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Of Altar Boys, Cassocks and Surplices

September 12, 2004

Many of you may have noticed at Mass last weekend that we had only altar boys serving, or if you didn’t notice that, then you probably at least noticed that they were all wearing cassocks and surplices. In this week’s bulletin insert I would like to explain these new changes here at St. Thomas.

A little on History
The tradition of altar boys comes from a time in the Church when there were no seminaries. If a young man wanted to be a priest, he would be like an apprentice to the pastor in his local parish. The pastor would teach him how to administer the sacraments, and the young man would serve him at the altar. When he was ready, the candidate for the priesthood would be presented to the bishop for ordination. Then, when seminaries were invented, and young men destined for the priesthood no longer assisted the local parish priest in this way, their place was taken by men or boys.

In March 1994, a Circular Letter was sent from the Congregation for Divine Worship, allowing each bishop to decide to allow girls to begin serving at the altar. This permission was granted with one important note as part of its text: “The Holy See respects the decision adopted by certain Bishops for specific local reasons on the basis of the provisions of Canon 230 2. At the same time, however, 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.”

When this letter was first published many priests thought that they were obligated, if their own bishop decided in favor of girl altar servers, to invite them to serve alongside the boys. However in June of 2001 it was clarified that this was not in fact the case: “In accord with the above cited instructions of the Holy See, such an authorization may not in any way exclude men or, in particular, boys from service at the altar nor require that priests of the diocese would make use of female altar servers, since "it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar" (circular letter, 2). Indeed, the obligation to support groups of altar boys will always remain, not least of all due to the well known assistance that such programs have provided since time immemorial in encouraging future priestly vocations.”

“Switching Back”
With permission thus given, many people are probably wondering why we are “switching back” to having only boys serve at the altar.

There is really only one reason: The promotion of vocations to the priesthood. The greatest practical difficulty we are facing in the Church in America is the shortage of ordained priests. It is probably the thing that the Church and bishops have spent the most time talking about in each diocese and at the national level for the last twenty years. To be frank, much time has been wasted, and energy misdirected into conversations about other possible solutions, such as married clergy, part-time priests, and ordaining women. While the more sophisticated might discuss these things, it is now time to just get down to work and start doing the things that are actually going to help young men consider the idea of a life spent following Jesus Christ as one of His priests.

As history shows us, and as the Vatican Statement point out, having altar boys is meant to plant the seed or the idea of vocations in the mind of young men. The whole of the priest’s life is directed toward the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries, and to invite the boys and young men to participate intimately in those celebrations, cannot help but get them thinking about the possibility of thus directing their lives as well.

Having only altar boys will give me the opportunity to call the boys into a set-apart group, where they can feel like they are doing something very special to serve the Church and Jesus Christ by serving at the Altar. Reflecting on my own life’s vocational discernment, as well as looking at the practical numbers of boys and young men involved in the parish makes me think that, oftentimes, the boys need a special encouragement to get them involved in a lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ.

Having a group of altar boys helps to do just that. As Pope John Paul said, when addressing altar servers in Rome, “Your commitment to the altar is not only a duty, but a great honor, a genuine holy service. I have spoken of friendship with Jesus. How happy I would be if something more sprang from this friendship! How beautiful it would be if some of you were to discover a vocation to the priesthood! Jesus Christ has urgent need of youths who will be at his disposition with generosity and no reservations.”

Cassocks and Surplices
The reason that we have put them in cassock and surplice follows from the mission of working on vocations. Whereas the alb is the garment of all the baptized, the cassock and surplice are special clothes only worn by the priest. Thus, dressing them in this special way adds to the dimension of vocational discernment for those who serve.

The Future
Some people have asked if this means that eventually we would try to have only men as Lectors or Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, but hopefully you can see, that they are two totally different issues and I cannot think of any reason why we would want or need to do that.

-Fr. Lappe

Coming Soon
No, don’t worry there are not any more big liturgical changes. However, in the bulletin over the next three weeks I am going to publish excerpts from a talk given by Fr. Joseph Fessio S.J. on Vatican II and the liturgy. As I have mentioned before, the Church still has a lot of work to do to celebrate Mass in the way the Council Fathers intended it. Part of the difficulty is the misunderstanding that so many people have about the Second Vatican Council, and specifically what it said about the liturgy. In the article Fr. Fessio actually enumerates what the council laid out for a guiding vision of reform of the Roman Rite, and the proposed changes. Most people will probably be a little surprised by what the council actually said, and even more so, by what it did not say. The article is long, but well worth the read.

With regard to the Mass we have now two extremes and a moderate position. One extreme position is the kind of informal Mass, all in English, facing the people, with contemporary music, which does not at all correspond with what the Council had in mind. But it is legitimate, it is permitted; it is not wrong. And we have on the other extreme those who have returned, with permission, to the Mass of 1962 and, as others have noted, it is thriving and growing. But it is not what the Council itself specifically had in mind, although it is the Mass of the ages. Then you have the moderates.

-Rev. Joseph Fessio, S.J.


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