Thursday, 19 August 2010

Being an altar server: thoughts on an article in the Osservatore Romano

An article entitled "Un'esperienza per educare alla fede: A scuola dai chierichetti" in a recent issue of the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano has given rise to the trouble with girls and sisters in the sanctuary at tigerish waters, and Girl Altar Servers Endorsed by Vatican Newspaper at Catholic Analysis. Do go and read these posts before reading on.

An experience for education in the faith: at school with the altar servers. My translation of the title of the Osservatore Romano article. It is interesting to read the full article and try to understand the sense in which the title of Catholic Analysis's post accurately represents its content. The article certainly writes approvingly of the practice of girl altar servers. The arguments presented in support of that approval are educational and catechetical .... they are not arguments arising from the nature of the liturgy or of the priesthood. I would suggest that the endorsement of girl altar servers is on educational and catechetical grounds, and not on liturgical or theological grounds. This is interesting, as it means that the Osservatore Romano article offers only a partial perspective on the subject.

Lucetta Scaraffia's article sees the role of the altar server as being one of
assisting the priest ... to assist closely, or better, to collaborate directly in the central mystery of our faith....

To be an altar server has always been seen, in fact, as a service but also as a privilege because it leads to the heart of the liturgical celebration, to the space of the altar, to direct contact with the Eucharist.
I do find attractive in the article a very strong sense of the high value to be placed upon the ministry of the altar server.

But the author's key context for understanding the role of the altar server is to place it within the wider context of catechesis or education for the faith, and the two key sentences from the article make for interesting reading. I have added bold, not for emphasis, but to connect to my comments that follow:
To be an altar server constitutes a profound and responsible way of living one's Christian identity, an experience that has no equal, that is distinctive compared to the reading of Scripture or from attending catechism classes, even though these are without doubt central moments of a Catholic education ....

The exclusion of girls from all of this [service at the altar], for the only reason that they are of the feminine sex, always weighs heavily and has signified a profound inequality at the centre of Catholic education, which luckily has been cancelled for several decades.
There seems to me an implicit suggestion in the first paragraph that being an altar server is in some way a key expression of the Christian identity of the person who serves, a key expression of their lay identity since they are not priests or deacons. It is certainly a great privilege, but I do think we need to be cautious in considering it an expression of lay Christian identity. Those boys who do not serve might well still live a Christian life in another way, so, if being an altar server is to be seen as a form of Christian identity, it must be a form that is accepted as not being universal, even among boys.

The second paragraph clearly puts the argument for girl altar servers in the context of its educational value [though the author does subsequently observe that the removal of the ban on girl altar servers ended once and for all any attribution of impurity to their sex]. I don't think the question was ever one of the exclusion of girls simply being because they were girls; it related to the sign value of the male altar server in relation to the male priest, a theological/liturgical discussion that is not pursued one way or the other in the Osservatore Romano article.

It is certainly the case that serving at the altar represents an opportunity to grow in knowledge and understanding of the liturgy, and the good pastoral priest or MC will make use of this opportunity on behalf of their servers. Allowing girls to serve at the altar does, as Lucetta Scaraffia points out, give them an access to this same educational opportunity that was previously only available to boys. It also represents an interesting situation when a priest comes to talk about vocations with his altar servers. That conversation can no longer be limited to the vocation to the ordained priesthood, but now needs to be broadened out to include the possibilities of religious life, possibilities that are open to both boys and girls. I think this would lead to an education in a wider sense of the liturgy, that is not limited to just the celebration of Mass, but which embraces a sense of the celebration of saints feast days, of the liturgical seasons and of a sense of private prayer in relation to liturgical prayer.

But serving at the altar is not the only way in which this type of closeness to and growth in knowledge of the liturgy can be achieved. Taking part in a liturgical choir is another way of doing this. At one time, I attended Mass in a parish where most of the altar servers at the family Mass on a Sunday were boys, and most of the choir were girls. Times of Eucharistic Adoration can also be used to allow children to come up close to the altar, to achieve a sense of closeness without it constituting service at the altar. These are ways equally accessible to girls and boys.

Catholic Analysis and tigerish waters offer some other thoughts around this article. As far as tigerish waters observations on suitable dress in the sanctuary is concerned - my smart sanctuary wear (I don't usually have need to wear it at all now) used to take a good hour to press before a major Solemnity, so I think the ladies are getting away lightly with their linen tabards!

No comments: