Ministers to please clear out of the sacristy to sit with their families and pray or asked sacristans to give me some time to prepare without peppering me with questions. In some ways, it would be much easier and safer to remove almost all lay ministry from the liturgy. If the only goal were to ensure the sacredness of the sanctuary, then the safest solution would be for the priest to offer Mass with one server, reading the scriptures and distributing communion himself.
Yet the desire to protect the sacredness of the sanctuary and the liturgy does not justify reserving them to clerics and clerics alone. I don't make that statement easily, because I have seen sacristies and liturgies in disarray, I have seen abuses first hand and have suffered through trying to correct them countless times.
But we must ask: what is the purpose of the Mass? The Mass is not merely a time for God to enter into the sanctuary of the Church and be worshiped. No, Jesus complicated things. He insisted on each of us becoming his sanctuaries, his tabernacles. The Mass is the wedding banquet, when Christ invites his people to come and to offer their lives in union with him through the holy sacrifice of the Mass, and then to receive from him the gift of new life in the Eucharist. To receive who they are and become who they receive. And in this fallen world, many times this banquet is a messy business. People come from the highways and byways – maybe they have their wedding garment but it is often tattered and disheveled and they have come with mixed intentions and purposes. The music is out of tune and babies yell and old people fart and teenagers snicker. Readings are mispronounced (my personal favorite at funerals is "Yet is their hope full of immorality"), sacristans don't turn on the sound system, servers fidget and yawn... It is a challenge to retain a sense of the sacred in the midst of a fallen world, with so many tabernacles wandering around the sanctuary like sheep in a pasture.
The tendency that I have seen, when approaching lay liturgical ministry, is to go to one of two extremes: to either follow the path of lukewarm pedestrianism, abandoning the effort to retain the sacred altogether; or to follow the path of distant protectionism, insisting that the hoi polloi keep back and leave the work to a small number of clerics and clerical proteges. The two extremes end up falling into the same trap: neither is truly pastoral. The good shepherd doesn't sit and protect the pasture, waiting for the sheep to find it. But nor does he start tearing down its fences, which he knows are there to protect the flock. No, he goes out and leads his sheep into the pasture, into the sanctuary, and personally shows them where to find shelter and rest, shows them how to find and worship God, how to be reverent and how to find the sacred in the midst of a messy world.
There is a strict correlation between holiness and the sanctuary for Catholics – it cannot be otherwise. As long as the sanctuary is the place where Jesus Christ becomes present once more - body, blood, soul, and divinity – in the Eucharist, it cannot be held that it is just one sacred place among many. No, the sanctuary, the liturgy is the green pasture. In the liturgy we meet Christ and are fed by him. To be distant from the liturgy, from the Mass, is to be distant from Christ. This does not mean that there cannot be love and grace outside of the liturgy. There is love between spouses separated by an ocean. But they still feel the distance, and because of their love for one another they feel it more profoundly. This is the same for a Catholic – their love for Christ makes them desire to be with him, and they know that they are no closer to him than when they receive him in Holy Communion.
Christ chose the twelve, whom he called apostles. He gave them a specific role and ministry. But this did not entail him keeping the women who loved him at arm’s reach! They cooked for him, cried with him, washed his feet, kept vigil during his passion, washed and cared for his body, and were the first to greet him when he rose from the dead. That did not make them apostles, and they knew that did not make them apostles and they had no desire to be apostles! But they knew that apostles were not the only ones who were close to Jesus – because of their intimacy with him, they knew that he had a special love and affection for them.
It is critical that young women today experience intimacy with Christ in a non-apostolic way, in the way that the women who traveled with him knew and loved him. And I believe that serving at the altar, like other liturgical ministries, lends itself toward this type of intimacy and does not in any way detract from the ability of boys and young men to come to know and revere the apostolic ministry of the priest.
A couple of personal caveats and practical considerations:
While I do not think that the presence of girls serving alongside them discourages boys from serving, if the number of girls serving surpasses the number of boys or if the adult server coordinators are all women, there is a clear tendency for the number of boys to drop off to almost nothing. This seems to be a sociological fact more than anything. For this reason, it is important, I think, to ensure that there is an equal or greater number of boys who serve at each Mass. In some cases, where there are many girls who wish to serve, this will mean that they serve less frequently than boys.
Also, in some parishes there has been a tendency to prematurely clericalize altar servers. It is inappropriate, to my mind, for a young child of either sex to wear a black cassock with surplice, and certainly for girls or young women. This is the vesture of a cleric at Mass. In many churches there are large supplies of black cassocks and surplices and a long tradition of girls wearing them – that is hard to change right away. Many priests have either had female servers wear albs or have dressed all servers in red cassocks, which is also traditional, but not specifically clerical attire. It is appropriate for older young men or seminarians to wear a black cassock and surplice, however, because there is (hopefully) a stronger tie between them and the clerical state.