Saturday, August 7, 2010

Altar Girls To The Rescue

John Allens' latest article in the NCR reports on the recent gathering of altar servers in Rome.  There are a couple of observations in it which both irritated me and gave me some hope.  The following is an excerpt hi lighting the thinking of one female writer for L'Osservatore Romano:

"Being an altar server was always understood as a service but, at the same time, as a privilege, because it leads one into the heart of the liturgical celebration, in the space of the altar, to direct contact with the Eucharist. The exclusion of girls from all this, for the sole reason of belonging to the female sex, has always weighed heavily and signified a profound inequality within Catholic education, which fortunately has been cancelled by now for several decades. Even if perhaps many pastors have been resigned to altar girls only in the absence of available boys, for young women overcoming this barrier was very important, and in fact that’s how it’s been understood: the presence of a female majority at the tenth gathering of 'ministrants' which recently took place in the presence of the pope demonstrates it."

"For girls, entering into the space of the altar has meant the end of any attribution of impurity to their sex, it’s meant the possibility of living this formative experience of extraordinary importance in religious education, and it’s meant a different kind of attention to the liturgy as well as coming closer to the faith by drawing near to its very heart."

As another essay earlier in the week by Gian Maria Vian, the editor-in-chief of L'Osservatore, also did, Scaraffia suggests that the gathering of young altar servers with the pope offered a counter-point to the sexual abuse scandals which have recently swirled around the Vatican.

"These happy youth, celebrating and proud of their role, who came to Rome in order to bring Benedict XVI their affection and enthusiasm were – certainly not on purpose, but in fact – a concrete and positive response to the accusations, true and false, which have been launched against the church in these months," she wrote.


I'm not sure I get how an orchestrated celebration of altar servers offers a 'concrete and positive response to the accusations'.  If it's a concrete step, it might be in a negative sense.  Rather than actively dealing with the adult issue of sexual abuse of male altar servers, the passive solution appears to be to accent the numbers of girls. This is deceptive because the true predator is more concerned with power and access, not gender.  Of course when ones basic strategy has been to blame the abuse crisis on homosexuality, it is incumbent on one to allude to altar girls as a sort of solution.  

I actually find this aspect of the article offensive.  Why use these enthusiastic kids, a real bright spot for the Church, for apologetic propaganda for the Vatican's handling of the abuse crisis?

I also disagree with the author's contention that: "For girls, entering into the space of the altar has meant the end of any attribution of impurity to their sex,"  This may be true for 'girls' but it is not true for women.  Eventually these girls, who have been in the heart of the Eucharistic celebration and in the sacred confines of the altar, are going to have to deal with the fact that access closes completely once they mature into women.  I guess the Church is assuming these girls will grow out of their sort of 'Tom boy' phase and settle down into assuming their mature role as a passive female recipient of male sacramental authority.

Trouble is this isn't like girls playing Little League Baseball and switching to softball as they get older.  When a girl switches to softball it's a recognition that only the truly exceptional woman will have the strength and quickness to play baseball at higher levels.  That's just facing actual reality about physical differences in gender.  No such physical reality applies to the priesthood.  With regards to the priesthood the gender differences are totally abstract concepts with no similar legitimate basis in physical reality. 

The argument based in Jesus's appearance as male is an argument meant to cover this fact. It's an argument that makes the priesthood a form of sacralizing the penis as God's way of evening out the fact men don't have a sacred life giving uterus.  Adult men 'incarnate' Jesus and adult women incarnate babies.  It's all fair.  It's complimentary. God is good.

One of the troubles with this is that in Catholicism ordination is about far more than 'incarnating' Jesus at Mass.  It's also about who has the sole right to the teaching authority and who 'knows' the will of god.  This is neither fair, balanced, complimentary, or good. For women to passively accept this is to accept an abstract ideation as representative of actual reality.  Reality presents the picture of men and women together raising and teaching children as co creators with equal responsibilities.  Only by accepting the abstract reality from which the Church operates could one concede that only men have the right to assume sole authority for God's 'children' in Jesus's family.  This necessitates accepting an abstract mental ideation for an actual reality and freely agreeing to having one's real experience of life confined by such an abstract.

Somehow I don't think most of today's altar girls are going to accept as reality the abstract ideation buttressing men's ordination.  They will see it for what it is--smoke and mirrors.  I also think this is precisely why Pope Benedict is all a dither about secular relativism.  If Catholics start reality testing various pronouncements of the teaching authority they begin to see that there are numerous intellectual abstracts that are being presented as reality.  Exactly because these doctrines are intellectual abstracts they do not nourish well in reality.  Additionally, theological abstracts serve to rationalize one's way around the concrete teachings of Jesus.  They allow and sanction things like war in the name of the Prince of Peace, the creation of a Clerical Empire in place of a totally dedicated service to the 'least among you'.  They've been used to justify the genocidal murder of indigenous populations by secular authorities because the attendant priest baptises their 'souls' into heaven while the secular soldier mutilates the body.

I actually take great hope in the fact the altar girls out numbered the altar boys.  These girls have the potential to serve Catholicism in more ways than just a limited time as altar servers. Perhaps they will be a leavening dose of reality in the abstract fantasy of male clericalism. They could bring some REAL gifts to the altar.


  1. It might be interesting to read about Anne Rice's journey.,0,5152082.story

  2. I attended a First Communion in the Indianapolis Diocese and heard the priest invite the boys to a meeting to be servers. Girls were told they could not be on the altar. The family is searching for another Church - probably not Catholic since this is a rural area.
    How ironic that this item is in the Vatican paper.
    Mary H.

  3. Our local bishop removed female altar servers upon his ascension a few years back. So if the presence of female altar servers is a "response to the accusations" - then what is their removal? More abuse?

  4. It's an admission of fear which is enacted as another example of clerical abuse. On one level that is. On another level it's an admission that girls who serve at God's altar may not see the priesthood in the same way as girls playing Little League Baseball understand the Major Leagues. Altar girls just may come away with the belief they too can play on God's major league team.

    For the Vatican to give the impression they very much support altar girls is really quite a gamble. I wonder how many trad/conservative bishops are apopletic with this recognition. Maybe the Vatican will send them all a letter telling these bishops that letting girls be altar servers is a great way to recruit them into the "new lay movements' before progressives pollute them with notions of priesthood.

    Dennis, I bet Anne Rice's next books are going to be very interesting.

  5. "Somehow I don't think most of today's altar girls are going to accept as reality the abstract ideation buttressing men's ordination. They will see it for what it is--smoke and mirrors."

    I agree, Colleen. When they get older and wiser, closer to God & receive His boundless gifts, they will have eyes to see and ears to hear the Truth. They will come to the reality and realization that the all-male clerical culture gave them a carrot at the end of their shepherd's crozier only to whack them on the back with it when they mature.

    I also found this part an interesting selection of wording: "The exclusion of girls from all this, for the sole reason of belonging to the female sex, has always weighed heavily and signified a profound inequality within Catholic education, which fortunately has been cancelled by now for several decades."

    The writer is right to say that girls have been excluded and I agree it weighs heavily and signifies a profound inequality in its dogma, not just Catholic education. However, the writer seems to be in the dark in terms of the direction the Vatican is taking the Church now, as the Church under Benedict XVI is going to cancel out anything resembling VII changes that took place in the last few decades, which will include excluding altar girls.

    The show of altar girls with Benedick seems to be a smokescreen as well for the unsuspecting women in the Church who are in for a rude awakening as to the truth of this Papacy and the Curia's intentions.

  6. The Vatican leaves it up to the local bishop as to whether to have girls be altar servers. Most dioceses have acquiesced with what had actually become common practice in many parishes, but there are a few holdouts. I think the two dioceses that are holdouts are Lincoln, NE and Alexandria, VA, which doesn't surprise me. It sounds as if the pastor of the local parish in the Indy Archdiocese (which covers a large part of Central and Southern Indiana) didn't want girls to serve on the altar. This sort of thing probably still takes place when the parishes ought to be thankful that there are girls and boys who are willing to serve.

    I am not surprised Anne Rice took the step she did given the level of frustration she experienced with institutional Catholicism. I would like to see her write in more detail about what led her to this step, but I think the trad/conservative Catholics would have a hissy fit.

  7. It disgusts me to think about this, much less write it. But I have heard personally from 'radiant new priests' the true reason for their desire to exclude women. Whether as altar servers, lectors, deacons, etc.

    "to keep the sanctuary from being polluted with menses".

    I am NOT making this up! And I have heard this from everyone from Seminarians to their elders mentors. Obviously of the Conservative/OD model.

    Not sure of the origin of the phrase. It may be from one of their much beloved 'Early Church Fathers', whose words on other things tends to diverge wildly from the Gospel.

    Anon Y. Mouse

  8. Mouse, maybe I will write another of my true weird stories about that very thing and a Sundance.

    The writer for L'Osservatore Romano that John quotes alludes to that very thing, about purity and the writer is a woman.

  9. First of all I want to compliment you on the selection of the photograph. The two girls most prominent are quite beautiful, particularly their facial expressions.

    I arrived here after viewing President Obama's comments on the confirmation of Elena Kagan where I heard him say " a father who wants limitless possibilities for my daughters". I was immediately struck by the stark contrast to the Vatican's position. I googled the Obama phrase and found how the right still hates, yes that is the correct term, this idea. I can't conceive of a God who would not want limitless possibilities for all of the Creator's sons and daughters.

    In the early 90's our parish had a wily, salt-of-the-earth peasant priest from a small southern European country. Let's call him Father "Chico". We parishioners would kid about the less than tasteful religious art he'd purchase for our church while on vacation. (Garage sales mostly.) One day a large and particularly gruesome sculptural portrayal of the crucifixion appeared at the front of the church. The children were frightened by the skull at the foot of the cross and some visiting priests would cover it with a cloth.

    It wasn't just his taste in art that was surprising. Our priest was a great promoter of women and girls within the faith. The scary skull was at the feet of the "Three Marys". Father Chico often reflected on the importance of Mary Magdalene as an example of living witness of faith. When Aloysius Ambrozic was named Archbishop of Toronto he wanted to put an end to Altar Girls. Undaunted our priest, whose transfer had already been announced, and his successor read a letter to the parish. They would be obliged to follow the directions of the bishop, they said, however they would not remove any altar girls who were serving at Mass the following week. The sanctuary was full. There must have been 50 girls who showed up in a little parish where there weren't more than 10 servers total normally. The girls weren't stupid, neither were their parents. They all understood that their presence on the alter was important, even if the invitation to serve was put in such a negative manner. We've been 20 years in this parish. Since that day there have been more Altar Girls than Alter Boys on all but a handful of occasions. Often the ratio has been 10:1. Don't think the parish priests haven't noticed.

    Cardinal Ambrozic has retired. His legacy lives on. This one example gives me hope that eventually the good Catholic people, including many parish priests who are more in touch with the laity and faith as it is lived, will prevail.

    Finally I want to relate a story that Mrs. p2p loves to tell. Father Chico was small of stature, as is Mrs. p2p. The robes for Eucharistic ministers and Lectors were far too long for the diminutive Mrs. p2p so Father Chico would give her a friendly punch on the shoulder and say "Hey come here p2p. Wear my robe. You can be a priest just like me and Jesus".


    Hmmm. Word verification: lourdes

  10. What a great story p2p. It's a bit of hope on a Sunday morning.

    I love the photograph too. How can a person think that kind of innocence could possibly 'pollute' the altar of God?

    Love the word verification by the way. Lourdes could be seen as a huge validation about 'altar girls'. At least in Mary's heart, and hers supposedly counts for something.

  11. Thanks Colleen,

    Upon re-reading my earlier comment I noticed a "Freudian" slip that might be a Holy Spirit slip: It was an unintended error.

    "Alter Boys"

    To alter is to: "cause a transformation"

    Cause a transformation boys!


  12. Mouse, this disgusts me too. It should be discussed though. If Priests are saying this, it is most disgusting and ignorant!

    "to keep the sanctuary from being polluted with menses".

    I believe the hateful & ignorant expression of equating menses with uncleanness comes from ancient Jewish laws which are still believed & practiced by some Jewish sects, thankfully not all, in which women are banned from the home during menses. She is considered "unclean" during menses. This idea goes way back to ancient times, in Leviticus and unfortunately still persists to this day.

    I worked among such people for a brief time who believed in this filthy idea and I thought about how could the women live with men with such views that even when they marry the woman must shave her hair off. These women when they get married then wear a wig. First, they are enculturated and taught that this is just the way it is, and told that this is what God said to believe. They are used to all the laws as one of the men in this sect said to me. Their mother's did it, so it must be ok, and their fathers approved, all or most of their relatives went along with what their religious leaders taught them. I thought that the women were probably secretly delighted to get away from their husbands while they had their period. A little vacation away from the micro-managing men every month.

    As Jesus said You wash the outside of the cup but on the inside it is filthy.

    I see such aversions to what is a natural occurrence in the female body as a real aversion of God and creation itself.

    Also, it is ok for men to spill blood on the battlefield against their neighbors & that's not considered "unclean" but for a young girl or woman to bleed as a natural consequence of not being pregnant every month until menopause is considered in their laws as "unclean."

    Who is teaching this to Catholic priests? Such a view of menses as pollution by these priests tells me that the new "catholic" identity for men is to regress into an attitude which includes the baggage of Leviticus-like laws. That is where they get these unclean thoughts from and of which Jesus was against.

    For all we know, the woman at the well that Jesus was talking to had her period when he was talking with her. Jesus did not care about that kind of thing.
    And, I recall also in the Gospels in which a woman who was bleeding, she had a hemorrhage for a very long time and was healed by Jesus. Their religious laws are always condemning and alienating towards those they believe are "unclean." The "unclean" woman touched Jesus' garment and got his attention. He did not ignore her or condemn her and Jesus healed her. The only thing He required of people is that they believe and He taught what they should believe. Hatred toward women is not what Jesus taught.

    I am so sick and tired of hearing of this backward stuff from these demonically taught new age of backward & misogynist priests. They are taking the Church to a pharisaic-like stance and identity and God's people aren't going to put up with such ignorance. The Church will divide & split & transcend just as the Jewish Christians did. Jesus has enlightened too many of us for us to fall for the lie that a female during menses is contaminating anything. The truth is that the priests who are saying such a filthy lie are unclean in heart and spirit.

  13. @ butterfly

    On menstruation: Anthropologist Beverly Strassman started studying the Dogon women of Africa in the mid 1980's. From Malcom Gladwell's "John Rock's Error"

    ... Among the Dogon, she found, a woman, on average, has her first period at the age of sixteen and gives birth eight or nine times. From menarche, the onset of menstruation, to the age of twenty, she averages seven periods a year. Over the next decade and a half, from the age of twenty to the age of thirty-four, she spends so much time either pregnant or breast-feeding (which, among the Dogon, suppresses ovulation for an average of twenty months) that she averages only slightly more than one period per year. Then, from the age of thirty-five until menopause, at around fifty, as her fertility rapidly declines, she averages four menses a year. All told, Dogon women menstruate about a hundred times in their lives. (Those who survive early childhood typically live into their seventh or eighth decade.) By contrast, the average for contemporary Western women is somewhere between three hundred and fifty and four hundred times.

    In ancient times, one might surmise from the Strassman study, there weren't many days when a woman might be menstruating. Furthermore, there are ancient taboos about menstruation worldwide. Strassman makes the case that these are primarily motivated by the fear of infidelity. See: "The function of menstrual taboos among the dogon
    Defense against Cuckoldry?"

    Still it doesn't seem to be appropriate to restrict women from religious participation for an entirely natural function.


  14. P2P - There is absolutely no excuse or real reason to deny girls or women or "restrict women from religious participation for an entirely natural function."

    Priests who believe so have not met Jesus in the living word. Neither have they found him within. Neither have they truly searched for enlightenment by the Holy Spirit but do the will of men & institution. Neither are they familiar with the lives of Saints or their writings such as St Francis of Assisi or St Teresa of Avila.

    St Teresa knew how to tell if someone was doing the will of God or not. She explains it this way:

    If one does not love their neighbor they are not doing the will of God. When they do love their neighbor they are doing the will of God.

    There is an entire gender of which they refuse to acknowledge are their neighbor and they refuse to love them for it would mean they'd have to bend to the will of God.

  15. While I was aware of the 'menses' references in Levitcus & elsewhere in the OT, I was thinking of something else.

    Somewhere....some uber-pious magna doctor of Santa Ecclesia MUST have written of this. The basis could indeed be Leviticus. But what these priests are referencing is more 'modern'. From the Medieval period?

    Aquinas? Or someone equally venerated as a demi-god by OD?

    From what I have read of Escriva, it would surprise me if he had used similar verbiage.

    Anon Y. Mouse

  16. This whole issue is fairly consistent amongst global cultures, but the reasons for it are not. In the North American Indigenous cultures women were isolated on their periods because they were seen as too strongly connected to 'power' at that time and it was felt their power was detrimental to males.

    Many tribes had special ceremonies for girls which celebrated both their new ability to provide children but also their stronger connection to world of Spirit. They would spend four days alone in which they would work on ceremonial or personal clothing which were highly sought after because they were done while women were at their strongest and there for these articles had more power.

    Traditional male medicine people did not make it a habit to train powerful women, especially after menopause because the training they themselves went through was to foster spiritual connection in men and women didn't need this special training. Many women learned their skills more or less on their own under the guidance of their spirit helpers, especially if they did't come from a line of medicine women.

    In all honesty I have to admit the first time I heard that menstruating women were precluded from attending major ceremonies I thought it was more mysoginy. When I heard the rationale for this I thought it was a more PC version of male mysoginy. And then I saw the effects and realized whether or not it was true, the men really did seem susceptible to this particular belief. Now I don't know what to think. I suspect the business of women becoming stronger after menopause is true.

  17. "Somehow I don't think most of today's altar girls are going to accept as reality the abstract ideation buttressing men's ordination. They will see it for what it is--smoke and mirrors."

    I have 2 daughters who have realized exactly this. Both were alter servers for a period of time. And now, both in their 20s, neither sees much value if any at all in the Catholic faith. And I can't blame them. Nor do I feel guilty for not raising them 'Catholic enough'. In fact I have many days when I feel far more guilt about ever having allowed their baptism into the Catholic Church knowing as I do how little value the Church places on them for being born female.

    It comes down to this: The Catholic Church does not care whether a person is a child of god. They only care whether a person is a son of God or merely a daughter.


  18. I don't know Veronica. I have no guilt about my daughter being raised with in the Faith. She too has no use for the current church, but she has great use for the way she was taught to think by some very committed and brilliant female religious.

    More than that she was given a foundation in mysticism from which to interact with the greater reality with in her and around her.

    All her anger with the Church stems more from grief than it does any sort of pride. The loss to the Church of all these daughters will be profoundly damaging now and in the future. It won't be made up from women in the South. The issue of women's rights is life and death in the South, it's not a matter of intellectual abstraction.

  19. p2p, I read the link to John Rock's error. What a story. Wonders never cease. Even "devout" Catholics are not immune to excommunication. What a sorry situation it puts us all in. The Church's decisions regarding birth control are reckless and irresponsible homicide of women.

    Mouse, thank you for your comments. I believe you meant you "would not" be surprised to hear that Escriva would say something demeaning about females. What I'd like to say about what I think of Escriva and Opus Dei and where they can go I can not write. What a miserable group of people!

  20. Butterfly-

    Actually, Escriva DID use similar disgusting rhetoric against women. This is detailed in the very real accounts of ex-OD members. Like Carmen De Tapis, for former head of the Women's section of OD.

    Her descriptions of Escriva & his attitude toward women are horrible - and borne out by the testimony of many others.

    From such accounts, the conclusion that he exhibited many of the classical symptoms of a form of possession is drawn. And one with which I completely agree.

    AND....FYI....he asserted on camera:

    "I am Christ".

    I know this factually, as I have watched some of the OD documentaries on him. Including vintage footage of his speeches to his devotees in the 60s & early 70s. Those words were clearly uttered in Spanish, which I head clearly - AND were in the English subtitles!

    Anon Y.Mouse

  21. As a former female altar server, I enjoyed being on the altar and being an important part of having mass. I was a part of the first group of females in my church .. However, as I have grown older and have been restricted in my role in the church, I have grown frustrated and angry at a church that refuses to recognize my gifts in equal as others.