Knights and Ladies of the Altar

09-26-2021Letter from the PastorFr. Don Kline, V.F.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Peace and Joy in Our Lord Jesus Christ!

When I was growing up (and I still have a way to go), I remember being an altar boy. Serving the priest at Holy Mass is, and will always be, a very special memory for me. I remember my dad would take me to the 6:15am Mass at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral when I was in kindergarten. He was the sacristan who would set up for Mass. He also served the priest during Mass. As a six-year-old, dad would have me stand off to the side and watch.

Then one day, my dad asked me to stand next to him as he brought the priest the water and the wine for the chalice. After the priest purified his fingers, dad would let me hand him the purificator (drying towel). I remember those moments and many others as an altar boy. There is no doubt in my mind that the seeds of my vocation to the priesthood were nourished during those formative years of my life.

I continued to be an altar boy for many years after I received my first Holy Communion. I liked serving during Mass. I made some good friends. I remember it was fun hanging out after Mass. Serving taught me a lot about the Mass, offered me the chance to meet friends and helped me become a responsible person. I also learned that the priest depended on me and appreciated my help. I remember being called out of class to serve at a funeral as well as riding my bike to church to serve at a wedding on a Saturday. I remember serving while I was a student in my Catholic high school. Holy Mass was during lunch break. I remember just wanting to help the older priests at Holy Mass. I felt useful and knew I was doing something good for God.

Those great memories as a young Catholic boy are just a few of the reasons I would encourage boys and young men to think about serving at Holy Mass. Learning about the Mass, growing in our faith, becoming responsible, meeting other Catholic families, and pizza parties were all part of being an altar boy. But the main reason I am happy I was an altar boy was that this opportunity opened my eyes to the possibility that God would call me to serve Him as a priest. Yes, my priestly vocation began as an altar boy.

Growing up, our parish didn’t have altar girls. It just wasn’t a thing back then. I don’t remember when parishes began to allow girls to be altar “boys” ( a term we renamed to “altar servers” to be inclusive). I do remember that the change was an adjustment for everyone. Some of the questions remain today. Do the girls wear the same cassock and surplice that the boys were wearing? Are the servers supposed to vest together in the same room? Moms were asking if their daughter should wear their hair up or down or could their daughter wear makeup or eyeshadow? Could their daughter’s nails be painted? What sort of shoes should their daughter wear? The teaching of the Church had not always recognized this practice of having altar girls and so there were no official answers to these and many other questions. Even today, it is difficult to answer some of these questions.

Additionally, some parishes want to distinguish between girl and boy altar servers. In some parishes, the girls wear a white alb (the priest and deacon wears the white alb over his clothes but under his vestments). In some parishes, the boys wear a cassock and surplice (the black garment covered by a shorter white garment). Our parish of St. Bernadette and St. John XXIII distinguishes the boys from the girls by having the girls wear the purple cassock instead of the black one that the boys use. Some parishes have all the servers wear the white alb and use a different colored cincture (rope) around their waist to show the difference.

I know our culture says there is no difference between boys and girls. But is that true? I find that way of thinking to be very confusing. There are many differences between males and females… too many to address here so I will stick to altar boys and altar girls. Practically speaking, we have all seen that girls can serve just as well as boys.

Functioning as a server can essentially be done by those who have received their First Holy Communion and are of able body and mind (usually around 4th grade). Young people serving at Mass can be more "involved" in the parish as a family. Some have said that having young people involved in Mass means they are more likely to remain Catholic as they get older. I hope that is true.

However' given the current culture of gender bending and gender confusion' it is my hope that our parish can provide clearer boundaries for the boys and girls. It is also my hope that boys and girls will both be involved with the Mass but in different capacities. To that end' our parish will now invite boys and young men to serve Holy Mass and girls and the young women are invited to serve Holy Mass as Sacristans. The reasons for this change are many. First' having all-male servers allows boys a time to be together without girls. I believe that hanging out with the other boys gave me a healthier masculinity. The clarity of my identity as a male and as a young man was also strengthened while I was a boy scout and being around other strong male role models.

Second' boys (and men for that matter) relate differently to each other when they are hanging out together. I remember being with my buddies on a camping trip' enjoying a few libations and saying and doing things that men do. For one thing' the language and conversations change when men and women are with each other. The body language changes as well. Young boys' young men' and adult males are different around women' and I suspect women are different around men. These are not bad things. They are just differences that can be very healthy if fostered in a healthy environment.

Third' I find that when it comes to practicing our faith' men and women experience religion differently. Many men see religion in militaristic tones. Most healthy men are task oriented. Give me a mission or a duty and I am ready to spring into action. I think women see the practice of their faith a bit different from men. I have read that women often see faith and religion more in terms of relationships. Neither is wrong' just different.
A few years ago' Bishop 0lmsted wrote his apostolic letter entitled' "Into the Breach". He pointed out that men might practice the faith in terms of fighting a battle: a battle against temptation' against the world' against the devil and his fallen angels. Women' on the other hand' often practice a more relationship-based spirituality. They practice their faith out of devotion to their beloved' Jesus Christ. I have witnessed the importance of these relationships that women are fostering in the small bible studies we have in our parish. Even the names of the groups are telling. 0ne of the popular woman's groups is called "Blessed is She" and the men's group is called "Troops of St. George." Both groups are valid but very different in how they approach the faith. 0ne is focused on relationships while the other approaches the faith in a more militaristic fashion.

The reason young people may want to serve at Holy Mass varies from person to person. But I have had families tell me stories about attending Holy Mass with both boy and girl altar servers and their sons would have no interest in serving Mass. Yet I hear from other families who start attending a church like our cathedral which allows only altar boys and suddenly' their boys show an interest in serving. Why the change? Do these young men and boys have some sort of deep-seated anti-woman' chauvinistic feelings? Probably not. Do they think girls were unworthy to serve and be in their presence? I sincerely doubt it. I think' these are just healthy boys who are in the developmental stage where they want to hang out with other boys. I suspect that when they witnessed boys serving at the altar' being serious and reverent' they are naturally attracted to it.

Again looking at Bishop 0lmsted's apostolic letter "Into the Breach"' I believe there are military-like aspects of serving at Mass that are attractive to young men. Why? Simple' boys standing at attention' following orders' and moving in unison to achieve their goal. There are strong military parallels that can be made' and boys and young men appreciate the fraternal aspect of the military. 0f course' our society now allows women to fight in battle' but the military is even sensitive to the differences of men and women for a variety of reasons in the military. I would argue that service at the altar can be like serving in the military. 0f course' women can do both' but there are consequences. 0ne of the consequences is that by letting girls serve at the altar serving Holy Mass is less attractive to the boys.

Last' and hopefully most obviously' serving at the altar was intended to dispose boys to the priesthood. Currently' our parish and our school have two seminarians studying for the priesthood. We have the largest Catholic grade school in the Diocese of Phoenix. There are many young men from our parish and our school who could be considering the priesthood and serving Holy Mass could encourage those vocations. There was a time when young men would shadow the priest and learn from him how to serve Mass. It's not that every altar boy will become a priest' but priests often come from altar boys' as is evident in my own vocation to the priesthood. 0ne could argue that allowing girls to serve at the altar while not allowing them to be priests is cruel. I once read that letting there be girl altar servers is like letting a kid practice with a team' but then not allowing him to play in the game.

To be clear' not having girls serve as altar boys is not a statement about the worthiness of girls' just as men not being able to join a Carmelite convent doesn't mean they aren't worthy enough to follow St. Theresa of Avila. And who would argue that the Blessed Mother is any less holy than the Apostles just because she wasn't chosen as one of the Twelve by the Lord? As we prepare to move into our newly renovated church' we will need to train all our servers again. There is plenty to do and your prayers and cooperation are needed if we are to be the parish family God is calling us to be. It would be a great blessing for our parish to have girls and young ladies who are willing to serve 0ur Lord in the Mass as a sacristan and boys and young men serving 0ur Lord in the Mass as an altar boy. In upcoming bulletins' I will address the specifics of these apostolates. Stay tuned for training dates and more information.