Servers, Service, and Sex

One subset of priests I’ve known over the years have been musicians/never-pastors. In one parish I served, a semi-retired navy veteran who was a fine organist had regular liturgical duties. He preached once a month. He accompanied the choir every Sunday at the middle morning Mass. He had always served as an associate pastor, and always in a parish with a pipe organ.

Another good priest I knew years ago was the diocesan director of liturgy. He, too, had never served as head of a parish. He was an exceptional organist, and I got the sense (from my pastor and a few other clerics) he was a suspect because he preferred to chum with lay people (especially church musicians) and he was not a golfer, card player, or a hanger-on with other priests.

It would not surprise me that both of these guys got their start in ministry from playing the organ at Mass in grade school. Ordination followed from there, perhaps on a more-or-less direct vector.

I find myself slightly sympathetic to the perhaps-dumb idea that there is a direct route from altar boy to priest. Personally, I’ve encouraged altar servers to continue on another vector: to Communion minister or to sacristan. That is, at least, under my control as a parish liturgist: to persuade people to go deeper into service. I wonder how many clergy like Joseph Illo encourage their charges to get a fuller sense of service before packaging them off to seminary. Do they serve lay people rather than just priests by distributing the Eucharist? Do they visit the sick? Do they serve in leadership positions with their peers? Or represent them on parish councils? Do they greet people at the church doors, seat them, take their money, and clean up cheerios and gum after Mass?

Are priests who cultivate altar boys taking the easy way out? Are they too lazy to meet young men home from college break, who play sports for their school or in the community, or who hang out with the youth minister?

I wonder if the better, stronger, surer path to priesthood runs through a broader discipleship, and not just liturgical service. I wonder if the more effective path is to cultivate the call of baptism first, and later start discerning with young people where their God-given gifts fit in the arc of their lives.

sex and religiosity

My own sense is that if girls tend to be more religious, their extreme end is slightly in front of the male curve. But most boys are more religious than some girls. Whether that is the only field in which the Sower plants the seed: that’s a matter for some serious consideration.

I may be biased because of my mine years in campus ministry, but I would say a more fruitful ground than the chairs next to the priest is secular college campuses. Large public universities often have the highest concentrations of baptized Catholics most anywhere in a diocese. The problem, of course, is that most of them weren’t attracted to Sunday Mass, let alone taking a role in it. And that can be a difficult task for an evangelization-minded minister. It’s rather easy to select one’s clientele, isn’t it? Nothing like putting limits on God to make one’s life easier.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Church News, Commentary, Liturgy, Ministry. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Servers, Service, and Sex

  1. Jen says:

    Do you read Quantum Theology? The author had a great takedown of the assertion that girls as altar servers discourage men to enter the seminary.

  2. FrMichael says:

    Well, we have one diocese where altar servers have to be male: Lincoln. Vocations to the priesthood through the roof. We then have varying degrees of AmChurch-itis in the remaining dioceses. The number of priestly vocations varying widely among them, but none are in the ballpark of the powerhouse of Lincoln.

    Meanwhile, in the not-so-Golden State’s CalChurch, Catholic males have a better chance of being struck by lightening than they do becoming a seminarian: There isn’t a diocese in my state that has a laity:seminarian ratio more favorable than 12,000 to 1.

    • Todd says:

      Correlation, causality, etc.. This topic has been covered. Donald Trautmann also had high seminary rates in northwestern Pennsylvania. The causality seems to be priests and especially a bishop who cares to reach out to men. My premise is that if altar servers do develop into priests, that seems a lazy and limited approach by Lincoln bishops and others, eh?

      • Liam says:

        Anyone know how many of Lincoln’s seminarians served as altar servers within diocesan parishes as boys?

      • Todd says:

        Right: Lincoln does take a guys rejected from other parishes. That was also the practice in Kansas City-St Joseph under Bishop Finn. Another thought: are Lincoln’s priests of high quality, like Archbishop Cupich mentioned recently about Chicago?

      • Is that true? Lincoln takes men rejected from other dioceses?

        Wow, boosting their ranks by scraping the bottom of the barrel.

      • Jen says:

        Calling BS on the assertion that there aren’t any seminarians in California. I know that the western Dominican province is bursting at the seams (based in Berkeley/Oakland), and I can name at least three Jesuits in California off the top of my head.

        And, for the record, my old parish–Dominican–not only used girls as altar servers, but also adult women. There were a few men each year who entered the seminary. What mattered more is that *all* vocations were encouraged at the parish, not just the male and celibate ones. My old parish also went to great lengths to try to make everyone welcome. The prevailing attitude was that the parish was a community, not a reward for temple police or those who can parrot the Baltimore Catechism.

    • Melody says:

      Since we lived in the Lincoln Diocese for several years (we now live in one of the other Nebraska dioceses) I feel somewhat qualified to comment on this. It often seems as if people don’t look at any other factors than “no girl altar servers”. I would make the case that there are in fact other significant factors at work here. The first one would be a good Catholic school system. They work really hard at making it affordable and accessible to any family who wants a Catholic education for their children. And there is the culture of the area. The city of Lincoln is the diocese seat and the largest community in it, but it is atypical, in that the rest of the diocese consists of smaller, more rural towns. People there tend to stay in the same communities for generations. There may be some parishes in Lincoln which qualify as “megachurches”, but most of the outstate ones are smaller, where everybody knows everybody. Most people can think of a cousin, or a neighbor, who became a priest. It is easier to think of oneself in that role if you know someone who did. We moved from there nearly 20 years ago; but when we lived there it wasn’t the case that they were taking the rejects from other dioceses, most of the priests were home-grown. There was one instance that we knew of a priest who came from another diocese because he was attracted by the reputation for traditionalism. He was accepted on a trial basis (I believe that would be the procedure in most dioceses). He served in our parish as an associate, and had some personality difficulties in that he couldn’t get along with anyone, and had the parish polarized and upset in short order. Some complaints reached the bishop, and he was gone in a New York (or Nebraska) minute.
      As a woman I find the whole idea that we can build up the priesthood by limiting and proscribing the role of girls and women very disheartening and depressing. But I think that people on both sides of the question need to be fair, the Lincoln diocese should neither be held up as the gold standard of what other dioceses should be like, nor should it be caricaturized as the Trent of the plains; a hundred years behind the times.

  3. FrMichael says:

    Jen, I will be happy to refer to the most recent Kenedy Directory later today and give you real numbers of seminarians and Catholics for the Californian dioceses.

    Also note that I didn’t say there “aren’t any seminarians.” I just said that they are few and far between compared to the millions of Catholics in this state and that a Catholic male is more likely to be struck with lightning than discern a vocation to the diocesan priesthood.

  4. Atheist Max says:

    Lost in the article and in this debate is the tragedy and pain of being labeled a second class citizen by a person who claims to be acting in the best interest of god himself (I won’t cap the G – he doesn’t deserve it).

    This is genuinely painful. As the father of an amazing and beautiful daughter who is the joy of my life it is revolting to see the cavalier and predictable coldness toward an entire sex being dished out by clerics, deacons and even a few women – for simply being born a certain way. For shame.

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