"To serve at the altar, as to sing in the choir, is next to the priesthood the highest privilege which a human can enjoy. He represents the faithful and takes a most intimate part in the rich treasures of the church's liturgy and ceremonial. Those sacred ceremonies should be carried out with devotion, dignity and attention to detail."
--Bernard Cardinal Griffin, Archbishop of Westminster, in the preface to the Altar Server's Handbook for the Archconfraternity of Saint Stephen
Those of us who are devoted to restoring the fullness of tradition in our worship generally agree that no good has come out of permitting girls or women to serve the altar at Mass. Even Pope Paul VI, of all men, affirmed such in his instruction for carrying out Vatican II's liturgical reforms, Liturgicae Instaurationes (1970):
"In conformity with norms traditional in the Church, women (single, married, religious), whether in churches, homes, convents, schools, or institutions for women, are barred from serving the priest at the altar."
Beyond this, and without any disrespect to female altar servers themselves or questioning their good intentions, I'm happy to leave the reasons for why the practice of admitting women to altar service should be eschewed to other authors. There's a plethora of solid articles out there, such as this recent one posted by Regina Magazine entitled Bring Back the Lowly Altar Boy. Any additions I have to that argument would be merely preaching to the choir.
Those columns, however, are only tackling half of the problem; and some of them even argue from faulty, if innocent, premises. If we want to dig down to the root of the trouble and diagnose just why altar service has devolved into a trivial activity fit only for children, we must look beyond the gender wars of the 1980's and 1990's. In truth, the admission of altar girls was merely the logical conclusion of bad habits long in the making.
What is an altar server, really?
An altar server is what we call a layman who stands in for the role of the ordained (or, in post-1972 rites, "instituted") acolyte. As I explained in my previous article on deaconesses, the ordained acolyte was one of the minor orders: ministries created by the Church around the 3rd century so that the deacon (not the priest) could delegate some of his lesser responsibilities and add greater solemnity to the liturgical offices. In the traditional rite of ordination to the acolytate, the bishop presented the acolyte with the symbols of his office: a candle and an empty cruet. Together, these illustrate the essence of his duties, which are to carry the candlesticks in procession (to and from the altar, and for the Gospel procession) and to bring the cruets of wine and water to the altar during the Offertory. Of course, they often take on other duties, such as carrying the thurible or moving the Missal, but the foundation of the acolyte's service rests in the candles and cruets.
|The Mass of Saint Martin of Tours, 1490. Saint Martin is attended by a torchbearing acolyte.|
What is an altar server not?
Many traditional Catholics may assume that the acolyte's most important role is in answering the priest at Mass. This is, unfortunately, an effect of "low Mass culture". The responses (particularly at the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar) are really proper to the deacon and subdeacon; hence why the priest turns from side to side and confesses et vobis, fratres ("and to you, brothers") to the deacon and subdeacon on his left and right during the Confiteor. It's merely a matter of form that the priest still refers to the mere acolyte as "brother" during low Mass; the prayer was not certainly not composed with little altar boys in mind, but rather, the acolyte simply supplies the responses in the deacon's and subdeacon's absence. Hence, the Catholic Encyclopedia's entry on "Acolyte" states,
"We may therefore regard the ministry of the subdeacon and acolyte as a development of that of the deacon."
Acolytes are not junior priests, nor was altar service ever meant to be seen chiefly in terms of grooming boys to be priests. As seen above, if they must be seen to derive from anything, they are really substitutes for the deacon, or else, the deacon's minions! But it is better to treat the role of acolyte as an order, or ministry, that stands on its own. Well into the High Middle Ages, the acolytate and other minor orders were not merely stepping stones to the priesthood, but orders that stood in their own, permanently held by men at the parish level; even married. For many centuries, ordination was a requirement before a man could serve at the altar. Since it was forbidden all the way up until the 20th century for a priest to celebrate Mass without a server except by papal indult, this meant that a great many men in society were actually clerics. Hence, when you come across a statistic that reads something like, "in the 10th century, the First Estate (the clerical caste) was as large as 1/10th of the population", that doesn't mean one out of every ten people was a priest or even studying for priesthood. Rather, it means a very large segment of the population was formally pledged in service to the Church. Beyond all the ordained acolytes for the parish, virtually everyone who ever went to university also received a minor order. Administrative officials from the royal courts down to local manors also were likely to be "clerks". Though they may have been ordained as acolytes as young as thirteen or fourteen, most ordained acolytes in the medieval Church were adult men; often in very respectable professions or high ranks in society.
|Saint Giles's acolyte appears to be just as old as Giles himself in this 15th century painting.|
How did the minor orders fade away from everyday life?
This is an aspect of Church history that receives very little attention. To be honest, I don't know exactly why myself, nor when this transition definitively took place. What I can say for sure is that by the 1500's, it seems the minor orders were usually reserved only for students on a track for priesthood (I don't say "seminarians" because seminaries hadn't been invented yet). My best educated guess is that the minor orders disappeared from the parish level and replaced by substitute lay servers because of legal battles between the Church and state, such as the famous feud between Saint Thomas Becket and King Henry II. In these ages, any cleric, no matter how humble, enjoyed numerous privileges in society such as the benefit of clergy: the right to be tried for a crime in the local bishop's ecclesiastical court, rather than by the officers of the king. The notion that a cleric ought to be protected from secular prosecution obviously seems ripe for injustices of the worst sort today, but in the medieval world's rougher and, shall we say, more expedited form of justice, it offended popular piety to see a holy man or learned scholar dragged in chains before the local magistrate like a common criminal.
As the centuries passed, the popes and ecumenical councils had to gradually concede one clerical privilege after another as the kings of Europe grew in authority. The first to hit the chopping block were inevitably the larger mass of married minor clerics, but even then, the popes could not totally concede their legal status to the state without serious ramifications for the clergy as a whole. It is, perhaps, as a result of these feuds that the bishops decided it would be better to not ordain anyone at all unless they were going to eventually become priests.
The Church desires the minor orders to be restored
Although, by an accident of history, the minor orders have faded from parish life up to the present (except in a few dioceses such as Lincoln, where the bishop regularly institutes acolytes and lectors for parishes), this was not part of the Church's plan for the re-invigoration of the priesthood! On the contrary, the disappearance of the minor orders from the parishes was deplored by the Council of Trent, and the decrees of the Council's 23rd session, along with dogmatically defining the priesthood and issuing provisions for the establishment of a new system for training priests (called "seminaries"), at the same time issued a decree to re-establish the minor orders as permanently held ranks:
In what manner the exercise of the minor orders is to be restored.
That the functions of holy orders, from the deacon to the janitor,-which functions have been laudably received in the Church from the times of the apostles, and which have been for some time interrupted in very many places,-may be again brought into use in accordance with the sacred canons; and that they may not be traduced by heretics as useless; the holy Synod, burning with the desire of restoring the pristine usage, ordains that, for the future, such functions shall not be exercised but by those who are actually in the said orders; and It exhorts in the Lord all and each of the prelates of the churches, and commands them, that it be their care to restore the said functions, as far as it can be conveniently done, in the cathedral, collegiate, and parochial churches of their dioceses, where the number of the people and the revenues of the church can support it; and, to those who exercise those functions, they shall assign salaries out of some part of the revenues of any simple benefices, or those of the fabric of the church,-if the funds allow of it,-or out of the revenues of both together, of which stipends they may, if negligent, be mulcted in a part, or be wholly deprived thereof, according to the judgment of the Ordinary. And if there should not be unmarried clerics at hand to exercise the functions of the four minor orders, their place may be supplied by married clerics of approved life; provided they have not been twice married, be competent to discharge the said duties, and wear the tonsure and the clerical dress in church."
|The composer Franz Liszt in his cassock. Liszt was a rare example of a permanent ordained acolyte in the "Tridentine" era of the Church.|
What does this old history with the minor orders have to do the age of altar boys today?
Trent's decree to restore the minor orders, like Vatican II's giving "pride of place" to Gregorian chant, was a dead letter; but the principles behind it are no less true today. Furthermore, Session 23 tells us what kind of men ought to be acolytes. First, there is the tonsure:
"None shall be initiated by the first tonsure, who have not received the sacrament of Confirmation; and who have not been taught the rudiments of the faith; and who do not know how to read and write; and in whose regard there is not a probable conjecture, that they have chosen this manner of life, that they may render unto God a faithful service, and not that they may fraudulently withdraw themselves from Secular jurisdiction."
And then, for the receiving of minor orders:
"Those who are to be promoted to minor orders shall have a good testimonial from their parish priest; and from the master of the school in which they are educated."
While it certainly doesn't exclude teenagers, this also could hardly describe a boy who has just received his first Communion and depends on rote memorization to make the responses of Mass! A better model might instead be that great scholar and martyr (not to mention my confirmation saint), Sir Thomas More.
After years of service to crown and country, King Henry VIII appointed More to replace Cardinal Wolsey as Lord Chancellor of the Realm. Even when More held the highest office in England below the King himself, he was still known to throw on his surplice and serve daily Mass or sing in the choir stalls at his home parish of Saint Chelsea. His biography by Peter Ackroyd recounts the story that the Duke of Norfolk came calling to More's house one day and found him at the church, serving the parish priest at the altar. The Duke questioned Sir Thomas for publicly humbling himself in such a way that could be taken as an offense to the king's dignity. Sir Thomas said, "My master the King cannot be displeased at the service I pay to his master, God."
How did boys come to replace men as altar servers?
This appears to have been a combination of two factors:
1.) The effect of the Industrial Revolution on society. While rural peasant life was hard, it did not demand regular 12-hour shifts. Men had time to pop into the chapel or parish church for the daily Mass and Offices. As working men moved to the factories, time became a cruel mistress, as many of us still find today. Further, when the Napoleonic wars (and, later, the World Wars) brought about mass conscription, entire villages could find themselves totally vacant of able-bodied men for weeks or months at a time. In such conditions, only boys were left to serve Mass.
|Altar boys as ornaments.|
2.) The overall decline of religiosity among men. It's often observed that, in Europe, the men tend to stay in the back of the church (if they bother to come at all) and chatter amongst themselves about sports or other trivialities while the women and children sit up front. Accounts of the 19th and early 20th centuries tell the same story, particularly amongst certain ethnic groups, such as Italians, where religion had become something deemed highly personal or worse, feminine. It's hard to blame them: my office has a framed photograph of a class of altar boys taken in the late 1940's from my boss's neighborhood parish in south Philadelphia (an old Italian-American community), where he grew up and was eventually ordained priest. No boy appears above the age of 12. All are clad with white gloves, ridiculous bows around their necks, and (judging by the shade in this black-and-white photo) red cassocks. One can easily imagine they were all fawned over by their mothers and grandmothers, pinching their cheeks and exclaiming how much their chierichetti ("little priests") looked like cardinals in miniature. And one can imagine just as well how boys accustomed to treating the Catholic faith as an exercise in "cuteness" were all too happy to shed the cassock and surplice once they were deemed too old and impure to continue serving the altar.
|These sorts of photos, which form a certain type of "like-bait" on certain Facebook groups, don't actually do anything for vocations.|
Even then, this trend of boy servers didn't dominate the entire Church. The book Peregrinus Gasolinus: Peregrinus Goes Abroad has a little dialogue on the use of boy servers. This work was written by Father Michael Andrew Chapman around the 1920's to discuss small matters of liturgy in a humorous way through the disputes between two liturgist-priests of differing schools of thought (one called the Antiquary, the other the Liturgiologist) as they go on road trips across the United States.
“But why, in the name of Martinucci, must a Mass Server always be a sniveling little brat with his wrists bursting out of his cassock far too short for him, a very imperfect knowledge of the responses he has to say, and a generally rowdy and unedifying appearance—”
“Pere, Pere,” remonstrated the Antiquary.
“Well, maybe not so bad as that. We have some good pious kids, I’ll admit. But the older lads are really edifying, at least not distracting. Years of experience have taught them their business, they serve well, answer promptly and intelligibly, and at High Mass they put things through in a really distinguished and thoroughly correct manner which is a joy to behold.”
“After all,” remarked the Antiquary, “the Altar Boy, qua boy, is a modern institution. And in quantities, almost, one might say, an American institution.”
“Imported from France,” cut in the Liturgiologist.
“Like most of our ceremonial practice,” went on the Antiquary. “But even in France, the serving of Mass is not restricted to children. One sees grown men, often stepping up from the congregation, serving at Low Mass constantly, and so everywhere on the continent. For more elaborate ceremonies the younger lads are used, but the important positions in the ceremonies are usually taken by older boys who have been carefully drilled. It seems only to be here in America that a positive prejudice exists against the presence of older boys and young men in the sanctuary."
(The rest of the chapter in context may be read on Romanitas Press's site here.)
|The depiction of altar service as child's play was practically a cottage industry in the saccharine world of 19th century French religious art.|
How the juvenalizing of altar service has destroyed the ministry altogether
Once boys came to predominate altar service, then came the trend of stuffing the sanctuary to no purpose but ornamentation. American parishes before the Council were rife with low Masses assisted by four servers when the rubrics admit no more than two; eight torchbearers when two or four were enough for an ordinary Sunday; and, of course, the aforementioned dressing up of boys as mini-prelates, complete with shoulder-capes, lace rochets, and even birettas in some places.
Following Vatican II, priests suffered a violent reaction against this fussiness, even as the new rite of Mass drove the final nail in the coffin of traditional altar service. The server's duties for the new Mass were so simplified that to even have one seemed more a luxury, or a mere activity to give the boys something to do and be shown off for their parents, than a necessity. Indeed, the former prohibitions against a priest serving Mass without a server were lifted. Today, it's commonplace for a priest to celebrate Mass without a server even if it's in a cathedral attended by hundreds, just because it's on a weekday. There may be dozens of men qualified to serve in the congregation, but the server's role is so trivial that it would seem beneath a grown man's dignity for a priest to walk up to one and ask him to throw on a surplice (or alb, more commonly) and assist in such a menial way.
When the serving of Mass is too trivial for a grown man with the responsibilities of the world on his shoulders, is it any surprise that, with our distorted view of femininity, we've now reached the conclusion that altar service is so easy that "even a girl can do it"?
Wouldn't adult servers get in the way of allowing boys to discern a priestly vocation?
First, this is beside the point since we already established that the order of acolyte stands on its own, and is not merely a stepping stone to priesthood; nor were altar servers instituted to give boys a "foretaste" of priestly life. But even if this were true, it's even more important that boys see the serving of God's altar as a firmly masculine duty. This is not the picture you communicate when Father and his harem of boys are sauntering up to the sanctuary; then you only have "Catholic boy scouts" at best, or something rather more lascivious at worst.
We need another Saint Thomas More approaching the altar of God. We need fathers and sons serving together. We need men of solemn reverence handling the cruets and thurible. Indeed, we need lawyers, managers, foremen, and other such men of consequence whom the world would assume far too busy or important to play "altar boy" on Sundays to show boys that the Lord is supreme even to men of high station.
What exactly do you propose?
Quite simply, I'm calling upon men who care about restoring the beauty and fullness of worship to get off their armchairs and make it a reality in the sanctuaries of their own churches. If the essence of masculinity is in taking action, then what's the manlier course: complaining about your parish's sloppy practices at Mass on an Internet forum, or signing up as an altar server to personally see right reverence given to God?
This need not displace boys or teenagers from serving Mass entirely, but they should, as a general rule, fill the simpler roles while adult men serve as crucifer, thurifer, and master of ceremonies; or, more often than not, the sole acolyte of low Mass. In the traditional Latin rite, these divisions are already built-in and quite natural. In the Ordinary Form, it will probably take a little more ingenuity for most. You will probably have to endure a much-diminished form of service until you find yourself in a position to gradually add on other traditional duties, or reintroduce the positions of thurifer and MC which are absent from most ordinary parishes today for various reasons, namely apathy.
In truth, the boys need not give up their cassocks and surplices at all. A better place for them would be to learn to sit "in choir"; not only filling seats like the over-dressed boys of old, but actually learning to read square notation and sing the short responses and sacred plainchants of the Mass as an auxiliary to the men's schola cantorum, all vested in their traditional place not in the organ loft, but in the sanctuary or choir stalls. In this way, we can slowly but surely restore the traditional choirs of men and boys that reigned supreme in the more glorious ages of Christendom. But this will take much greater efforts, and shall be the subject of a future article.
For now, it's enough to make our sanctuaries a fitting place for the divine services, where the "devotion, dignity and attention to detail" spoken of by Cardinal Griffin in the manual I first quoted are not ideals aspired to by young boys, but daily seen by them from the careful hands of the leading men of the parish.
|Men and boys enrolling together in the Archconfraternity of Saint Stephen in Philadelphia.|
|Unsurpassed dignity: the procession for a solemn Mass at Merton College Chapel, Oxford.|
|The servers of all ages at our nuptial Mass, to whom I'm forever grateful, receiving Communion.|