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The priest’s role in the Mass is an act of fatherhood

February 13, 2015
Father Joseph Illo

I’ve been asked to respond to letters regarding Star of the Sea’s altar server program. I am grateful to Rick DelVecchio and his staff at Catholic San Francisco for providing a fine newspaper in which we can discuss questions with faith in God and respect for each other.

Forty-nine parishes in the city offer girls the opportunity to serve the Mass, and I think there is room for one parish with a boys-only program. Without making any judgment on other practices, we simply want to provide our boys a more direct participation in the priestly dimension of the Mass. The priest’s role in the Mass is an act of fatherhood – providing “bread” and sacrificing his life for his children. In his beautiful description of Christian family life, St. Paul describes the man’s role in Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.”

God wants a father to love wife and children in a manner specific to his masculinity – “as Christ [the groom] loved the church (the bride).” Once boys begin to realize the sacrificial dimension of the Mass, the desire to become men – to defend their loved ones with their lives – awakens within them. Of course, a father, including a priest who shepherds his parish, loves his daughters as well as his sons. Certainly I cherish the girls as much as the boys and the girls at Star of the Sea are being offered opportunities to serve God in ways they find exciting and satisfying.

Twenty-one years ago, the Catholic Church began allowing girls to serve the Mass. In the letter granting that permission (from the Congregation for Divine Worship, dated March 15, 1994), we find these words: “The Holy See wishes to recall that it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue.” Why does the church favor altar boys rather than altar girls? Is she sexist, or simply stupidly archaic, or motivated by base paternalism?

I think the church prefers altar boys because the Mass is an action of the High Priest, who represents God as Father. In one sense, we, the church, are all feminine before this great mystery, which means we receive only to give back. While women can serve the Mass, the fatherly dimension of this sacrifice is more clearly represented by men. No doubt many girls can help the priest at Mass better than many boys, but “helping the priest” is not the deeper purpose for altar boys. They enter into the priestly sacrifice of the Mass within the presbyterium, that liturgical area around the altar set aside for the priestly action.

Many will disagree with me, and they have that right. The universal church, and our local archbishop, support pastors who choose both ways. It’s a big church, and she provides different approaches to worship. Many in my parish are grateful for this policy, and many are open to rethinking the question.

I offer some thoughts along with my thanks to those who wrote letters last week. Deacon Michael Murphy writes that “without exception” everyone he talked to was outraged. I will just note that of the 306 emails I received, 67 were negative and 239 were positive. He describes my “vocations argument” as “ludicrous in the extreme,” and Deacon Dana Perrigan states that no facts support the altar boy-vocation connection. But the Congregation for Divine Worship makes that very argument in the document quoted above, and “altar boy only” parishes generally have abundant priestly vocations. My last parish currently has three men in the seminary, while the Diocese of Lincoln, which has never had altar girls, has more vocations per capita than any other American diocese.

Susanne Reed wonders if females at Star of the Sea will be denied all roles in the parish. Of course, we are not denying the specifically feminine genius but simply affirming that some roles are better served by one sex or the other. Jennie Jue states that no church doctrine “says there can be no girl servers,” but I would refer her to the 1994 document cited above, which states that no bishop is obligated to begin permitting altar girls. Richard Morasci finds it odd that girls, who often do a “better job,” should be denied the right to serve. But my point is not who can help the priest better, but who better represents fatherhood at the altar. Denis Nolan claims that Mary was a priest, but the church has never understood her role as merely that – quite the opposite in the document cited above. Julia Dowd rightly laments the church’s harmful discrimination against women, but I contend that a boys-only program helps both boys and girls, just as scouting programs and single-sex education benefits everyone. And finally Christin Marie-Angela Creighton points out that our ultimate end is to become a saint, and that does not depend on being an altar boy or girl, but rather in trusting Christ and his church.

We live in a time of sexual confusion, especially here in San Francisco. I hope giving girls and boys distinct roles at Star will strengthen their God-given vocations to holiness as young men and young women. May Holy Mary, whom God called to a higher vocation than any priest, help us to rejoice in her Son’s will for each of us.

Father Illo is administrator of Star of the Sea Parish, San Francisco.

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