Q: What is the Church’s position on the use of female altar servers? May all of the servers be female, or must at least one be male? Do you feel that the use of female altar servers detracts from the building of vocations among young males? — M.C.S.N., Catonsville, Maryland
A: Female altar servers are permitted in all but two U.S. dioceses. They are also common in most English-speaking countries, and in Western Europe. The situation is patchier in the rest of the world, going from total absence to the occasional diocese that allows them.
From the point of view of liturgical law, an official interpretation of Canon 230, Paragraph 2, of the Code of Canon law on the possibility of delegating certain liturgical offices led to a 1994 letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments clarifying that girls may serve at the altar. But bishops are not bound to permit them to do so, nor could the episcopal conference limit the bishop’s faculty to decide for himself.
A further clarifying letter published in 2001 said priests are not compelled to have girls serve at the altar, even when their bishops grant permission.
The 1994 letter states: “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.”
The letter also recommends to bishops to consider “among other things the sensibilities of the faithful, the reasons which would motivate such permission and the different liturgical settings and congregations which gather for the Holy Mass.”
Therefore the Holy See’s recommendation is to retain as far as possible the custom of having only boys as servers. But it leaves to the bishop the choice of permitting women and girls for a good reason and to the pastor of each parish the decision as to whether to act on the bishop’s permission.
It is important not to focus this debate using political categories such as rights, equality, discrimination, etc., which only serves to fog the issue. We are dealing with the privilege of serving in an act of worship to which nobody has any inherent rights.
The question should be framed as to what is best for the good of souls in each diocese and parish. It is thus an eminently pastoral and not an administrative decision, and this is why it should be determined at the local level.
Among the pastoral factors to be weighed is the obvious yet often forgotten fact that boys and girls are different and require different motivational and formative methods.
This difference means that both boys and girls usually go through a stage when they tend to avoid common activities.
Preteen boys in particular are very attracted to activities that cater especially for them, and they tend to reject sharing activities with girls.
They also tend to have a greater need for such structured activities than girls who are usually more mature and responsible at this stage of life.
As a result, some parishes have found that the introduction of girl servers has led to a sharp drop-off of boys offering to serve. Once the boys have left and enter the years of puberty, it is difficult to bring them back.
Some pastors say this phenomenon is less marked where serving at Mass forms part of a wider Catholic structure, such as a school, or when siblings serve together.
It is also true that groups of boy servers have fostered vocations to the priesthood. But to be fair, this usually happens within a broader culture of openness to a vocation in which other elements come into play, such as the example and spiritual guidance given by good priests, and family support.
If, for example, a long-established program of boy servers has proved successful in promoting vocations or has been useful in helping boys avoid bad company and maintain the state of grace, then the good of souls obliges pastors to weigh heavily the spiritual risks involved in abandoning it.
When girls do serve, it is probably best to aim for a mixture of boys and girls — if only to avoid giving the impression to the congregation that Catholicism is above all a female activity. On some occasions, however, it might be best to separate boys and girls into different groups.
It is very difficult to lay down precise rules in a matter like this since the situation may vary widely between parishes. And it is not unknown to have sharp differences among the faithful who assist at different Masses at the same parish.
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Follow-up: Sounds of Silence
In response to our column on the importance of silence (Jan. 20), a reader from England who had long experience in Africa suggested that my comments were too centered on the realities of the noisy Western world.
He writes: “In many parts of the world Catholics will spend the whole week on their farms with little hustle and bustle, no radio, just the sound of wind and birds and an occasional human voice. When they gather for Mass on Sunday in parts of Africa, it can seem like a very noisy affair and this is frequently misunderstood by Western missionaries. They have been silent all week, farming in an almost contemplative manner. At Mass they want to sing together, pray aloud together, much more than we who are saturated with sound.”
He continues: “here are also cultural differences that are often misunderstood. Africans typically live in a talking culture. What they think is expressed verbally, or, to put it another way, without verbal expression, where is thought? So to pray silently may be not to pray at all. … The point of all this is that silence will be experienced and received in different ways around the world. Where life is noisier, Mass will require more silence. But where life is already silent, Mass may require more song and verbal prayer.”
Our reader certainly makes some valid points. I should perhaps plead guilty to being at times overly centered on Western situations. One of the advantages of this column is the opportunity to mine the wisdom and experience of our readers.
That said, I do think that the fact of living in a relatively silent ambience is not exclusive to the African experience nor does it necessarily translate into a desire for a boisterous liturgy. Before the arrival of portable radios, this general atmosphere of silence was, for centuries, ubiquitous in rural Europe and America. Yet the Mass was far more silent than it is today.
The argument from cultural differences is stronger; it is true that silence will be experienced in different ways in different cultures. While I have not yet had the privilege of visiting Africa, my ministry brings me into daily contact with Africans from several countries. They certainly pertain to a talking culture and have no difficulty in assisting at long Masses with multiple reflections and frequent common prayers and songs.
Yet my personal experience is that they are also frequently gifted with a great capacity for silent personal prayer and weave both traits into a harmonious whole. It is no accident that of the Africans recently raised to the altars, two of them, Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi and St. Josephine Bakhita, were cloistered contemplatives.
Liturgical law grants a wide swathe to the bishops to adapt aspects such as these to the concrete demands of local culture. But I harbor strong doubts as to the wisdom of completely eliminating silence. While it is certain that we can vocally talk to God as a community, the experience of silence makes it a lot easier for God to talk to us.
From the West, some readers from the United States and Australia asked about the importance of silence before and after Mass in the light of the need to form community.
Before Mass there should be a general atmosphere of silence. This does not exclude a quiet word of greeting, a nod of recognition or a friendly handshake among the parishioners. What should be avoided is the steadily rising hum of multiple conversations in the pews, often on frivolous themes, interrupted only by the announcement that the celebration is about to begin.
When this happens the result is that while the body and the voice are ostensibly raised in prayer, the mind tarries on the theme of conversation. In contrast, an overall spirit of silence allows for an easy transition from the world to the celebration of the mystery.
This transition is also very necessary for the priest, even when he has the custom of greeting the faithful before Mass. He should strive to reserve some moments of silent preparation for the celebration. He may use the traditional vesting prayers, the prayers before Mass provided in the missal, or any prayer that helps him to recollect his thoughts before the celebration begins.
Sometimes, people desire to speak with the priest before Mass. Although there will always be special cases which need immediate attention, in general it is best for the priest to take the opportunity of a teaching moment and tactfully point out that Mass is about to begin. He should always seek to meet them halfway and propose a concrete and convenient time in which he will attend them. If done charitably, this will edify the people and help them to value the importance of the Mass.
Other ministers and servers should likewise strive to foment this climate. As far as possible, all practical details should be resolved beforehand so as to avoid inopportune interventions.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in No. 45, says: “Even before the celebration itself, it is commendable that silence to be observed in the church, in the sacristy, in the vesting room, and in adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred action in a devout and fitting manner.”
Some readers also asked about the respect for the silence after Communion and what, if any, activities should be carried out during this time.
As we saw in the previous article, after Communion a period of silence should be observed or a hymn may be sung which is different from the hymn sung by all during the reception of Communion. In general it is best to observe the period of silence and even on those occasions when a suitable hymn is sung, it seems preferable that it be a meditative piece executed by the choir so as to also allow for silent thanksgiving.
It may sometimes be possible to combine both methods, either leaving a brief period of silence after a hymn or else concluding a period of silence with a psalm or song of thanksgiving either executed by the choir or by the whole congregation. I remember participating in a Mass where the latter form was used to great effect, a modern setting of the ancient hymn Anima Christi (Soul of My Savior) concluding the period of silence.
It is inappropriate to use this period of silence for other activities such as second collections or announcements. The proper time for these is after the concluding prayer and before the final blessing. If necessary, the congregation may be invited to sit down until the announcements are over.
After Mass, the most charitable approach is to quietly leave the main body of the Church so as to facilitate the recollection of those who wish to extend their personal thanksgiving for Communion. This quiet is similar to the situation before Mass as it does not exclude a friendly greeting. But actual conversation should not begin until outside.
Even in those cases when the tabernacle is not present in the sanctuary the church remains a sacred space and its character should be respected.
It is true that this may sometimes hinder the formation of a parish community spirit — although this is above all a fruit of the liturgy rather than a result of human endeavor.
Many older churches do not have a contingent indoor space where the faithful may gather after Mass, a difficulty especially acute in areas with harsh winters. Some pastors strive to overcome these obstacles by organizing other activities after Mass in the parish hall that allow parishioners to get to know one another in less formal settings.
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