Women’s place in the Church… what is it?

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What is a young woman’s place within the Catholic Church? Should she be an altar server, as was permitted in the early 1990s by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship? Or is this a position that should be reserved for boys who then have the opportunity to enter seminary to become priests or religious brothers?

This is a touchy subject for many Catholics: It is definitely considered to be a bone of contention that pits groups against one another with what is the “right” choice. If girls are permitted to be servers, then that seemingly opens the door for the ordination of women to the priesthood. If you look at altar serving in the traditional sense – that it is almost like an apprenticeship for young boys to assist the priest while forming an opinion on their discernment to the call of the priesthood – then the answer seems clear that this position only be available for boys. However, this concept seems to be lost in modern Catholicism, thus making a clear cut answer from 50 years ago much more blurred. I don’t claim to have an answer to this question that I’ve posed, but I can speak from experience and share some insights that have helped me to form an educated opinion on the matter.

First, I should begin by stating that I was, indeed, a female altar server. In fact, I was the first one at my parish in a small coastal town in South Carolina. The first time I served was with my older brother at a weekday, summer Mass for the installation of new members of the Knights of Columbus. I believe this was in July 1995. Less than a year later, my brother and I also represented our parish as altar servers at a Mass held during a Diocesan Synod in Myrtle Beach.

In March 1994, official communication from the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments was sent from Rome, addresssing the admittance of female altar servers. It was this communiqué that I believe got the ball rolling, so to say, to have girls serve Mass in the United States. However, the letter clearly states that:

The Holy See respects the decision adopted by certain Bishops for specific local reasons on the basis of the provisions of Canon 230 2. At the same time, however, the Holy See wishes to recall that it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue.  (Item 2, Vatican Communication on Female Altar Servers)

So, I guess you could say it was with some hesitance that girls were permitted to serve the altar. Here, you can see what I described as the “traditional” standpoint very clearly stated by the Congregation for Divine Worship as the most “noble” choice for parishes to follow. In fact, if you look at Canon 230’s wording (which the decision was based upon), the jump to allow girls to be servers was a great one. According to Canon 230:

§1.  Lay men who possess the age and qualifications by decree of the conference of bishops can be installed on a stable basis in the ministries of lector and acolyte in accord with the prescribed liturgical rite; the conferral of these ministries, however, does not confer on these lay men a right to obtain support or remuneration from the Church.

§2.  Lay persons can fulfill the function of lector during liturgical celebrations by temporary deputation; likewise, all lay persons can fulfill the functions of commentator or cantor or other functions, in accord with the norm of law.

§3.  When the necessity of the Church warrants it, and when ministers are lacking, lay persons, even if they are not lectors or acolytes, can also supply for certain of their offices, namely, to exercise the ministry of the word, to preside over liturgical prayers, to confer baptism, and to distribute Holy Communion in accord with the prescriptions of law.

The first provision of the Canon specifically mentions lay men in the role of acolyte. The second provision includes lay persons, which is taken to mean both men and women. However, the wording of the first provision – for lay men only – suggests that their role is installed on a stable basis where the second provision of the canon clearly states that a lay person’s function is merely temporary. Furthermore, this provision isn’t even inclusive of the acolyte or altar server role for lay persons to take on, which is why I suggest that the jump to allow female altar servers in the first place was a large undertaking for the Church.
In any case, I continued to serve Masses (including Sunday Masses, Holy Days of Obligation, Dedications, Weddings, and Funerals) through my senior year of high school. When I came home from college, I would often serve; the last time I served, in fact, was at the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in December 2008 (which was actually during the winter break of my first year of graduate school). During high school, I was often the lead altar server – I would train the younger servers, and they would serve their first few Masses with me in order to learn the ropes. I learned the proper way to light charcoal and use the thurible – things that would make my hardcore, traditional Catholic friends shudder at the thought, let alone the actual sight, of a GIRL doing it (but doing it RIGHT and doing it WITH REVERENCE).

I think that this may be where my key hang ups with the issue at hand are – I can see the arguments for both sides. Being a girl with slight feministic tendencies, I scream (on the inside) “RIGHT ON!” when a girl has the opportunity to serve Mass. But… I also have trepidations when she vests to take on her role, because it does seemingly open the door for her to think that she, too, can become a priest which is not okay.

Many progressive, liberal Catholics tend to think that the Church is backwards in the Tradition that only men can be ordained priests. It is my stance that these Catholics are wrong. I have always accepted this Tradition/Teaching without much thought because it’s what the Church taught. As I’ve gotten older, though, it has become imperative that I am able to defend my (and consequently, the Church’s) beliefs on various “touchy” subjects.

So – here is the situation. First, I’ll share a quote that I found when I first began to research my position on this issue.

“Much better and healthier for girls is to learn at an early age that their role in the Church — as in life — is different from that of boys and men, though equal in dignity. Just as men who are ordained bear a natural resemblance to Christ the priest, so all girls and women bear a natural resemblance to … the Blessed Virgin Mary — who was free from all sin and who has now been assumed, body and soul, into heaven, where she makes intercession for us ‘now and at the hour of our death.’ Women do not need ordination or even to be ‘altar girls’ in order to know, love, and serve God in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next!” (Adoremus Bulletin, The Question of Altar Girls Revisited)

I like this quote because it reminds us that it’s not about equality in dignity at all; it’s about the different roles in life we are called to take on. Men and boys are called to bear a resemblance to Christ Himself, while girls are called to resemble His Mother (and Our Mother), the Blessed Virgin Mary. There’s something about the FORM and the MATTER that matters here.

What do I mean by this? Well… it is not within a woman’s nature to be a priest because Christ is the ONE, true high priest. All other priests are brought into union with Him and brought into His priesthood. They are His ministers in place of Him. Therefore, how could a woman be a minister of Christ in the Sacramental way if they are not in the same form as Christ?

Additionally, Jesus only chose men to be a part of the 12 Apostles (all priests can trace their lineage back to one of the original 12 Apostles). Yes, He did only choose men. To me, that says that if Mary (Christ’s Mother), the BEST and HOLIEST person next to Christ Himself, wasn’t chosen to be an Apostle of Christ, then what makes women today think that they have something our Blessed Mother didn’t?
Admittedly, I believe that the Church doesn’t really do a good job of defining what a woman’s place is outside of being a good mother to her children and instilling the Gospel message to them. Women don’t really want to hear this though. There’s this lack of gratification with there seemingly not really being something comparable to the Priesthood for women. Women, historically, have been oppressed and put in their place. Yes, women should be good wives and mothers (which isn’t seen as very glamorous or dignified) while men should work to provide for the family. Women want equality — and THAT is why they want to be considered for the priesthood, since they think that there really is nothing that compares to it.

However, if you think about it, there is a role that is comparable. Think about it: Men naturally cannot have children. To some people, being a mother comes off as this huge burden. But in reality, being a mom is probably the best gift ever! (NOTE: I’m not a mother, but I cannot wait to be one!) Sure, women go through a lot in giving birth; but the love between a mother and her child; the bond is indescribably incredible and people don’t give it a lot, if any, credit. Maybe if we focused more on Mary as MOTHER of CHRIST (I mean, without her saying ‘Yes,’ the world would be ENTIRELY different…), maybe women wouldn’t be as up in arms with MOTHERHOOD, perhaps the greatest gift of all, as being the equal to PRIESTHOOD. Why else do we call priests… Father?

That’s just my two cents though…

Copyright 2010 Mary Catherine Kennedy

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1 Comment

  1. Mary Catherine Kennedy on

    Thanks for the comments. I agree with Maggie that there is a difference between women who can’t bear children or don’t want to. My point is that we all have roles that we are called to fill.

    Bonnie, I agree that there is a place for young women in the Church. I’ve seen different parishes address this in various ways. I don’t know what the right answer is, and I respect whatever the local ordinary says is proper!

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