Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Honor of the Altar Boy

"Indeed, the obligation to support groups of altar boys will always remain, not least of all due to the well known assistance that such programs have provided since time immemorial in encouraging future priestly vocations (cf. Ibid.)" (Vatican Prot. N.2451/00/L)

As Catholics striving for universality in our Church, it is opportune for us to pursue those practices and interests that our Lord's Church tenderly holds dear.

It was only since March 15, 1994 that female altar servers were permitted to serve Mass. Two months later, to quell rumors that the Vatican would now start ordaining women, on May 22, 1994, Pope John Paul II wrote his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Reserving Priestly Ordination to men alone. He wrote:

"Priestly ordination, which hands on the office entrusted by Christ to his Apostles of teaching, sanctifying and governing the faithful, has in the Catholic Church from the beginning always been reserved to men alone. . .

Therefore, in granting admission to the ministerial priesthood,(6) the Church has always acknowledged as a perennial norm her Lord's way of acting in choosing the twelve men whom he made the foundation of his Church (cf. Rv 21:14). These men did not in fact receive only a function which could thereafter be exercised by any member of the Church; rather they were specifically and intimately associated in the mission of the Incarnate Word himself (cf. Mt 10:1, 7-8; 28:16-20; Mk 3:13-16; 16:14-15). The Apostles did the same when they chose fellow workers(7) who would succeed them in their ministry.(8) Also included in this choice were those who, throughout the time of the Church, would carry on the Apostles' mission of representing Christ the Lord and Redeemer.

Furthermore, the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them. Rather, it is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe.

I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful." (Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, May 22, 1994)
In July 27, 2001, The Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments prepared and published (due to its importance) a letter to a Bishop on possible admission of girls, adult women and women religious to serve alongside boys as servers in the Liturgy. It explained that this was merely an option - not a rule for a bishop at the diocesan level and even optional for the priest at the parish level.

" . . . Such an authorization may not, in any way, exclude men or, in particular, boys from service at the altar, nor require that priests of the diocese would make use of female altar servers, since "it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar" (Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conference, March 15, 1994, no. 2).

The Vatican describes it as an "innovation" and its implementation considered if a bishop saw a specific need in his diocese. The need would be determined by discerning the local situation that "would truly be of pastoral advantage in the local pastoral situation":

" . . . He is to base his prudential judgment upon what he considers to accord more closely with the local pastoral need for an ordered development of the liturgical life in the diocese entrusted to his care, bearing in mind, among other things, the sensibilities of the faithful, the reasons which would motivate such a permission, and the different liturgical settings and congregations which gather for the Holy Mass (cf. Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences, March 15, 1994, no. 1)."
"Therefore, in the event that Your Excellency found it opportune to authorize service of women at the altar, it would remain important to explain clearly to the faithful the nature of this innovation, lest confusion might be introduced, thereby hampering the development of priestly vocations." (Litterae Congregationis Notitiae - 421-422 Vol 37 (2001) Num/ 8-9 - PP 397-399 [emphasis added]).

Congregation for Divine Worship Letter on Altar Servers (July 27, 2001):

Below are some compelling explanations to continue the practice of having boys serve at the altar from EWTN's Fr. Jay Toborowsky, from the Founder of Ignatius Press, Fr. Joseph Fessio, and from Rev. Peter R. Pilsner two months after the permission for altar girls was granted, April 24, 1994:

1. EWTN Question and Answer by Fr. Jay Toborowsky on 5/17/2007: Http://

2. Ignatius Insight Q & A on 8/28/2004 by Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., founder of Ignatius Press and Chancellor of Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida since 2002:

Q: Why do we in our US Catholic Churches have female altar servers?

Fr. Fessio:
The answer to your question is much more complex than the matter appears.

I have it on authority of a Roman canonist who has been involved that even to this day, technically, female altar servers are not permitted by the Code of Canon Law. There has been a permission given to bishops to allow female altar servers in their dioceses. Note that this is only a permission to allow, not to require. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has clearly shown its preference for the traditional male altar servers and also made it clear that no priest can be required to have female altar servers.

However, bishops are not reluctant to overstep their authority and introduce the practice as a requirement. Since priests who do not go along with this can be reassigned to unpopular places, and because good priests want to obey their bishops even when the bishops are not speaking authoritatively, the practice has become widespread.

3. Fr. Peter R. Pilsner on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 24, 1994

Putting religion aside, it might be good to look at other all boy programs. Together with the Boy Scouts, Altar Boy programs are not intentionally designed to discriminate against girls. The Boy Scouts Purpose Statement states:

“That the purpose of this corporation shall be to promote, through organization and cooperation with other agencies, the ability of boys to do things for themselves and others, to train them in Scoutcraft, and to teach them patriotism, courage, self-reliance, and kindred virtues, using the methods which are now in common use by Boy Scouts.” [Sec. 3, federal charter, Boy Scouts of America June 15, 1916, by the United States Congress]

Similarly, the altar boy program's purpose is designed to promote and train boys in the spirit and functions of the Liturgy, to promote an interest in the Sacred Priesthood using both their acquired ability and confidence from their boyhood service in the Sanctuary.
Being a father of two boys and as a firefighter, I've witnessed the importance for boys to coalesce in a spirit of camaraderie while working together towards a common goal.

Nobody can deny that there is a dwindling interest in altar boy participation. Subsequently, we also have dwindling vocations to the priesthood. Pope John Paul II made it clear that the Church will never ordain women, so where do we turn? I love Christ and His Church and look for opportunities to serve Him in the prescribed format that His Bride the Church prefers. Remaining steadfast in upholding the honor of the altar boy is a worthy investment into a future Church our children and grandchildren will inevitably step into.

No comments: