Reform of the Formless

One of the best ways to tell if a parish is up to speed on the reform of the reform is to check out what their altar servers wear. If a bunch of girls show up in with high heels sticking out from below those white garments that look like oversized pillow cases you know the parish is still kicking around in the 70s (that’s the decade–not the average age of the parishioners)

However, if the boy servers look seriously cool in cassock and surplice the parish is up to date and ready to go.

(Illustration of cool servers above courtesy of the Strong Woman in England.)

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  • That is one tough looking group of surplice-wearing altar boys.I don’t think I would start trouble with them.

  • My pet peeve is dirty sneakers and girls with their hair not tied back.

  • Hey simple sinner – my dog can beat your dog (don’t they look cute together)(Sorry, Father – it’s off subject)

  • The only thing that my dog competes in is excessive affection and the licking out of other dogs ears.At that, no one can beat him.

  • Anonymous

    So shouldn’t girls be altar servers then? Or are you only objecting to high heels? My daughter has recently followed her brother into altar serving and the female servers are just as smart and reverent as the boys. Angela

  • And after donning their cassock and surplice, they need a training session in liturgy (NOT anything else) from the local Anglican parish.Isn’t the US the only place that allows female servers? Or is it EMHC’s that are unique here? Or both?It’s Monday, and I’m feeling the trad-vs-progressive argument approaching…

  • Dear Angela,I cannot speak for my friend and colleague, Father Longenecker, but I can describe the present situation at the parish where we are blessed to have his pastoral labors: St. Mary’s, Greenville. But first a bit of background.From Christian antiquity to the 1990’s, liturgical service of the altar was restricted to men (with the sole exception of cloistered community of women religious), and of all the forms of liturgical service, assisting at the altar was (and is) the only one entrusted almost exclusively to adolescent boys. The reason for this custom was simple and clear: to encourage the young men to give serious thought to becoming priests by associating them as closely as possible with the celebration of the sacred mysteries. Now, enter the liturgical Season of Silliness.Beginning in the 1970’s, various ecclesiastical revolutionaries began to recruit girls to serve at the altar along with boys, when this practice was still forbidden by the law of the Church, and the reason was simple: to advance the agenda of feminism in a simple way in the hope that the ordination of women would one day follow. It is passing strange that John Paul the Great closed the question of ordaining women for all time at nearly the same moment the Holy See simply capitulated on the question of altar girls under enormous pressure from the Episcopal Conferences of Germany and other places, but that is, in fact, what happened. A practice which was never known in the history of the Church and which was instituted in flagrant violation of liturgical law was ratified (not be decree, but by officially looking the other way) in order to bring peace over the question of not ordaining women.Now, I am not suggesting that these things are even remotely in the mind of the eager young women who are today ready to assist at the altar, but it is important for us to understand how and why this practice was ever permitted in the first place. One other introductory point needs to be made: the Holy See has made clear that the option for girls to assist at the altar is permitted, not required. This means that even when the local bishop allows the practice in his diocese, the parish priest has liberty to decide what will happen in his parish. Now to the point.We must stipulate up front that girls are generally much better servers than boys. In most cases, their attention to detail and their grace in executing the celebration far exceed those of their brothers, who are often clumsy and sloppy in the way that only teen boys can be. But in my experience there are two problems with girls serving the altar:1. Where the girls excel, the boys will recede. This is a simple function of human nature, and no amount of sermonizing from the parish priest or the mothers of servers will change it. The Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts are separate groups for many profound reasons, and we flaunt these facts of nature at our peril. Most parishes with large numbers of altar girls usually find that it is difficult to recruit equal numbers of altar boys and those boys that do come forward (not to put too fine a point upon it) are often not the most masculine examples of young manhood. For everyone in the congregation, this simply reinforces the common perception that religion is the work of women and delicate men.2. Even if the number of young men at the altar is sufficient for the celebration of Mass, when girls stand beside them, the connection between serving the altar and considering the priesthood is simply and visibly broken….except, of course, for those hoping that the Church will one day ordain women.This is not the only reason the number of seminarians has plummeted out of sight in our day, but it is surely one of them. Imagine trying to recruit baseball players for the Major League if no high schools permitted single sex baseball teams. In one generation, the sport would disappear or be morphed into something else entirely.For all of these reasons, I do not permit young women to serve at the altar at St. Mary’s, and this absolutely nothing to do with sexism or misogyny. And the result of our general approach to this service is that we need to build a larger chancel to accommodate the horde of young men who want to participate. Some years will be needed to reveal what influence this will have on the number of priests who come forward from our young men, but the early signs are very strong and very good.

  • I agree with Fr Newman’s position and reasoning. In my experience here at St Joseph’s Catholic School the students themselves are not desperate to have everything co-ed. When I asked the girls if they wanted to serve at the altar they said, “No, we don’t want to do everything with the boys all the time. We like having our own girl stuff to do.”Therefore at St Joseph’s Catholic School we have two altar guilds: one for boys and one for girls.The boys help move furniture (we have to transform our all purpose room into a chapel each Friday for Mass) and serve at the altar. The girls assist with linens, preparing ciboria for Mass, dressing the altar etc. At Mass they serve as ushers and special Eucharistic ministers, and they are the lectors at Mass.We therefore have equal, but different roles for the boys and girls.The students themselves approve of this, and the only grumble I have had was from a feminist grandmother of one of our students.Like Fr Newman, I have no trouble recruiting male altar servers. Instead, I don’t have enough room in the sanctuary for all of them.

  • There is one further point, I feel, in the inappropriateness of having girl altar servers, which is, that girls are generally prettier than boys, they are meant to be looked at, and they know this, and sometimes flaunt it. One can not help being distracted by them, their hair, their manner of moving etc. I have seen a few good “serviettes”, but plenty of examples of poor service from girls. (The most recent being when I visited another parish and was distracted by the two little darlings [no boys being present at all on the altar] who engaged in a bit of hair tossing and giggling straight after communion, on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes – I wondered what St Bernadette would’ve made of them!).As for the white nighties yeuch!!!! At least my son gets to serve in a girl-free zone, vested in cassock and cotta, and as it’s very often EF he’s got his back to us so no-one can be distracted by his lovely face!!!!

  • Maggie,I must gently disagree that girls servers are intrinsically worse or more distracting that are boy servers. Bad servers (whether badly trained or badly behaved or both) are simply bad servers, and their name is legion throughout the Catholic world.My earlier point was that, given equal training in proper behavior and the proper method of serving the altar, girls in the middle school and high school years are generally better at their tasks than are boys of similar age. And this is because of the same developmental differences between boys and girls that show in all other disciplines. Naturally, the force of my argument against altar girls does not depend upon the universal truth of my observations about the general differences; I was simply attempting to dispense with the “But why shouldn’t they serve? The girls are better at this than the boys.” argument which is often advanced in support of girls at the altar. Even if we concede that this is true, it is still possible to make a strong and principled argument against this innovation.

  • Templar

    First off, Father Newman has said wonderfully what I have tried on numerous ocassions to articulate to others on this subject. Female Altar Servers ultimately leads to a decrease in vocations to the Priesthood.Secondly, Father Longenecker, I wish you were right that cassocks on the servers was an indication of being reform minded, but from my (all too painful) experiences in Middle Georgia, that is clearly not the case. You are right however about those dreadful white robes. Uck.

  • We have both girl and boy servers, although the girls are far outnumbering the boys for the reasons you have stated.And I agree that girls should, by nature of being females, do a better job. However, at our parish the boys are absolutely flawless and most of the girls are “train wrecks.”

  • In my opinion, when it comes to the question of which is better, gender is irrelevant.I think it has more to do with certain personality types. Whether the server is male or female, if they are sloppy, undisciplined and careless people they will serve in that manner. If they are, by nature, more organized, disciplined and orderly they will be more interested in being efficient servers.

  • Anonymous

    We’re definitely in the white robe category at my parish. My parish is extremely small, with the number of children at each grade level being 0-3. Realistically, at some point we might have to choose between having a girl alter server, an adult, or no one at all.However, we do have a bumper crop of boys coming up in the next few years. When I mentioned this in passing to our pastor, his response was “And girls, too. Don’t forget the altar girls!”You can see what era “we” love at my church! I guess the white robes look really great with our wooden chalices . . .

  • Whether a server is male or female, it looks and works better to wear flat shoes of sober color and to have the hair back off the face. For reasons of respect, one should wear good formal clothes under the alb, not jeans or T-shirts, and not items in disrepair.I don’t think any of that is particularly onerous. Pretty much everyone should be wearing formal clothing that’s in good repair at Mass, anyway. If any parishioners don’t have the means to have one set of good Sunday clothes, it’s obvious that the parish needs to help out. If they don’t have the will to do it, then again, the parish should help out. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    As a recent transplant from Maryland, I am very pleased to see that the altar servers at St. Mary’s in Greenville are all reverent and well trained. Altar servers are supposed to assist at Mass – they should not be a distraction. At my parish in Maryland there could be from two to six servers (boys or girls) and most of them did not know what to do. In addition, they slouched, yawned, and were generally a distraction.I was an altar server back in pre-historic times when we responded in Latin and I have always felt that most of the servers of the current generation lack the overall respect that should go with being in the sanctuary during Mass.

  • Does anyone know where the “alb only” practice has come from? Being only 24 and only a Catholic for only 5 years, I have often been curious as to the practice of having the albs only as I am in much more preference for male only altar servers and with the cassock and surplice.

  • the alb only comes from “let’s do it on the cheap” church catalogues.

  • I have two sons who have been longtime servers at St. Mary’s, (as I was, not to digress) and two daughters. Because they understand why serving at the altar is limited to the boys, my daughters support it; instead of being frustrated that they don’t get to, they are happy that their brothers do.

  • I was just in the kitchen confirming with the Elder Daughter her understanding of the boys-only policy, and she volunteered that when we attend out-of-town Masses with girl servers, she thinks it’s “scandalous”.

  • “For reasons of respect, one should wear good formal clothes under the alb, not jeans or T-shirts, and not items in disrepair.”Not to nitpick, but if they are going to get hot, a t-shirt underneat the alb or cassock is just fine.The seminary I attended in college (still just a layman!) had no AC… At the begining and end of the school year that chapel could get STEAMIN HOT. Black pajama pants and a t-shirt underneath our cassocks were the norm! I still do this when serving at longer services at my parish. (Well, now I use black scrub pants!)(My priest does too!) Now if they are wearing one of those really cheapy white albs make sure the t-shirt doesn’t have a logo you can see!

  • Anonymous

    I believe the alb comes in handy with females because they are NOT supposed to wear a cassock and surplice. At least that’s my understanding. We have girls in cassocks etc. at my parish and it gives me the eebie jeebies.Anon One

  • I was an altar boy back when it was boys only, and I thought that the atmosphere with the priests and altar boys was wonderful, comfortable, and productive. Remembering what adolescence was like, I cannot imagine having to work with a girl as a server – talk about distraction.That having been said, the ones I see do seem to do a good job, but (at least at my church) their apparent insistence on wearing flip-flops underneath their C &S; is disappointing to say the least.

  • big benny

    The whole point of servers wearing a vestment is so that it doesnt matter what’s worn underneath. Of course, if it was an important occasion i would always have dressed up but often for weekday masses etc i come as i come. I believe the alb is the universal white garment belonging to all the laity (expressing the white garment received at baptism) and this is one reason that it is prefered by some. In many parishes, other laity also wear albs when conducting a ministry (eg, euch ministers, cantors, choir at least on more solemn occasions).The cassock and cotta however is a clerical dress (ie, choir dress suitable for sacramentals or ‘non-mass’ services eg funeral rites). The privilage to wear them has historcially been extended to male servers during liturgical services (nb: in italy it is the custom for servers to also wear a clerical ‘dog’ collar as well, appearing as ‘mini-priests’). However, strictly speaking girls are not permitted to wear cassocks and cottas for this reason although i don’t think canon law is particuarly clear on this and could be open to interpretation. In some parishes (eg westminster cathedral, london) boys wear cassocks/cottas and girls wear albs at the same service.Personally, i think a good quality alb is much smarter and more practical, as well as avoiding all these difficulties. In my expeience, cassocks/cottas show up wax v easily, are difficult to clean and usually look quite grubby. The same could be said for albs of course except they are much more servicable.

  • Big Benny – what you say is true enough about the alb.In fact cottas are in fact abbreviated stylized versions of albs so one can say that an alb is just the unabbrivated full version of what was always worn.Additionally in the Dominican rite, those serving as acolytes, (of course usually Dominicans) always just wore albs and cinctures. In and of itself, it is not just so much innovation.The only reason I have a preference for one over the other, is that the albs most often used tend to look like gunny sacks. (Actually, I am not sure exactly what a gunny sack is, but I should think that is what they would look like… with apologies to gunny sack makers if I am wrong!)In contrast cheaper cassocks and cottas (which can also look terrible) are generally nicer at the lower price-points in appearance…Now I have noted that seminarians and priests in choir opting to wear albs rather than cassocks and cottas are, more and more, wearing finer better tailored, crisper looking albs of better material and shaping… Same too with the cinctures.What I REALLY never understood was the dressing up of little boys (and now girls!) in red cassocks like tiny prelates. That one, I never understood!

  • There is another reason why maybe girls should not be servers: there is no point. It sounds harsh, but let me explain.With boy servers they are being, shall we say, a “type” of the Priest, that is a forerunner, a foreshadowing. (I mean “type” as in typology.) Boys may one day possibly be called to a Priestly vocation; girls will not.

  • Speaking as someone who has to walk to Mass when it’s ninety degrees out — there is formal clothing available for hot weather.But yeah, if the alb actually hides anything, you’re probably okay with what’s hidden. Problem is, those cheapie albs don’t cover much.

  • Better high heels than flip flops or sneakers.I thought girls couldn’t be altar servers because of ritual impurity–menstruation and all that. Serviette is French for napkin, so calling them that just emphasizes their unclean bloodiness and need for cotton hygienic products.Since the Scandal, what parents would want their boys to be altar boys? They’re probably afraid that they’ll risk having their sons getting sexually abused.I’m fortunate, the servers and serviettes at my parish are devout, reverent adults primarily. The kids that do it are resentful and snotty, because their parents pushed them into doing it to satisfy parent ego. I don’t think any ministry should be forced on anyone.One of our best lectors is an older teen.