The Altar Girl Storm in a Teacup

The Altar Girl Storm in a Teacup January 7, 2016
The guest author of this post is in the middle of this picture without glasses, all rights reserved.
The guest author of this post, Rebecca DeVendra, is in the middle of this picture (without glasses), All Rights Reserved.

I’m a former girl altar server. I served for eight years in my parish and ended up concluding that it wasn’t a necessary experience for me. I’ve written about the experience before and received mixed reactions. On one side, some thought girls serving was the best thing to happen to women in the Roman Catholic Church since Mary was crowned the Queen of Heaven. Suggesting that the practice might be imprudent (as Mother Church allows all pastors to discern) merits condemnation from this group. I was told I’d internalized my self-loathing and that my arguments stemmed from misogyny. Even worse, I was accused of declaring myself an authority against Mother Church.

This extreme position perplexes me because it is reducible to this idea: whatever the Church permits must necessarily be prudent. Is that really what we all think? Church history is full of examples of bad (or neutral) decisions in non-essential matters, especially liturgical ones. Many common practices (like the age for the reception of communion) have been changed, and some things were removed and brought back after reflection. St. Jerome rather famously derided the inclusion of Virgil’s bucolic ode to bees in the Exsultet. Well, we put the bees back in the ordinary form of the liturgy, just to make Jerome roll over in his grave. One gets the impression that the organic development of liturgy is like watching a car stop and start over and over: we get some things right, a few ideas turn out to be disasters, and then we reset and try again, hoping and praying for prudential judgment as our guide.

While I do think that we could do without girl servers and get along just fine, I’m also equally certain that the Hellmouth has not been opened. The way some extremists talk, one might get the impression that the souls of the damned have released girls in cassocks with the singular purpose of swallowing up and destroying male vocations. Some of the reactions are so absurd they’re comical (because I only laugh at things that make me have to go to confession): This is step one in a feminist takeover of the Church! Traditional gender roles are being eroded! Next they’ll be wearing pants!

The problem I have with both of the reactionary positions I’ve outlined above is that nobody actually cares what women think. My position is pretty straightforward: If we are to decide who is to serve on the altar (girls, boys, both) then it is reasonable to consider the benefits this service can confer on either group. I am reasonably convinced that most people in the Catholic Church find women’s vocations baffling and don’t properly encourage them. I suspect that secular pressures might be influencing how we view women’s dignity.

For instance, motherhood is something you do when you’re old and have nothing else to do, and marriage at a young age is looked down on. Becoming a nun is considered “radical.” I once knew a priest who was very encouraging of my service at the altar, but when I was pregnant within my first year of marriage he chided my mother-in-law with, “Geez, didn’t she want to wait a bit?” I don’t think I’m the only Catholic woman with this kind of experience. I agree that girl servers just aren’t a huge deal in the grand scope of things (“wrong hill to die on” as Max Lindeman puts it in his piece) but I can’t shake that it’s like putting a Band-Aid on the bigger problem of actually encouraging legitimate female vocation without acting like concessions are being made.

Perhaps women’s vocations aren’t the object in the pro-girl server debate? The argument for boys serving at the altar is always made with the supposition that their service might foster their spiritual life and hopefully encourage them to consider the priesthood. This doesn’t mean that girls cannot participate in an activity that is not necessarily a step to the priesthood per se, but it also means that women who want to discern their vocations end up eschewing their roles as servers and going elsewhere. Should I look back on altar serving and think, “ah, yes, that was what really fostered my desire to be a Catholic mother?” I don’t. Would someone like to take a poll and see how many girl servers are now Catholic mothers or nuns, or would that correlation be considered irrelevant? Meanwhile, people are always very interested in seeing how many former boy servers become priests, because…well, isn’t it obvious?

So in conclusion, here’s what I do know about my vocation and my life: There’s no glass ceiling to crack in the Catholic Church. Being made female is enough and the Body of Christ affirms me in my dignity as the woman I already am, not because I’m allowed to lector or serve or carry a cheesy felt banner at Mass sometimes. If God can work to encourage a vocation in a young girl serving, or make her understand her faith more deeply, then that is a laudable thing. God works with what we give Him, after all. But if we honestly think that women pre-Vatican II were losing their faith in droves because of their inability to serve at the altar, then we’re seriously limiting God and seriously lowering our expectations of the support women deserve when perusing a vocation. My reflections on my experience force me to conclude that altar serving wasn’t a necessary stepping-stone for my faith, while at the same time maintaining that it really just wasn’t a big deal.

Rebecca DeVendra is a writer and artist living in Boston who is determined to never make a decent living. She looks after her philosopher husband and two children in the daytime and attends art classes at night. To see her artwork and Science Fiction writing pursuits check out her blog.

For more on issues of gender, marriage, and vocation see the Cosmos writeup on Fabrice Hadjadj entitled Difference, Disharmony, and Drama Are the Essence of Marriage.

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