Altar Girl

Altar Service Mass, St John's Cathedral, Norwich, 2019. Photograph by Roman Catholic Diocese of East Anglia
Altar Service Mass, St John’s Cathedral, Norwich, 2019. Photograph by Roman Catholic Diocese of East Anglia

Jacinia breezes along the aisles, gathering kisses from the ladies seated in pews.

Bendición, they say as she bends into them. God bless you, she says
   in return. The possibility that someone might not welcome her does not enter her head. She tries to remember what she’s been told and stops herself from running in church. Instead, she skips into the vestry and returns in a flash, brown skin luminous against a white robe. On the altar are polished chalices and cut-glass cruets and a cluster of brass sanctus bells. Jacinia outshines them all.

She spies the parish priest and races his way. She’s a small girl and he’s as tall as a tree. Padre Bob! she says and wraps herself around the trunk of his leg. That he’s talking to someone else, that he’s not as quickly or easily demonstrative in his affection—these are not her concerns. She finds the other server and moves with him to the back of the church. They stand there, a quiet boy and an electric girl, waiting for the priest in his flowing vestments and the two deacons—one with the silver Jesus hair, and the other who elevates the gilded Book of the Gospels over his tremendous belly—to begin the procession down the aisle.

In some places she could not exist. While the American church, by and large, has come to accept female servers, they are not universally embraced. The Vatican allowed wiggle room on the matter in 1983 and officially dropped its ban in 1994 when it allowed but did not require that female servers be invited to assist during Mass. The decision was left to bishops, who, in turn, often left it to pastors. Only one United States diocese (Lincoln, Nebraska) prohibits girls entirely, though individual parishes and pastors have elected not to use them.

A few years ago the pastor of Star of the Sea Church in San Francisco announced his plan to eliminate female servers. “Boys usually end up losing interest because girls generally do a better job,” the priest said, and more importantly: “Altar service is intrinsically tied to the priesthood
and serves as feeder programs for
the seminary.”

His view echoes one of the most conservative voices in the Church. Cardinal Raymond Burke has also charged that allowing girls on the altar has hurt vocations.

“Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural,” Burke said at about the same time. The focus on women’s issues has led the church to become “very feminized,” according to Burke, who claimed this turned off men who “respond to rigor and precision and excellence.”

In the early 1980s the Bishop of Rochester took the radical position that women were equal to men. In his first pastoral letter Bishop Matthew Clark issued a ninety-two-point treatise highlighting the historic and problematic uneasiness of clergy relative to women, while championing their increased role: They wish to be acknowledged as full members of the Church, Clark wrote, but they wish this joy also for every member of the Church, male or female, lay person, priest, deacon or religious.

Local churches were encouraged to assign women more visible roles, which included increasing their presence on the altar. Because canon law dictates that only the ordained can deliver homilies and because Rome forbids their ordination, women are precluded from preaching by design. Bishop Clark understood this but invited parishes to be creative, which allowed women to offer post-Gospel reflections in consultation with pastors and amounted to de facto preaching.

But even before Clark became bishop, a dynamic young priest assigned to my parish welcomed women into leadership roles. Twenty-nine-year-old Father Jim Callan was a gifted speaker, and so were the women he invited to preach. So gifted, I’ve spent years trying to find homilies of the same caliber. I’ve had to look hard because in the past two decades a shift occurred in the church hierarchy as Clark and similarly inclined bishops were replaced. Women’s voices were silenced, their bodies banished again to the shadows. But back in the late 1970s and 1980s—perhaps because ours was a city church on the brink of dying and no one bothered to look closely—an air of openness flourished. Father McCabe before him had allowed girls to serve at Corpus Christi when no boys were available, as pinch hitters of sorts, but Father Callan became the first in the city, and in the region perhaps, to regularly welcome girls to serve at Mass.

That is how I came to be an altar girl.

Pope John Paul II with altar girls. Photograph by Kurt20008
Pope John Paul II with altar girls. Photograph by Kurt20008

M

Why then did I say to my school principal that women shouldn’t be priests?

It was middle school. That might explain it. I was in Sister Eileen’s office serving time for some minor infraction or had stopped by to describe the latest romantic upheaval on General Hospital when somehow the topic shifted to church and she said some people believed women should be allowed to be priests. “No way.” My words reverberated throughout the office lined with shelves of old textbooks and bent file cabinets. Neat spaces, but small and worn, the offices in which legions of Catholic women labor.

“Why not?” Sister Eileen went on with what she’d been doing, straightening files or copying figures as we talked. Who knows what nonsense I muttered in reply? There was only the sense that I’d disappointed her—not in my opinion so much as in my lack of thought. I enjoyed the rare privilege of serving on a Catholic altar and listening to women preach but never once considered that a woman might preside at Mass.

No way, I’d said. A girl from a single-parent home, the daughter of a mother who refused makeup, went bow-hunting, and regularly rejected social conventions. Was my need for father figures so profound I could not risk muddling the one place where they were routinely offered? Was I so used to men in the most important roles—presidents and mayors and popes—that by age twelve I’d already lost the ability to imagine a woman leading a country, a city, a church?

G

rown-ups, it turned out, could be every bit as reactive as a middle school girl.

Rochester’s bishop continued to welcome women into leadership roles. As vocations to the priesthood diminished, women took on formerly priestly functions such as pastoral counseling, liturgical planning, and carrying the Eucharist to nursing homes and hospitals. This was the case in many churches, but at Corpus Christi women became increasingly active on the altar. People began to grumble. The loudest complaints came from outside the parish, a small but vocal contingent who longed for a return to “tradition”—by which they did not mean the original tradition of Christianity as an inclusive band of radicals who threatened the establishment, but the status quo hundreds of years later, when the Church had solidified into the establishment itself and the closest the female body got to the altar was to set out flowers and dust candlesticks.

That Father Callan and his lead associate, Mary Ramerman, were not timid only magnified matters as Mary inched her way into spaces reserved for men. First she read the gospel and delivered homilies. Next she began to wear priestly vestments, to lift the chalice at the consecration, to hear confessions. If that weren’t enough, there was an air about her. Entitlement, some might say. A well-developed backbone and unwillingness to take a back seat. The makings of a fine pastor, perhaps, but in a woman such qualities are harder to take—though a woman without such qualities would squander her time waiting to be permitted into sacred space. Over the centuries how many gifted women had done just that?

The bishop came under fire by both camps. At one extreme his liberalism was blamed for the disintegration of local Catholicism, while at the other there was outrage he didn’t further his progressive stance. Things reached a fever pitch. Outsiders sneaked into Corpus Christi with cameras and tape recorders to gather evidence of infractions, which they included in letters of complaint to Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.

In the end Bishop Clark was charged with bringing the parish back in line. His reassignment of Father Callan caused a firestorm. Most of the thousands who’d joined the parish during his tenure rebelled. Whether
the various attempts at reconciliation were thwarted or half-hearted to begin with, they eventually failed, and in
1999 Father Callan and his former
staff formed a new church (Spiritus Christi), causing a schism that made national headlines.

For Catholics it was a battle without victors. Those who’d pushed for what they saw as orthodoxy were appeased, perhaps, that after twenty-two years Father Callan was ousted and Mary Ramerman gone along with him. They would no longer have to trouble themselves with the image of a woman daring to stand at the center of a Catholic church. In their new parish Father Callan and Mary Ramerman continued their work—attracting new parishioners and expanding outreach programs, finding that those they sheltered and fed did not concern themselves with the parish’s standing with Rome. Meanwhile the diocese lost its most dynamic flock, thousands of committed and generous parishioners who’d staffed and funded vigorous social justice programs, including a homeless shelter and hospice, community health clinics, and prison programs. In one week alone parish collections plummeted from $24,000 to $7,000. Within months more pews were vacant than when the dynamic young priest had arrived two decades before. These days male clerics have the pulpit all to themselves, but increasingly preach to rows of empty seats.

C

ardinal Burke presided at Mass when I was in Ireland two summers ago.

He was attended by boys in lace frocks and men in heavily brocaded chasubles who displayed varying levels of deference depending on level and rank. They genuflected and knelt, incensed the spaces around him, and carried his crozier as he walked. They bowed deeply and removed the Cardinal’s miter as he sat in his throne, then bowed deeply again and put it back on. On and off went the hat, here and there swung the censer, as the group of men buzzed about the altar.

I was teaching in Cork that summer and had come to SS. Peter and Paul’s to hear an Irish Mass. The usher noticed me, a stranger in the last row, and came over: “Now if you’ll stick around, you’ll see something special, a High Mass celebrated by Cardinal Burke himself.”

I’d already sat through one Mass and decided to stay for the next. The stew of Celtic syllables had been undecipherable, but the Irish Mass had engaged me at least. Now the men on the altar behaved as if on an island.
The disconnection was mutual. People came in to light candles and let the doors thud behind them as they
rattled about with strollers and
crinkling parcels. Worshippers arrived throughout the service and traipsed down the center aisle in swishy jackets and high-heeled shoes.

I thought of the jewelry box I once had, whose plastic ballerina popped up the moment the lid was opened and stopped dancing the moment it closed. The jewelry box didn’t last long. It wasn’t well made and I never had anything suitable to put inside it. But back when it was still around, I’d occasionally get caught up by the spinning fluff of the ballerina’s skirt. So pretty, I’d think, but watching her was always a lonely prospect as she was drawn to nothing so much as the sight of her own turning in the mirror and never once looked back.

O

ne cannot be shocked when cardinals like Burke or Ratzinger oppose women on the altar. But to the disappointment of many, even the much beloved Pope Francis has ruled out female priests. In response to shrinking vocations, the Pope has indicated an openness to reevaluating mandatory clerical celibacy rather than considering female ordination, suggesting that even the most progressive of recent pontiffs can better envision the loss of the much-touted tradition of celibacy (with its own admonishments of the female body) to a woman presiding at the altar. It’s possible he’s moving slowly and must keep his intentions hidden, but he sent no hints of openness when questioned about the matter by a Swedish journalist a few years back. Instead, he invoked Pope John Paul II’s 1994 letter confirming that women could never be priests:


Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself . . . I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

Pope Francis, referring to the letter, said: “John Paul II had the last clear word on this, and it stands.”

Most who oppose the female body on the altar don’t claim that women aren’t worthy. Women are simply different, they say, and throw their hands in the air while declaring allegiance to divine law. Jesus never chose a female apostle, they charge, while allowing themselves to forget—at least for the moment—Jesus’ radical message of inclusion, the fact that he consistently chose it over the established rules and counted women among his most trusted friends.

In the same interview with the Swedish writer, Pope Francis, perhaps feeling dogged by the female problem, invoked Mary: “People ask me:
‘Who is more important in the
theology or in the spirituality of the church, the apostles or Mary, on the day of Pentecost?’”

“It is Mary,” the good pope said, and must have felt his answer was a gift.

M

ary’s popularity reaches beyond the Church. Even ex-Catholics often respond favorably to her image. When I attended the Feast of Guadalupe Mass at Corpus Christi this past December, the visiting priest told the story of Our Lady’s apparitions outside Mexico City in 1531. She’d appeared not to a king or even a cleric but to the peasant Juan Diego. With dark skin and black hair, the Virgin spoke not the Spanish of European conquerors but the native Nahuatl. The priest continued on, singing Our Lady’s praises. Nuestra Señora, he preached in Spanish, the most important of women. Without sin. A model of piety, faith, and grace.

But, he admonished, María no es Dios. Mary is not God.

He said it several times, slow and loud, enunciating every syllable. I’d heard the message before, of course: Mary was a vessel, the bringer of God, and not God herself. But the way the young priest said it—the very weight of his correction—made it seem as if the mere suggestion that Mary might be divine was somehow insulting to God.

Everyone sat for the duration of Mass and, apart from Communion and the Sign of Peace, remained politely contained in their seats. The church did not come alive, really, until the end, when children in peasant shirts and embroidered dresses formed a line and, one at a time, approached the altar and left bundles of roses before an oversized image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Adults came forward too, wearing T-shirts and ponchos emblazoned with her image. On the way into church I’d passed a truck with decals of la Virgen on its bumper, side panels, and rear glass. I thought of trips to Mexico where la Virgen reigns supreme. Surrounded by sunbursts and crowned with stars, she dangles from necklaces and rear-view mirrors. Her image is painted onto cowboy boots and teacups, bedazzled onto denim jackets, and carved onto the center of dining room tables. She’s tattooed onto forearms, ankles, and the delicate patch of skin inside the wrist. As I was dining with a friend in a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, our waiter revealed a peek of Our Lady’s mantle near his collarbone—the radiant tip of an image of la Virgen which he smiled and explained bloomed over the entire plane of his chest.

“I

used to be an altar girl,” I say to Jacinia. “A long time ago, in this church.”

I’m sitting in back where she and the quiet boy wait for the priest and the deacons to line up.

“You were?” She raises her brows.

I nod, but don’t tell her I wasn’t a good one, that the priest suggested at several junctures that I reconsider my calling—but only because I was never quite comfortable with so many eyes on me. Perhaps that’s why I liked the bells so much, and the ability to make a joyous noise while hidden behind the altar cloth.

I don’t say this to Jacinia. Nor do I say that it was breaking the rules for a girl to stand so near the tabernacle in those days. I don’t say that our priest had been brave, that it had meant something to be admitted into such sacred space, that I might be worthy of it somehow.

Things change in a heartbeat. Not the Church perhaps— though given the empty pews and the ongoing anger over clerical transgressions, it will continue to harden and crumble or must eventually give way. Who knows what Catholicism will look like by the time Jacinia wanders into her late forties and begins to question what it all means? I see her then, the future Jacinia, pushing through the Main Street doors and making her way down the center aisle, remembering the ladies with their kisses and the blue candles flickering in a rack near the statue of Our Lady, the way it seemed the entire sanctuary bent to receive her.

Ah, but now the priest has arrived and the choir starts up with their tambourines and maracas. The congregation stands and claps to the strum of instruments and lively bounce of voices as the white-robed group processes down the aisle. The deacon with the long silver hair smiles as the other hoists the ornate book over the globe of his belly. Together they reach the sanctuary and bow. The boy returns the processional cross to its rack and slips with Jacinia into the seat behind the priest. He’s an extraordinary priest, backbreakingly generous and alive in ways that most of us are not, but Jacinia is where the eye goes. Not because she seeks attention—she is, in fact, comfortable enough to sit back. Nor because she’s pretty, for that’s to be expected with little girls. No, Jacinia draws the eye because that which we come to church to pray for—she is filled with that. υ

St Wilfrid's Church dedication. Bishop Richard with Altar Servers. Photograph by Diocese of Arundel and Brighton
St Wilfrid’s Church dedication. Bishop Richard with Altar Servers. Photograph by Diocese of Arundel and Brighton

Excerpted from The Virgin of Prince Street by Sonja Livingston by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. ©2019 by Sonja Livingston.

From ParabolaVolume 44, No. 4, “Goddess,” Fall 2019. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing. Four times a yearParabola has explored the deepest questions of human existence. Without your support, we would cease to exist. Please consider helping us by making a donation.