Saturday, January 23, 2010

Soldiers for Christ

About ten years ago, our pastor at the time was a rather conservative priest, very orthodox and particular in the celebration of the liturgy. He maintained a small army of well-trained altar servers, all of them boys. Shortly after his assignment to our parish, he dispensed with the servers’ albs and robed them in cassocks and surpluses. Two to four servers were assigned to each Mass, and on special occasions such as Holy Week or Christmas, they all served en masse.

The servers grew to be a rather close-knit group. The older boys got the envied jobs of cross-bearers, bell ringers and incense lighters. They trained the younger servers and taught liturgical protocol by their example. Maneuvers around the altar were coordinated and reverent. Father usually rewarded them with an amusement park outing during the summer.

Eventually during Father’s time here, a few parishioners began to take exception to his conservative ways. Among their complaints was the fact that only boys were allowed to serve at Mass. Most other parishes in the diocese permitted girls to serve, a privilege left to the discretion of the parish priest. Amid persistent pressure from a few parents, Father relented and allowed girls to join the ranks. Among them was my daughter although I was not a proponent of the change. I had reservations about breaking the all-male tradition. Even though priestly vocations are rare in our parish (only two that I know of in our 128 year history), being an altar server is a first step in that direction.

Looking back over the past ten years, I realize my concerns were not without merit. Once girls infiltrated the serving ranks, the fraternity fell apart. Interaction between pre-adolescent boys and girls is awkward at best. What was once much a relationship much like the Boy Scouts soon lost all its comradery. Some boys were reluctant to get involved, and it was not long before girl servers out-numbered the boys. Without the mentoring that took place in the past, the reverent postures and precise movements posture around the altar deteriorated to the point of distraction.

I am not blaming the girls for the changes that took place. Their inclusion in the serving ranks was just one of many changes happening in the church at the time. Our current pastor has taken steps to improve the training of the servers. Both boys and girls are doing better these days, although still a far cry from what they were years ago. I do not know the numbers, but I imagine the girls still outnumber the boys by a few, and it is difficult to go back without being labeled a chauvinist. That did not stop a parish in Minnesota from trying however.

In a blog by Father John Zuhlsdorf, he reports on a post from Stella Borealis telling of two men in a Minnesota parish who increased the number of male altar boys from 10 to 60 by making the rules more demanding. They approached their pastor with a plan for boys only that included training, a system of ranks with cool nicknames, a more reverent atmosphere with cassocks, surpluses and uniform footwear, and a program of outside activities such as bowling and fishing. The boys were motivated by the hierarchy of ranks, along with the program’s high standards of order and discipline.

Implementing such a program would be difficult in parishes where girls have already been permitted to serve, which is probably most everywhere. All servers, boys and girls, would benefit from higher standards of order and discipline. I see servers in our parish arriving late in all kinds of dress, oblivious to the Blessed Sacrament exposed for Eucharistic Adoration, and genuflecting in way where the knee never touches the floor. A little training and higher standards could go a long way. Holding the position of altar server should require certain responsibilities, such as observing dress codes, being on time, and maintaining reverence.

In my day, server training was done primarily by the Sisters of St. Francis who taught at our Catholic School. They attended most every Mass, so they knew who was performing properly. The nuns are long gone from our parish, leaving server training to the priest. The problem is that the priest cannot see what is going on behind him. Many of the server duties take place out of his view. For that reason, trainers other than the priest have the best opportunity to coach servers and evaluate their progress. The post cited above suggests finding adult leaders to run the server program. Sounds like a good idea to me.