Altar servers are in the news once again as a priest in the neighboring Archdiocese of San Francisco has decided to eliminate female altar servers.  This follows a recent interview with Cardinal Burke where he suggested that female altar servers have contributed to a loss in priestly vocations.

While it’s possible that a decline in altar serving among young men has played a role in the decline in vocations, it is almost certainly dwarfed by other causes: widening professional opportunities for Catholic men, smaller families, a shifting sexual culture, secularism, and the rise of an active and engaged laity to name just a few. 

More fundamentally, however, Vatican II’s reform of the liturgy changed the role of the server in ways that make it harder to play the role as a seedbed for vocations that it played in the past.  In the pre-conciliar liturgy, servers actually had a fair bit to do.  They prayed certain prayers after the priest (ostensibly on behalf of “the people”), rang bells during the consecration, and held a paten under a communicant’s chin to catch fragments of the host.  Most masses--even daily Masses--had at least one server and the work of the server required fairly close collaboration with the priest throughout the Mass.

In most parishes where I’ve attended Mass during my life, however, the servers usually have a much more limited role.  They usually bear the candles (and sometimes the processional cross) during the entrance and the offertory;  hold the Missal during the collects; and assist the priest during the lavabo.   In cases where the parish still rings bells at the elevation, this is also one of the server’s duties.  Very rarely have I seen servers prepare the altar.

There is a self-reinforcing quality about this limited role.  My experience is that serving tends to attract middle-schoolers (many drift out of it by high school) which means that priests are probably less willing to entrust more responsibility to them.  But the relatively minimal responsibilities mean that it’s probably less attractive to older kids.  Nor do I get the impression that recruiting and forming altar servers ranks high on most pastors’ lists of responsibilities.  It tends to get delegated to the parish liturgist, music director, or youth minister.

There is one aspect of Cardinal Burke’s argument that does ring true to me.  In the absence of efforts to actively recruit young men to altar service, young women and girls often come to make up a majority of those serving.  There is nothing particularly wrong with this imbalance (which is reflected in most other parish activities), but if one is serious about having the parish altar service program be a source of priestly vocations, the lack of boys does become something of a problem.

In a sense, there is no “solution” here if the aim is to make altar service the source of vocations it was it in the past.  That is not going to happen and restricting altar service to boys, questions of discrimination aside, is not going to change that.  Having said that, I think it would be valuable to find ways to give altar servers a larger role in our liturgies and this could be done in ways that would at least improve the likelihood that young men might have the kind of experience that would lead them to consider a priestly vocation.

First, if altar service is going to serve this role, the pastor must take a leading role in the recruitment, training, and development of altar servers.  In the past, I think it was the experience of close collaboration with the priest, and not just altar service per se, that sparked thoughts of a vocation.  The priest and the servers, for example, should vest together and pray together before the beginning of the Mass. In my experience, this is often replaced by a collective prayer of all of those involved in the entrance procession.  Not a bad thing, but it tends to reinforce the sense that this large group of adults is “in charge” and the kids are clearly in a subordinate role.

Second, we should consider some expanded roles for older altar servers, such as the preparation of the altar, distribution of communion, and the purification of the sacred vessels.  I realize that some of these ideas would require changes to current liturgical law, but I do not see any reason not to confer these responsibilities upon teens of sufficient maturity and seriousness. 

Third, and perhaps more daring, is the idea of employing altar servers in other roles where they can collaborate with a priest.  I’m thinking of home blessings and visitation of the sick for example.  Why not have an altar server of sufficient age and maturity assist the priest in the liturgical aspects of these duties?  This, too, would give them more of a sense of what priestly ministry entails.  It would also reinforce the connection between Sunday liturgy and the lived experience of Christian faith in the world.

All of these ideas could make an impact and none of them requires excluding women from altar service.   What they do require, however, is time and work, which are never in great supply, particularly among priests.  But if we are serious about restoring the links between altar service and priestly vocations, time and work are going to be required.

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