Learning the Priesthood: The Role of Altar Service in Vocational Discernment

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On March 15, 1994, a virtual tsunami struck the Liturgy of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. Cardinal Antonio Ortas wrote a document to the Episcopal conferences announcing that the Vatican had, for the first time, permitted altar girls. Over 20 years later, many question the impact of this decision as the Church continues to reap a desperately meager harvest of young men responding to God’s call to the Priesthood.

Born in 1997, I was blissfully unaware of the damage being wrought in the Eternal City. By the grace of God I was destined to remain ignorant of the fact for many years. Thinking back on my childhood, I remember instead the first time I heard the call. It must have been winter, because I can recall pushing the heavy comforter off my five-year-old self and sitting up in bed, compelled by a startling thought. I tiptoed into my mom’s room and told her the news.

“Mom, God wants me to become a priest.”

This moment, inexorably frozen in my theater of memories, is a potent illustration of God planting a seed in a young heart. I have not always nurtured the seed as I ought; yet the frequent intervention of the Holy Spirit has sustained the plant, even up to the present moment. I credit the preservation of my potential vocation to that prevailing Grace, and perhaps the foremost evidence of Grace in my journey is my experience serving at the altar under the tutelage of orthodox, prayerful, and holy Priests of God.

I spent my formative years between 6 and 13 in a modern parish, in which few traditional Catholic elements existed, architecturally or liturgically. One time-honored practice that remained, however, was the institution of all-male altar servers. Every Sunday, I observed the older boys assisting the priest and doing, as I thought of it at the time, cool stuff with smoke and fire! We had a wonderful parochial vicar who allowed me to train earlier than the normal age. Father Bona had already spurred my desire for the priesthood by his example in persona Christi Capitis, but the pivotal moment was when he taught me how to serve.

When I arrived at the church for my first class, there were 30 boys already gathered – all older and larger than I. Nevertheless, I think we all felt small that day in the presence of the Lord of the Universe. Father Bona lead us in powerful prayer and read us the story of St. Tarcisius, the first altar boy mentioned in history. St. Tarcisius was reported to have been beaten to death by a street gang while defending his Eucharistic Lord from desecration. Thus Father illustrated Who we were to serve, and why.

This depth of feeling has to be experienced to be understood: I was going to kneel and assist at the ultimate Mystery of Faith, the Transubstantiation of bread and wine, at the very throne of the Most High God present among us at the altar! I, a young man, was going to observe and assist a mature man of God performing the very acts that I might be called to perform someday. It is difficult to describe my joy and excitement as I served as an acolyte for the first time, pouring water for the ablutions and hearing my holy mentor asking God to cleanse his iniquities, and then seeing Christ standing by proxy and in reality in front of me as I knelt vested as a piccolo chierico, or “small cleric,” as they say in Italy. After that first Mass, my experiences compounded, my spiritual horizons expanded; what a tremendous period of growth! Soon I became good friends with four other fellows keenly interested in the priesthood, and we often congregated in the sacristy to discuss our plans for pursuing the seminary.

With the natural passage of time came leadership change at the parish, and the newly arrived pastor proposed integrating female servers within the male squad, despite the fact that we already numbered over 200 boys, young and old. By this time, I was older, but it was distressing and confusing to many of the young boys who, like my younger self, had discovered an interest in participating in this mysterious and holy pursuit in large part because it was masculine. Not a few of us senior servers had begun, by this time, to seriously discern a call to the Priesthood – augmented by the advantage of our ready-made discernment group of all male servers. So that we might preserve this brotherhood in the face of the looming collapse, most planned to find another place to serve, such as the local Extraordinary Form parish. We weren’t unhappy because we feared or disliked girls – indeed, like all normal adolescent boys, we found them to be exciting, engaging, and attractive. Rather, we had formed a fraternal bond in Christ’s service and with our Priests, one that had become instrumental in our formation and discernment.

Thankfully, the proposal to introduce female altar servers never came to fruition, but its lessons have been borne out in another local parish that permitted a mixed sanctuary: the  altar girls now far outnumber the altar boys. In fact, there are so many young women serving at the altar that the young men still interested in serving have at times found themselves on a wait list of six months or more. Worse still, many boys have never even volunteered. The reason is simple: most boys will not participate in what they perceive to be effeminate or ‘girly’ activities when they can use their free time on more masculine pursuits. The takeover of altar service by females has, at least in this instance, changed the essential character of the experience, and turned away boys who might otherwise have discerned a vocation to the priesthood.

At my current parish, the opposite is true. Our pastor has been there for only about 5 years. Upon his arrival, the majority of the servers were girls. Rather than remain satisfied with this status quo, Father did some research and decided to follow the recommendations of the Council Fathers from Vatican II. Though the term is not officially used in reference to the new missal, he began to celebrate a “High Mass” once a week, following the recommendations laid out in Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year by Msgr. Peter Elliot. What does that mean? According to Msgr. Elliot:

The tradition remains unchanged that in each parish on every Sunday the main act of worship should be a “High Mass” with music and full ceremonial. The solemn rite is the normal form of celebrating the liturgy according to the Roman Rite. Unfortunately, in spite of the flexible levels of solemnity offered in the postconciliar liturgy, the former practice of celebrating Sunday with only a series of “Low Masses” lingers in some parishes, under the guise of said Masses interspersed with a few hymns or religious songs. Nevertheless, with careful planning, one celebration of Mass every Sunday can easily be distinguished by certain “exterior solemnity”, even in a humble mission church. A choir, cantor, and several lectors and servers can assist at this Mass. An M.C., perhaps a senior server, can direct the rite and the processional cross; processional candles and incense are used. (# 345)

In the Ordinary Form, a “High Mass” (or Solemn Mass) includes incense, candles, Gregorian chant, and at least one deacon. It is also traditionally appropriate to include all-male servers, which Father decided to do. As has too often been the case, those ignorant of the Church’s liturgical norms (or worse, those who had a heterodox agenda) were brazen and vocal, decrying Father’s ideas as misogynistic and doomed to failure. However, at the time of this writing and in direct contradiction to their gloomy predictions, we average ten respectful, loving boys serving the Solemn Mass every single week.

I am not asking for an anathema upon females in the Liturgy or upon every girl altar server. But examine the facts: eighty percent of Priests ordained in this past year were altar boys at one time. Of the females who have served at the altar since 1994, not a single one will ever go on to receive Holy Orders. Is it not both more pastorally and practically prudent to preserve the tradition of male service at the altar? Ought we not give young men in the Church a venue to experience what it might be like to become the Alter Christus in a powerful and anagogical sense? Why shouldn’t young men have this experience apart from the added complexity of dealing with the presence and attention of young ladies?

The Lord consistently calls young men to be His Priests. However, in recent memory, fewer of them are experiencing the sublime joy of serving at the Altar of God and, tragically, fewer are hearing or heeding that call. It is a grave crisis. Like weeds trying to choke the seed in the parable of the sower, some among our number propose the abandonment the holy tradition of Priestly celibacy. Worse, dissidents continue to demand the “ordination” of women. I propose another answer: restore and reinvigorate all-male altar service.

Like a typology lifted from the pages of the Old Testament, let young men glimpse their service at the Altar of God as a prefiguring of their lives sacrificed for Christ and His Church!

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