While working a summer job in high school, one of my Catholic, male co-workers and I were leaving a building. I was ahead of him, so opened the door and stepped aside so he could pass.
“Oh no!” He cried sarcastically, “You just emasculated me!”
We then joked that a woman’s real role was obviously to be in the kitchen, and after a good laugh we went our separate ways.
Our changing attitudes towards gender roles don’t stop at held doors and pulled out chairs. Obviously, if feminism is to have any value at all, and if Catholicism has any self-respect, then girls need to be on the altar at Mass, right? Otherwise our husbands will beat us and dominate us and tell us not to worry our pretty little heads about any important man-things we might encounter. Further, if other boys don’t like girls on the altar serving with them, then they’ve obviously been indoctrinated by their misogynistic parents to hate women.
Seem far-fetched, even a little hysterical? Yeah. I think so too.
I was a girl altar server. I served for roughly eight years in my parish. While I didn’t have a bad experience, I also have to be honest and admit that I didn’t gain anything more on the altar than I could have by just being in the pew. For a while serving was just something I did when I went to Mass: I goofed off with the other kids behind the scenes and followed the rubrics when Father told us to shape up.
As I got older and more serious about my faith, I felt guilty about the goofing off. I told myself that I should only serve if I could do it with a prayerful and humble attitude, because serving was a way to participate in the holy sacrifice of the Mass. With that resolution came the realization that I had merely discovered the proper disposition that any layman in the congregation should have. If I was in the pew, I was participating.
I didn’t need to be on the altar, so what was my goal? It’s not that girls don’t have the ability to be altar servers; it’s just that we don’t get much from it. We can’t use the experience as a way to discern a vocation, for two reasons: one, it is metaphysically impossible for a woman to become a priest, and two, if a woman is serious about pursuing a vocation, she starts seeking orders of nuns and spending time with them, and those nuns are not on the altar.
Sometimes people who identified as “feminist” would try to convince me that the Church was unfair to women. I just had another perspective: I don’t think that anyone would argue that their young son “has a right” to spend time with a religious order of nuns, or that he should take part in a retreat held by a convent that is geared towards fostering the vocations of young women to the religious life. I mean, such a retreat is obviously not a formal profession of vows, and boys ought to be allowed to do vocation exercises designed for women religious, because he can do works of mercy just as well as any girl, right?
Such a boy might conclude the same thing I did: it might be nice, but nothing is gained except a sense of not belonging. He won’t ever be joining an order of nuns. The experience would be little more than an exercise in futility.
As faithful Catholics with an understanding of vocation, we should be able to acknowledge the God-given differences between men and women without being accused of preferring one gender over another. Catholic parents should want their sons to consider a vocation to the priesthood seriously, and putting them on the altar is a means to that end because the connection is blatantly obvious. This position is not anti-woman. It just acknowledges that the Church has different gifts to offer women.
Further, it is obviously right to point out that a man should not dominate or abuse a woman and confine her strictly to a culturally-conditioned role. Mother Church agrees with this, while maintaining the complementarity of the sexes and emphasizing the differences in vocation.
To illustrate: A man can cook supper for his family, change diapers, sing and dance if he likes, and even knit sweaters. Women can build IKEA cabinets, take out the trash, drink beer, and refuse to shave their armpits. The Church is not concerned with these actions and does not go out on a limb to assign them to one gender or the other. It does, however, correctly maintain with the authority of Christ that certain men, if chosen, may be ordained to the priesthood. As John Paul II stated in Mulieris Dignitatem,
In calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behavior, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time.
Certain men, not all, can become ordained priests. Women cannot.
Men do not become priests — and boys do not become altar servers — to discriminate against women, or to form a boys-only club. The priesthood is a call to servitude: to serve as an instrument of Christ and to administer to His flock. It’s a hard life, if lived correctly. Altar servers are put in a position to serve the Mass and witness this firsthand, and for a young boy it is a significant experience that gives him a front-row seat to the life of the priest.
I know I didn’t commit a mortal sin by being a girl altar server. Nobody treated me badly, either. My parish priests were very solid, orthodox men, and the boys on the altar were good kids. Other than some good-natured teasing (Don’t wear heels! We will have to get you a longer cassock!”), nobody could be accused of treating me in misogynist manner. Nothing was necessarily broken, but nothing was gained either. It seems to me, then, that this makes girl servers an imprudent practice; not only because it might affect boys negatively, but because it’s just a fact that girls will pursue religious vocations differently than boys. Our missions in life are separate, necessary, and irreplaceable. My experience taught me that we aren’t affirming our daughters in any special way by insisting they serve on the altar.
Our daughters deserve better – and that starts by giving them opportunities to foster a religious vocation in a relevant setting.