Altar Boys…er, “Altar Servers”

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When I was in 2nd or 3rd grade at Immaculate Conception School in Watertown, SoDak, my teacher—maybe Sr. Virginia—sent home a dual-purpose permission slip. All the students in the class had to get the okay for a fieldtrip to visit Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home in DeSmet and the boys had to have their parents sign off on enrolling them in training to be altar boys. I remember that both okays were on the same tear-off sheet on the same letter home.

I’m the oldest of three girls and my parents are both beautifully dedicated Catholics. And they were Catholics who believed that I should be trained as an altar boy, too. I remember my parents asking me if I was okay with enrolling in the altar boy training. At first, I said, yes, okay. And then they must have explained that it might be awkward or cause some ripples or something because I felt more hesitant. I eventually asked them not to check the box and scribble out “boy” (replacing it with girl) after altar. I remember being worried I’d be embarrassed.

It’s sad to me that I bailed on my parents’ subversive move when I was 10.

But I love that they encouraged me.

A couple weeks ago, I sat at Mass and couldn’t help but notice all of the altar servers were girls. Maybe we have come a little further in 15 years than I sometimes think!

Kate Dugan is a 28 year old Catholic living in Olympia, Washington. Last year, I earned my Master of Theological Studies and lately I’m constantly surprised by how being Catholic affects me in side-ways–its funny to me when I notice rituals in my daily life– Transubstantiation on my walk to work, Reconciliation in my new marriage, breaking bread over a barbecue grill.

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9 thoughts on “Altar Boys…er, “Altar Servers”

  1. How cool your parents little bit of subversiveness was! I was always upset that women couldn’t be priests, but the altar boy thing didn’t bother me as much because I thought it looked boring. But most services I go to now have altar girls, too, which is no surprise, considering that women fill most of the service positions in the church. While my parents never tried anything subversive like that with me, they DID support my subversiveness in the church, which, as an adult, I can appreciate more fully than I did then.

  2. Why is it cool to subvert the church? Don’t you think that there are group dynamics at play here, that young boys are not becoming altar boys BECAUSE of the presence of girls. A relationship between Priest and altar boy that has always been an important factor in the vocations to the priesthood has been severed at some parishes. At my parish with our all male altar boys there is some good wholesome male bonding in this group, we had a young man who served at the altar enter seminary two years ago, and will have two more this year.

  3. I find it hard to believe that boys don’t serve on the altar because of the presence of girls – my younger sister and brother loved serving on the altar together until my sister moved over to cantoring on a regular basis. I, too, was an altar server when I was younger, serving with boys and girls alike. It was a really special experience that I’m pleased I was able to have. My parents encouraged my desire to serve the Church in this capacity. I believe it was and is integral to my desire to remain Catholic and serve the Church as an adult.

    I think that, in many places, girls started serving on the altar BECAUSE there was a lack of boys stepping into that role.

  4. jjhatch – I read the article and it seems altar girls were introduced to subvert the church, and in the writers example now dominate at this particular church. The church did quite well prior to altar girls, I don’t think a lack of boys stepping into the role is much of a problem.

  5. @Teresa83 While there may be some boys who do not participate because of the presence (or prevalence) of girls serving on the altar, I’m not sure it’s fair to assert that it’s led to the decrease in vocations or to imply that it would lead more men to vocations to priesthood. As the Church allows girls to serve on the altar, but prohibits women to be ordained, it would seem counter-productive to argue that serving on the altar and developing a relationship with a priest leads one to a vocation (but only provided the child is male). I suspect that, in most places, the lack of boys on the altar has more to do with their thoughts on how much fun it would be (or, rather, how boring it is to have to sit in front and behave during Mass) than it does with the presence of the girls. That’s been the case in the parishes I’ve been in: the boys aren’t interested because they think it’s boring. And the sheer number of men I know who are in formation who are converts to Catholicism makes me question the assumption that the relationship between priests and male altar servers has much of a correlation nowadays to vocations.

  6. @Teresa83 – Perhaps in the experience of this author in her particular time and place it was a bit of a subversive move to even ASK that a girl be allowed to serve on the altar (although, one should not, not subversive of any dogmatic teaching of the faith or anything that I would categorize as subverting the whole of the Catholic faith). In my experience, however, there was such a shortage of altar servers that the church I first served at that the gender restriction was dropped and kids were pretty heavily recruited right after they made their first communion. As for my younger siblings, they are members of a rural parish that is seeing a steady decline in young members, due to children of parishioners moving to the city rather than taking over the family farm. They are called on heavily to assist at Sunday mass, as well as daily masses (they are homeschooled).

    Perhaps at a certain time in the history of the American church there were no lack of boys to step into the role, but we are no longer in that time. I don’t think it’s at all fair to blame girls who have a desire to serve their church community and step into the void.

  7. Thanks so much for your comments, all. I really think its important to think about how young women and men can all be engaged in service within the Church. Definitely shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Thanks, jjhatch.

    And I do think its interesting to think about what it means to be “subversive” in the Church. Maybe I used the wrong word in my post, but changing how the Church does its gender business might certainly make people uncomfortable.

    But it does seem like moving out of our comfort zones is how we grow–as individuals, as communities, and as church.

  8. I don’t think I’d want a boy being an altar server if he were intimidated or whatever by the presence of girls. why should we remove girls to make way for boys like that? compromise for quantity not quality? I don’t think so.

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