I certainly enjoy my yearly visits to the east coast of my childhood. The lofty civic buildings and cathedrals of the east seem so stately to one who has spent the last thirty years in the spectacular Wild West. On my way to Mom and Dad’s, I stopped into the beautiful Harrisburg cathedral to make my holy hour. A school Mass was just ending, with three servers (all girls) leading the recessional. Half an hour later, the sacristan (a young lady) began setting the altar for the noon Mass. Like the schoolgirls, she was vested in a graceful white robe with flowing hair. She was beautiful and pious, deeply genuflecting as she crossed the tabernacle: the kind of young woman any Catholic man would want to marry. How beautiful, I thought, to see the maidens serving in God’s sanctuary.
But I couldn’t help but think: where are the men? It reminded me of a visit to Russia ten years ago. In all the shops and factories we visited, not a man was to be seen. When I asked one of the women where all the men were, she responded, “at home drinking.” The Soviet system encouraged women to leave their homes and get into the workplaces. They quickly bested their male counterparts, and the dispirited men retreated to their vodka.
Women are naturally communitarian. Men are naturally lazy (pardon my chauvinism, brothers!). Women often have to goad men to cut the grass, to bring home the bacon, to serve as community leaders. Who but the good sisters pushed many a young man into the seminary?
I understand that many faithful women feel excluded from “the altar” by the Catholic Church. The practice of female altar servers, in one sense, brings women closer to the heart of worship and affirms their discipleship. That is a good thing. At the same time it glosses over some deeper questions—the respective identities of male and female in the economy of salvation; our spousal relation to Christ as bride to the Bridegroom; the sign value of the Divine Liturgy. But leaving those deeper questions aside, female altar servers accomplish the good of affirming women’s love for the Mass and desire to draw closer to Jesus in the Divine Sacrifice. But does not women in the sanctuary push out another good, which is men in the sanctuary? I know that most girls and women only want to help, as is their nature, and would not intentionally push the boys aside, but that is what in fact usually happens. I found Joseph Sciambra’s experience interesting in this regard.
It is an act of humility for girls to leave the serving to the boys, but the fact is most men will simply not find the motivation to serve unless they are given “their space.” (Girls too need their space in places like all-girls colleges, girl scouts, etc.) It is hoped that the small sacrifice boys make to serve at the altar will lead them to make the great sacrifices required of husbands and fathers or priests.
Every week Michael, an 8th grade server, runs his razor scooter five blocks from his home to serve the 7:30 Mass, even when he doesn’t want to. This morning arrived breathless in the sacristy five minutes before Mass. His scheduled partner could not make it, and Michael was loath to serve all by himself—wasn’t that confident in his Latin. But he did it, and did it well. Then he hopped back on the scooter to make it back for school. He could have just left it to the bright-eyed girls, if there were any. But there are only boys for the Latin Mass, and so he takes that responsibility upon himself. I can think of few better ways to train a boy for manhood.