The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Thursday, April 08, 2004  

Please, No More Altar Boys

A few weeks ago, while attending Mass at my new Philadelphia parish, I saw something rather remarkable: I saw an altar server, someone otherwise, or in times past, known as an altar boy.

I was rather surprised, as I hadn’t seen one in years. Many years. Male or female, boy or girl. (This one was a young boy.)

The priest made a point of expressing his gratitude for the boy’s service.

All well and good, I suppose, and while I have no reason to think the boy is at any risk of any harm whatsoever -- since some 90-plus percent, I’m estimating, of the abuse cases about which we read on a nearly daily basis are a thing of the past, the Catholic Church receiving no credit whatsoever for its efforts over the past twenty years to rid its ranks of predators -- the question that ran through my mind was, “Why is he here?”

The Catholic Mass is “run” and “managed” by the priest (I’m being colloquial here.), who these days assisted by a variety of servants, including deacons, liturgical ministers, and Eucharistic ministers, lay and clergy, male and female, men and women.

Given the number of adult lay Catholics who desire greatly to serve the Church in such capacities, why are there today any altar servers at all?

For decades the deployment of altar boys was justified as an appropriate “occupation” for boys “discerning a vocation.” The Church, except in rare, odd, and in my opinion, unjustifiable, circumstances, no longer puts teenage boys into formation.

Likewise, it’s time to end the longstanding tradition of altar boys and with that the more recent emergence of altar servers. Their service, while appreciated, is no longer needed.

[Post-publication addendum (April 9): Reader M.C. writes:

[I take issue with your view that the Church should discontinue the practice of using young boys and girls as altar servers. I was a serverfor many years. I can't think of how many masses I served but there were many. To this day, I consider my time spent as an altar boy one of the proudest and rewarding of my life. The level of spirituality that is experienced by being a fundamental part in the consecration of the host is hard to surpass.

[More kids, not fewer, should be altar servers. My experiences with the priests was nothing but respectful and there was never any hint of any inappropriate conduct. Many of them took a strong interest in us and in our lives. I don't think solving the problem of child abuse by priests by abolishing the use of young boys and girls as altar servers is the solution. You would be penalizing the person(s) who did not commit the crime.

[The fact that many kids today willing serve as alter servers despite the abuse scandals is a strong testament to how enriching this experience can be. Just ask them.]

[Post-publication addendum (April 10):

[Reader and blogger Nichole Dulin of Passenger Pachyderms writes:

[I must respectfully disagree with your plea for an end to the institution of Altar Boys.

[In the United Methodist Church the equivalent to an altar boy is an acolyte. I am more familiar with the acolyte position, because I was one. My cousins, however, are all Irish-Catholic, and over the years we have compared notes, so I believe I can draw the comparison.

[The main purpose of involving children in the rituals of a Church mass/service is to interest children in the Church and encourage children to take a proud role in their church. Their presence adds consequence, even majesty, to the ritual that is a mass (or service, depending). Their relatively inconsequential aid to the priest or pastor is not intended to be for the officiates’ convenience.

[The position is one of responsibility for the children. They are placed in a situation where they have a set of well-defined duties and fairly simplistic tasks that must be performed efficiently, quietly, quickly, and in front of a large group of people. It is a test of their patience and fortitude.

[Younger children in the congregation look not just at the pastor, but at the older children, dressed in robes and participating in the mass. They look forward, as I did, to being trusted with the same responsibility.

[The position could also be seen as a kind of recruiting tool for future priests (a decreasingly popular vocation) or at the very least, a recruiting tool for active laypeople. Children who have the opportunity to interact with clergy will develop a better understanding of their relationship to, and with, the church.]

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