QUAERITUR: Should I serve at the altar if I don’t want to be a priest?

From a reader:

I have been an altar server for several years. However, after a
slowdown two years ago, I have figured out that priestly ordination is
probably not for me. Occasionally, I still serve at an Eastern
Catholic parish, whose pastor likes when I am able to do it. However,
I question if I should really be doing something priestly if it is not
(likely) my vocation?

Sure. I don’t see any reason to stop serving at Holy Mass.

QUAERITUR: Should I serve at the altar if I don’t want to be a priest?
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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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48 Responses to QUAERITUR: Should I serve at the altar if I don’t want to be a priest?

  1. Fr Z. This has to be your shortest reply to a Quaeritur ever.

  2. rollingrj says:

    There are probably many more like this gentleman out there. Good for him that he wishes to continue to serve at the altar. He is also in a great position to teach others as well. Your presence should be an encouragement for more boys to do the same.

  3. bohanlon says:

    As our pastor said to me once: “every Catholic man should own a cassock and a surplice and be able to serve when needed”.

  4. What’s that line from Milton?
    They also serve who only stand and wait.

  5. TopSully says:

    I hope the reader who posed the question is reading the comments, I’m sure he’ll find a lot of support to continue and some advice from others who have previously been in a similar position. If the pastor welcomes the service and if he isn’t holding back a waiting line of others wanting to serve then by all means continue.

  6. Ben Yanke says:

    bohanlon,

    I’m likely not entering priesthood or religious life, and I can assure you that I own my own set!

  7. apward says:

    At my parish there is a well known man in his seventies who still serves daily masses. In the sacristy at my parish church there is a newspaper clipping taped to the vestment cabinets from the 1950’s, showing the same man serving at a pontifical mass in his teens. He’s been married for a while now. My pastor wrote on the clipping in black marker, “Servers, this is what you can aspire to!”

  8. Geoffrey says:

    And let us not forget the instituted ministry of acolyte (subdeacon), which is open to laymen.

  9. priests wife says:

    to the questioner-

    I’m sure your priest appreciates the help at the altar- even if you do not have a calling to the clerical state, you can help ‘wrangle’ other altar servers (especially if there are young servers)- as you know, there is a lot that an altar server can do to help his priest.

    also- for men who want to be involved in church- I would say it is a mercy to be at the altar or doing church tasks that need a man’s strength, this leaves out-of-sanctuary works for the women

  10. Bea says:

    Should I serve at the altar if I don’t want to be a priest?

    By all means! And learn it well.
    Your sons will need your experience and THEY may well end up being priests. At any rate they will appreciate your example of serving God in whatever capacity needed.
    Not all altar servers become priests and not all priests were altar servers.
    It’s God’s call, not ours.

  11. Gregorius says:

    I think using adult men at the altar is a good alternative to using female servers. Also fits in with that whole “good catholic role model” thing for our boys.

  12. Mark Nel says:

    The short answer does puzzle me too. An altar server does not, by virtue of agreeing to be an altar server on request or even by volunteering to be an altar server, imply that he may consider in the future or currently be considering a vocation to the priesthood. There is no such link whatsoever. This despite the fact that Altar Servers do contribute towards priestly vocations and hence the reason it should be a function reserved for boys/men not females. Come on Fr Z, more enthusiasm might be needed here. [Nope.]

  13. Stephen Matthew says:

    There seems to me two aspects to serving:

    One is relating to the purely functional aspects of serving the clergy at the altar, which role can be done by either youth or adults, men or women, so long as they are well formed and trained.

    The second (and more important), however, is a spiritual and vocational aspect relating to the formation and discernment of those serving. Now there is no need for every server to be discerning a priestly vocation (some may be called instead to be deacons, or religious, or to be the head of a domestic church a.k.a. family) so long as each server is attempting to be open to God in their life and they are open to encouraging, promoting, and supporting the calling of those who may be asked by Holy Mother Church to take up a religious or clerical vocation. In this way an older or more experienced server, who has a reasonably serious and informed approach to vocations, could be a great asset to assisting the priest in carrying out the ministry of fostering vocations. It also would help mitigate the view common in some places that only young kids serve, which does nothing good for the quality of the serving or the discernment process. (Notice this second point tends to favor an all male service at the altar.)

    Some final thoughts:
    When in doubt, take this up with your spiritual director or the priests you are serving, and be specific regarding your concerns. (The particular nature of the “slowdown” may be of some importance, or it may not matter at all, I have no idea.)
    Second, continue to be open to God’s call, whatever it may be, and whenever it may come to fruition. Discernment of a vocation can lead to “yes” or “no” or “not yet” or “this instead of that” in various forms. (I suspect almost everyone would appreciate a clear and concise e-mail to inform us, or a voice from above at confirmation, or some sort of sacramental equivalent to the “sorting hat” but that is not the way it works in 99.9% of cases.)
    Third, anecdotaly, the cathedral of our diocese here regularly invites adult men to join in serving at the altar (with less results than perhaps hoped).

    This probably did not say anything new to the questioner, but perhaps would help someone, somewhere, sometime. (And if not gave me a place to vent caffeine and sugar fueled thoughts.)

  14. Mary Jane says:

    Fr Z is right on, and his brevity is too. This isn’t a complicated question and it doesn’t require a complicated answer. Pure and simple: one need not be considering a vocation to the priesthood in order to serve at Mass.

  15. Mike Morrow says:

    At my old pre-Vatican II parish, altar servers came from its parochial school, beginning at the second grade and continuing through eighth grade (the end of parochial schooling). In those seven years, among all of the servers I know about, only one later became a priest. I was probably one of the few of them who seriously considered it, until the Church rushed to maniacally and gratuitously transmogrify itself into something very ugly and completely unrecognizable after Vatican II. In the almost five decades since, there has been no one in that parish who accepted Holy Orders.

    Thus, what is extremely uncommon is an altar server who becomes a priest, both pre- and especially post-Vatican II.

  16. M. Night Shyamalan twist: the reader is a woman! [No.]

  17. Phil_NL says:

    The only reason I could see for a connection between a priestly vocation and serving is the extremely rare situation where there would be more people seriously discerning a vocation than the number of opportunities to serve. Then it might be a good idea to give preference to those who might be called to the priesthood. But really, a parish with so many prospective vocations happens once in a blue moon that coincides with frost in August in both Rome and Jerusalem…

  18. frjim4321 says:

    Not a reason for girls or boys to stop serving mass. [Except for the pesky fact….]

  19. Mary Jane says:

    frjim4321, that wouldn’t be a reason for girls to START serving at mass.

  20. Mary Jane says:

    Btw, frjim4321, I am catching on to your commenting pattern.

  21. Imrahil says:

    I see no reason for girls not to start serving Mass… in a parish where this is, for good or evil, established custom (which excludes the EF, altogether, without exception). After all, it is nothing intrinsically evil (or so I think), a pious thing to do, and approved by the Church.

    Whether this should by approved by the Church, or should be established as custom in a parish, is an entirely different question. Yet the “go astray if you insist, but without me” approach is, in my opinion, better reserved for sins.

    My two cents.

  22. BLB Oregon says:

    When we train altar servers, we teach them this: If you aren’t called to be a priest, then be the guy the priest can count on, be the guy that steps up without having to be hunted down, because every priest and every parish needs them. We have many men in our parish who didn’t have a vocation to be a priest, but who were still formed by their willingness to be open to the possibility. That kind of man has been the backbone of every parish I’ve ever been in.

    I am OK with girls serving at the altar because every seminarian in our diocese has to be judged capable of working with women before he can be ordained. That is a fact of life in our parish. Even if all of those girls become the women who make the altar society and the parish school run, they will never be substitutes for those guys that Father can count on. That is nothing against us women, but there are no substitutes for those guys.

  23. I own a cassock, I own a surplice. I serve Mass when needed. I’m 57. I’ve filled in on Sundays when the kids don’t show up. Just do it, men. What greater service can you do than to assist the ‘alter Christus’ as he confects the sacrifice? And most priests (well, not the pastor of my parish…I am sure he’d be more agreeable if it was gender balanced and wearing those shapeless robes…).

    Afraid? Ashamed? Too self-aware or think people will guffaw? I’ve heard comments like ‘you’re the world’s oldest altar boy’…

    So what? I agree with the statement above: every Catholic man should own the vestments to serve, because you never know when you will be called upon to do so.

  24. priests wife says:

    Bryan Boyle-

    my father (70) serves at daily Mass a few times a week- he became Catholic in his thirties, so he didn’t have the chance when he was a boy…in any case, you are certainly not the world’s oldest altar boy!

  25. frjim4321 says:

    Btw, frjim4321, I am catching on to your commenting pattern. Mary Jane

    How hard could it be to pick out the one token centrist here? [Thanks for the chuckle.]

  26. Athelstan says:

    Hello BLB,

    I am OK with girls serving at the altar because every seminarian in our diocese has to be judged capable of working with women before he can be ordained. That is a fact of life in our parish.

    There are many ways for young men to gain the ability to work with women, and serving at the altar is perhaps the least effective among them.

    Women typically staff most of the non-ordained offices in a parish. It’s not hard to get the opportunity to interact with them.

  27. Priest’s Wife: Probably not in the universe…but a lot older than many folks have seen around these parts…

  28. acardnal says:

    Bryan Boyle, “tip of the hat to you sir.”

  29. robtbrown says:

    frjim4321 says:

    Btw, frjim4321, I am catching on to your commenting pattern. Mary Jane

    How hard could it be to pick out the one token centrist here?

    How is your opinion on women’s ordination and homosexual unions centrist?

  30. robtbrown says:

    Imrahil says:
    I see no reason for girls not to start serving Mass… in a parish where this is, for good or evil, established custom (which excludes the EF, altogether, without exception). After all, it is nothing intrinsically evil (or so I think), a pious thing to do, and approved by the Church.

    What document approved it?

  31. frjim4321 says:

    How is your opinion on women’s ordination and homosexual unions centrist? RbtBrown

    Well, since you put it that way, statistically if you poll on either question, where do you find the median?

  32. robtbrown says:

    frjim4321 says:

    How is your opinion on women’s ordination and homosexual unions centrist? RbtBrown

    Well, since you put it that way, statistically if you poll on either question, where do you find the median?

    Re women’s ordination: There are 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide–24 million in Germany, 75 million in the US, and 8 million in the United Kingdom. Those are the only three nations where women’s ordination is even an issue. Even if every Catholic of those three favors women’s ordination, that would still be less that 10% of the Catholics world wide. Thus you are hardly a centrist.

    Re homosexual “unions”: I would agree that in the US your opinion might be considered as politically centrist, but if Catholic Doctrine on the nature of marriage is considered you are hardly centrist. You have chosen popular opinion over Christ’s Church.

  33. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I was one of the first female altar servers. Our parish got a special dispensation from the bishop because there were only 3 boys willing to serve (brothers) and they had to serve at all the Masses.

    It’s not healthy to let girls serve at the altar. It leads to the thinking “I’m better at this than the boys, so why can’t I be a priest when they can?” It sent me on a late-high-school/ early college journey into the bowels of the Women’s Ordination movement. (shiver.)

    I will not let my own daughters serve– it sends mixed signals and confuses young girls, especially since, in many parishes, there’s already scant support for a male only priesthood. (Due to horrible catechesis, but I digress.) I’d recommend against letting your daughters serve or encouraging girls to serve.

    I realize that we’re stuck with this situation, but it’s really NOT good for the girls, so avoid subjecting your own daughters to it, if you can.

    The brides and grooms who want cutesy ‘matched sets’ for the wedding pictures can just learn to live without them.

  34. frjim4321 says:

    I’ve had quite a boatload of weddings and I’ve never seen brides and grooms asked the servers, let alone the presider, have a part in the photos. Though I remember when I was a junior high server I always got in line to kiss the bride.

  35. Suburbanbanshee says:

    frjim4321 —

    The center is the group that is too afraid, or too tired, to argue with whatever Father or the bishop or the parish council or whoever is in charge says. They know it doesn’t matter whether they approve or disapprove, because they’ll just have to lump it. Maybe in the past it wasn’t pay, pray, and obey, but now it is. Folks never know what they’re going to get any given Sunday, and the same is probably true for a lot of priests unsure what the bishop will demand next. Numb obedience is the rational way to react to constant fiddling with all one holds dear — or would hold dear, if one could allow oneself to be detached. This is part of why Adoration is loved by almost everyone; Christ loves us and is an anchor no outside force can cut off.

    You are on the one side, and farther out than a lot of priests. Not as far as others, which is probably why you think you’re centrist. The spectrum starts with “I like the OF but I just want things a little bit looser in praxis, whereas my theology and doctrine is totally standard,” but there’s a lot of room beyond that. Of course, this means progressing quickly into the land of what is normal for Episcopalians and Unitarians, but wackyland for Catholics. Still, it’s true that you can get even wackier folks beyond that. I’m not actually sure how far you can go on that side of the spectrum, because it just keeps going.

    On the other side, you have a spectrum basically extending from OF to OF/EF to EF only, with all sorts of degrees and variants along the way; and only past that do you get into wackyland. Schism, heresy, sede vacantism — there’s lots of wackiness, but after a while, the groups get to be unreported — which apparently never happens on the other wackyland side.

    Basically, the wackier the groups on one’s own side that one is aware of , the more centrist you will seem to yourself by comparison. And this is why folks on the “liberal” or “progressive” side of all sorts of issues tend to think that they’re farther from wackyland’s borders than they actually are.

  36. BLB Oregon says:

    “There are many ways for young men to gain the ability to work with women, and serving at the altar is perhaps the least effective among them.

    Women typically staff most of the non-ordained offices in a parish. It’s not hard to get the opportunity to interact with them.”–Athelstan

    Let me rephrase that. I’m OK with it because the archbishop and the pastor have decided that is what we are to have. By saying it is a fact of life, I do not at all mean that there is a thing wrong with restricting altar serving to males. I’m not into the entitlement thing. Still, the Chancellor and the Director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon are women. I do not foresee getting a pastor who is going to restrict altar serving for any but the Extraordinary Form to males. I have, in fact, been told by a priest who has taught at the seminary that it is a very bad sign if a male altar server refuses to serve with girls. The archbishop does not need seminarians who decide for him which of those things that Rome allows that he will allow. It does not work that way.

    It is one thing for the pastor to decide that the altar servers will only be boys, but that is not up to the altar servers, nor up to whoever helps train the altar servers. That is what we have, and so I have decided to be OK with it. I hope that makes sense; I do not mean to be quarrelsome or sound as if I think all-male altar server policies are a bad thing or an unachievable thing. I mean that, realistically speaking, we’re not going to get them here. It seems sensible to make the best of the situation and see it as not only a formation opportunity for priests, but also one for the rest of the future parishioners who will need to step forward without hesitation when Father needs something done. We teach the servers that what Father says we do, that we do, what Rome says we are to do, this is what Father does (which, thank goodness, our pastors have done), and we hope that the mantra of desiring obedience as a way to discern one’s vocation gets us the desired effect for all involved.

    It is like being a trainer for the altar servers myself. Would I prefer one of the men do it? Sure, but that was not what was going to happen. So instead we have two women doing it who will never ever be heard saying that a male-only priesthood is ever going to change or ever ought to be any other way. It seems the best we can do, all things considered.

  37. Inigo says:

    I personally think, that all male catholics should know how to serve mass.

  38. Supertradmum says:

    Two points briefly. One, in the old TLM days at very early morning Mass, older men sometimes served before they went to work.

    Second point, some seminarians have never served until they were in the seminary after realizing their call to be priests.

  39. Imrahil says:

    Dear @robtbrown,

    Redemptionis Sacramentum II 47.

  40. Hughie says:

    A late friend served in the British Royal Navy. While stationed at Hong Kong in the late 1970s a note was put up by the (Anglican) Chaplain to see if anyone could serve Mass for a visiting Catholic prelate. Stevie later entertained us all with the tale of how he once served Mass, in Latin, for a Cardinal Sin!

  41. PAT says:

    Serious question here: What does a “Director of the Office of Liturgy” do? What are the tasks and/or responsibilities of an “Office of Liturgy”?

  42. Mary Jane says:

    “How hard could it be to pick out the one token centrist here?”

    frjim4321, that is not what I meant.

  43. Fr AJ says:

    This question seems to logically flow from our discussion a few days ago about how girls should not serve because of the vocations issue. So if girls can’t serve due to vocations, then a question that flows from this is if anyone should serve who may not have a vocation.

  44. Inigo says:

    I’m not a theologian (so correct me please if this is wrong) , but I always saw the issue of male only priesthood as a complementary to female only child-bearing:

    Women suffer and bleed in the flesh involuntarily because of original sin, to channel God’s grace of life on earth, men suffer and bleed voluntarily on the cross with our Lord to channel God’s grace of life in heaven.

    Both suffer, both bleed, and both are needed for man to live with God.

    Are there any orthodox movements in favor of women’s ordination,, or is this a purely western thing?

  45. BLB Oregon says:

    “The Office of Worship offers consultation concerning the liturgical, artistic, and musical norms for Catholic worship, house liturgical resources, and facilitates workshops in various liturgical ministries. The Office of Worship is responsible for official aspect of Catholic worship in the Archdiocese of Portland.”– web site of the Archdiocese of Portland

    Basically, its the office that communicates the Archbishop’s wishes with regards to how matters liturgical and sacramental are to be organized and executed. For instance, this office would be the source of paperwork, protocols, and so on for confirmation. The Archbishop says, “let it be done this way”, and the Director sees to it that the practical decisions are made to get that done.

    Now, we have very good women in these offices; they really do act faithfully to see things done in the way specified by the Archbishop himself. I’ve never heard a bad word about either one, nor any implication that either one furthers any agenda that differs at all from just doing what the Archbishop bid them to do. Still, the priests of the diocese do get letters from these offices with a woman’s signature on the bottom of the letter, and they have to abide by whatever decision the Archbishop has given to those offices. There cannot be any “I don’t take directions from a woman” stuff. That just will not fly. The Archbishop has entrusted his agenda into the hands of these female laypersons for its execution, and that is that. (The offices of Vicar General (moderator of the archdiocesan curia) and Vicar General are, however, reserved for priests; the Vocations Director is also a priest and the director for the diaconate is a deacon….it has not been ignored that clergy do matter.)

  46. BLB Oregon says:

    Inigo, I have always seen the priesthood as the sanctification of the masculine principle. In the fallen state, it is dominating and aggressive. In the redeemed state, it is self-sacrificing and protective of the vulnerable. Likewise, in the sanctification of the feminine, cooperation is not coerced, but given freely. The submission of women has been given the dignity of the submission of the Son of God, for just as Our Lady said, “Be it done unto me according to your will.” (Luke 1:38), just so Christ came into the world saying, “Behold, I come to do your Will.” (Heb. 10:9) The cooperation of the masculine and the feminine is an image of the power of the Holy Spirit, and Christ came into the world as the model for both the men and the women he died to redeem.

    IOW, the priesthood is meant to institute a headship made in the image of the Trinity, rather than one made in the image of fallen nature; likewise, the place of women in the Church fits into an image of the Trinity, too. Unlike what some misguided people say, there are no “second-class citizens” in the Catholic Church, but all are meant to live as an image of God.

  47. Mary Jane says:

    “I am OK with girls serving at the altar because every seminarian in our diocese has to be judged capable of working with women before he can be ordained.”

    With all due respect: I fail to see what this has to do with the question at hand, and additionally, “because priests need to know how to work well with women” is not a reason to have women serve at mass.

  48. frjim4321 says:

    Banshee, I think it’s not really that simple. There are many variables at play, far more than simply the OF…EF continuum.

    The subject here, about whether a person should still serve even if they don’t plan on becoming a priest, doesn’t seem to pertain to the OF…EF continuum.

    As far as my throw-away line about being the token centrist, that was in response to Mary Jane who seems to think that she has my number. I always find such assumptions intriguing.

    Frankly, in truth I am quite a centrist; I would certainly be fairly in the center of the NCR…NCR continuum (Reporter, Register). I would certainly be fairly in the center of the RNC…DNC continuum. And probably smack dab in the center of the FN…MSNBC continuum.