A fortunate Minnesota parish: their pastor on altar boys and “ad orientem” worship

Fr. Thomas Dufner, pastor of Holy Family in St. Louis Park, MN, a friend of mine, has done wonders at his parish, in a near-Western suburb of Minneapolis. 

People travel long distances to attend Mass there.  The church is beautiful, the music sound, the environment irenic.  The weekend visiting priest, a retired professor of philosophy, is one of the sharpest men I know, and a baseball fan.  They have a good confession schedule, Eucharistic Adoration, and have reopened a Catholic school.

They have priestly vocations.

Get the picture?

The same Fr. Dufner was recently cited in the National Catholic Register‘s "Culture of Life section in an article called "Boys will be altar boys" ("25-31 Jan. 2009 – B1).

My emphases and comments.

Boys Will Be Altar Boys

Parishes With All-Male Altar Service Corps Tout the Benefits

BY Joseph Pronechen

January 25-31, 2009 Issue | Posted 1/16/09 at 9:04 AM

The altar servers at Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Louis Park, Minn., are a sight to behold. In their white surplices and black cassocks — red for special feasts like Christmas and Pentecost — six carry candles, while others process in with the cross, Sacramentary and incense thurible and boat. Between 12 and 20 altar servers assist at every Mass, every Sunday. On special feasts, the head count jumps to more than 30.

And the most astonishing facet of the scene: All of the altar servers are boys.

It’s a sight that must put a smile on the heavenly face of St. John Bosco (1815-1888), the great priest-mentor who promoted the banding together of boys in religious activities. The Church celebrates his feast on Jan. 25.  [Ummm… 31 January, I think… in both the older and newer calendars.]

Holy Family Church is one of a number of parishes that, after deciding to go with an all-boy corps of altar servers, have seen a notable increase in the number of boys participating in the life of the parish[Naturally.]

At Holy Family, the decision was made 10 years ago, when only a few boys were servers. The surge was on immediately. Today, more than 60 boys stand at the ready[Not rocket science, folks.  It’s just common sense.]

“What’s happened is: The younger boys can’t wait to get on the altar,” says parishioner Bob Spinharney. “And the older boys, to their great credit, stay on even beyond high school age. So the younger boys always have role models to look up to.”

Spinharney and fellow parishioner Mark Rode got the approval of their pastor, Father Thomas Dufner, for the altar boy program. Then they built key elements, like a hierarchy of services and names for each position.

Starting at age 10 as “leads” (beginners who observe from the altar), boys can stay as servers into their early 20s. Along the way, they progress to “torchbearer,” holding one of six candles for processing and during the Gospel reading and consecration; “mains,” serving the priest and ringing bells; “cross” and “book” with Sacramentary duties; and “thurifer” and “boat,” assisting with the incense during consecration. At each Mass, an older boy is designated “master of ceremonies” to lead and supervise the “troops.”

What drove the two men to suggest the experiment a decade ago? Two observations.

One: “When boys and girls are mixed on the altar, the boys tend to be less participative. They defer to the girls,” explains Spinharney. And two: “Many priestly vocations come from the altar. We’re trying to drive new vocations.”  [rem acu tetigerunt!]

Father Dufner expounds on those points. “Girls tend to be more reliable and get jobs done more effectively,” he says, “so the boys tend to drop out.” At the same time, he notices that boys are excited about being part of an all-male group that is hierarchical and advancement-oriented[Isn’t it sad that the modern war on boys has brought so much confusion to our sanctuaries?]

“And, clearly, reverent worship of God the Father through Jesus Christ in the liturgy is a calling card for vocations,” adds Father Dufner. In fact, one of the two current seminarians from this parish — from which four men have been ordained in the last 10 years — was an altar server. Both seminarians come back often to help the youngsters on Sundays, as do server alumni like Spinharney’s college-age son Jordan. The alumni become mentors.

“Boys 7 and 8 are glued to the Mass, watching their friends and brothers,” says Rode. “They can’t wait.”

According to Spinharney, no parent has complained about the absence of female altar servers. Instead of a dramatic immediate shift, the girls were allowed to phase out by age and were reminded of the many other services they could provide.

“The last two girls became some of our finest lectors,” points out Father Dufner.  [Well…. eventually this too can be worked on…]

Altar Apprenticeship

St. Michael Parish in Annandale, Va., also has an all-male server corps. Father Jerry Pokorsky, [an early champion of good liturgical translations] the pastor, says that when altar girls were permitted, they became the norm. The boys stopped volunteering.

“Lay readers and extraordinary ministers serve the people,” he says. “The altar boy serves the priest. He’s the hands of the priest. He would be an apprentice, either in a real or symbolic way, for the priesthood.”

When parents ask why their daughters can’t become altar servers, “they may not agree, but they do understand,” Father Pokorsky says.

With help from the parish’s Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters, this new pastor is working on a Helpers of Mary ministry for girls to visit nursing homes.

When discussing the question of female altar servers, “It is important not to [use] political categories such as rights, equality, discrimination, etc., which only serve to fog the issue,” wrote Legionary Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, on the Zenit news service website. “We are dealing with the privilege of serving in an act of worship to which nobody has any inherent rights.

“The question should be framed as to what is best for the good of souls in each diocese and parish. It is thus an eminently pastoral and not an administrative decision, and this is why it should be determined at the local level.”

The Church opened the altar service position to girls in 1994 in a letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments. “The Holy See’s recommendation is to retain as far as possible the custom of having only boys as servers,” explains Father McNamara. “But it leaves to the bishop the choice of permitting women and girls for a good reason and to the pastor of each parish the decision as to whether to act on the bishop’s permission.”

Positive Peer Pressure

At Holy Family, Jean Prather sees nothing but positive effects in her son and daughters from the all-boy altar-service policy. Nick is 16 and has risen through the ranks. Oldest daughter, Emily, also in high school, has been a lector since fourth grade.

“They both have their place to contribute in the Mass. Emily wanted to do that after she saw an older teenage girl lector. It really is a positive peer pressure thing.”

“I always like to tell Nick what a special job he has to be so close to Jesus and serve him,” continues Prather. “He has learned such reverence. He really listens and brings things up that Father talks about in his homilies.”

Prather, too, believes participating in the liturgy can open boys’ hearts to hearing a call to a priestly or religious vocation.

But she stresses what the change has done for the parish as well as the servers in lifting people’s hearts to God. The surplices, cassocks and reverential pageantry are “what King Jesus deserves,” she says. “The reverence and beauty and example brings people into the reverence and glory of the Mass by having these altar boys not only as servers but as examples.”

As young as they are, says Rode, they understand there’s something really special going on at the altar: “We truly have the Real Presence.”

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.

Fr. Dufner also recently made comments about ad orientem worship for his parish in the bulletin.

Which Way Should the Altar Face?

Much could be said too regarding the direction the altar faces. Msgr. Schuler of happy memory, the former pastor of St. Agnes, told me of saying Mass facing the people way back in the early 1950’s in a downstairs Church in St. Paul. [That would be Nativity of our Lord Church, where Msgr. Schuler was a weekend helper while he taught at the College of St. Thomas.  There was a versus populum altar there long before it became popular.] He thought at the time, “This will never last.” There was no law forbidding the altars from being turned around before Vatican II, and no law requiring them to be turned around after[Exactly!  And how many altars were destroyed?  How many?] As Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) quipped in the early 1990’s, the fact that the Church never ordered the altars to be turned around is perhaps the reason it happened so quickly!

When the altars were turned around many other things changed as well. [The great liturgist Klaus Gamber noted that the revolution of the altar was perhaps the single most damaging liturgical change.  Moreover, the great liturgists who were cited in defense of this revolution later repudiated the inaccurate scholarship that served as a justification.] On the upside was more personal connection with the priest, [Is that an upside?] and seeing the words spoken [Is that an upside?] as well as hearing them at Mass. One of the downsides was that the priest tended to become the center of Mass instead of Christ. It opened up to a lot of clowning around and dumbing down of the sacred liturgy. It broadly facilitated a what became a refocusing of the Mass from being Theocentric (God Centered) to being Anthropocentric (Man Centered). Church design tended to become theater shaped and often the choir was placed up front. This in no way invalidates the Mass, but takes away many of the transcendent qualities[And the transcendent quality is precise the point of liturgy.  If liturgy does not bring us to the very object of religion – awe at transcendence – it has not only failed, it has done harm.]

Now with forty years or more of experience many people are craving something more. Those who attend modern casual churches in the suburbs, which all tend to be anthropocentric, look forward to visits to the Basilica. They crave the beauty and dignity of that grand church. But I think they also crave order, with a sanctuary set apart and the focus on the altar. Rectangular churches, much like the Meeting Tent of Moses, the Jewish Temple, and Christian churches, allow everyone to choose how close to come, to be in front or back, on the side or the aisle, to be seen or unseen, all of which is impossible in a church in the round, and in many modern churches[Good point!]

Which way should the altar face? The traditional direction is called “Ad orientem.” “Oriens” meaning “the rising sun” — thus “the East” or “the dawn” – and with the preposition “ad” meaning “to” or “towards.” AD ORIENTEM means facing east. Churches were literally built so that the priest AND congregation both faced EAST during public worship. The reason was that the sun rose each day in the east. The Son of God rose from the dead on Easter morning, when the sun rose in the East. [I think the more important dimension here is that our ancient forebears expected the Lord to return in glory from the East.  Turning to the East takes on an eschatological dimension.  It also echoes the orientation of the Jewish temple and synagogue to the niche where the Sacred Scriptures were.  You might check out PODCAzT I did on ad orientem worship.] Hence, Christians were keen to respect that by facing east when they worshiped their Lord and Savior. Churches were built from Ancient to Mediaeval times facing east. The priest was not seen as ‘turning his back’ on the congregation, rather, BOTH priest and congregation were facing east TOGETHER. Does the bus driver or airplane pilot have his/her back toward the passengers OR rather is he/she facing the same direction of the destination everyone hopes to arrive at?   [Usually you get someone who will say that the "host at  meal" doesn’t turn away from his "guests". The bus driver and pilot analogy often serve well to explain in a simple way the role of the priest, as mediator and intercessor, fulfilling the roles of priest – prophet – king – in guiding a pilgrim Church toward the Lord who is to return in glory.  It also emphasizes the sacrificial nature of the Mass.]

So “ad orientem” is not the priest being bad mannered with his back to the people, but it is the whole people of God looking with awe and joy at the resurrected Lord Jesus and in expectation and hope looking for his coming in glory.

Therefore, saying Mass facing “ad orientem” is completely lawful as things stand today in the Catholic Church.  [And more in keeping with the Church’s tradition, more in keeping with the rubrics, more in keeping with keeping the focus on God and not the priest, and more in keeping with a sound liturgical theology.]

Fr. Thomas Dufner

I mentioned PODCAzTs on ad orientem worship.

Check this, if you are interested in learning more:

048 08-01-01 Athanasius on Mary and Christ; Gamber, Schuler and turned around altars

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. PMcGrath says:


    The Sacred Congregation for Bishops
    c/o The Apostolic Palace
    Vatican City

    FROM: Me

    RE: Fr. Thomas Dufner, pastor of Holy Family in St. Louis Park, MN

    Most Reverend Eminences and Excellencies: Would you be so kind to ensure that the above-captioned Reverend Father is considered for any upcoming ternas for appointments to the Episcopacy?

    In brief, Monsiegneurs: He Gets It.

    If you want someone who can run the Benedict XVI playbook in any diocese in the United States, then Father Dufner is one (of many) who can do it.

  2. Works everywhere it’s tried

  3. Katrina says:

    Fr. Z – this is a long post you’ve prepared, and I have only a passing
    question. The post includes a quote saying that the girl altar servers
    became good lectors instead. And you say – “well, this can be worked on…”
    or something like that.

    Does your comment mean to suggest that only males can be lectors? Why would
    this be?

  4. WDTPRSr says:

    While I commend his exclusive use of male servers, female readers are almost as bad. It also sounds like the EMHCs can also be female.

  5. Sid says:

    Fr. Pokorsky is my friend from seminary days. He is an outstanding priest. Glad to see him mentioned!

  6. Suibhne says:

    Saint Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, VA has a similar situation regarding altar boys. My four year old son can’t wait. If only we could have the Extraordinary Form each week!

  7. Franzjosf says:


    Institued Lector = minor order = male (but, I think like Deacons, they can be married.

    Altar boys are ‘stand ins’ for the minor order of Acolyte.

    I may be wrong in calling them minor orders; there may be a new term since the rupture, er continuity of Vatican II.

  8. James says:

    Can we persuade Fr. Dufner to come to sunny southern California ? I will gladly purchase him a Double Double Combo every Tuesday…

  9. Andrew, UK and sometimes Canada says:

    Fr Z briefly mentions the “war on boys”. I’ve been waiting years to hear this from someone besides my own head. This war has not been just in the liturgy but throughout society. Girls in the Boy Scouts, girls in boys hockey teams, the list is endless. And it always seems that girls can join boys’ clubs but NEVER vice versa. Thus boys have been left nothing and, since many sadly have no fathers, they are left without supervised groups with male role models and turn to unsupervised gangs and similar activities. Same in the schools where girls received extra support in efforts to bring them level with boys in certain subjects, but what happened was that the boys just fell behind in everything. So now there’s a belated effort to correct previous errors.

  10. Simon Platt says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly, Andrew – except that I don’t think boys would want to join girl’s clubs. And of course when the girls move in the boys tend to move out. Certainly this seems to be the case with altar servers. I wonder sometimes whether some priests ever were 8 years old!

    Here’s a case in point from a parish in my home town. A few years ago when limited permission for female servers was granted, the then parish priest invited boys and girls who wished to serve to sign up, and existing servers who wished to stop to sign off. (I kid you not! “Anyone wishing to stop serving the altar should sign one of the cerise sheets at the back of the church and hand it in by such-and-such a date”.) Of course the inevitable happened.

  11. Karinann says:

    My return to the Church did not happen until 2002. So when I saw altar girls serving Mass, it was added to my list of “when did this happen?” I felt allowing this was, among other things, a great disservice and a bit misleading to the girls. Altarboys, as stated in the article, serve the priest. This allows them to see this as a possible vocation. The girls cannot become priests, so where does them serving as an altar server leave them? It’s almost cruel. This good priest definitely gets it. I only wish more did. There surely would be an increase in vocations to the priesthood.

  12. John Womack says:

    While living in Minnetonka,MN I was privileged to attended Holy Family. It’s a model parish much like of Our Lady of Peace in Santa Clara,CA, where I entered the Catholic faith. Holy Family is a HUGE blessing to people living in that area.

    Fr Dufner is a living saint. I met with him once to seek his counsel, and the man has Godly wisdom FAR beyond his years. Why isn’t he a Cardinal yet?

    One Sunday, I’d gone to confession to the visiting Priest and was particularly discouraged about my failings. His reply to me? “You’ve got grace on your side! Go for it!” :-)

  13. Gloria says:

    At St. Stephen the First Martyr, FSSP, Sacramento, CA, we have only altar boys, about 75 at last count. We have “leaders” from age 8, so that they have received First Holy Communion before training. At High Mass every Sunday, Holy Days, special Feasts (as at 7 p.m. for Purification tomorrow) there are no less than 20 and usually more. At a special Solemn High Mass in 2007 at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral to commemorate the Miracle of the Sun and pray for an end to abortion there were 54. It was the first TLM in the Cathedral in 40 odd years. Procession with the statue of Our Lady of Fatima wound around inside the Cathedral after Mass, with all the boys processing. Rosary and Benediction followed. Many people were seen looking over at the section where the boys were seated. They sat in proper altar boy fashion, hands on knees. Except for a few yawns from the youngest as the evening crept up past 10 p.m., they showed perfect discipline. The majority of people at that Mass had never seen or participated in a TLM, let alone one with schola, choir, 3 priests, etc., and were really taken aback by the altar boys ages 8-20+. St. Stephen’s has two former servers in FSSP seminaries currently, one in each of the past two years. We have such a complement of servers because we have been blessed from the outset with three holy priests (not always the same ones). They teach in the Academy, preach, train servers, do home and hospital visits, say Mass daily, pray their Breviary, sing Compline every night, say the Rosary, take time to talk and listen, bless every medal, rosary, statue (even a motorcycle) brought to them, take turns giving evening classes (Latin, liturgy, Church history,come to bless your house, hear confessions daily before each Mass, and frankly, I don’t know when they sleep or eat. They are the examples which the boys and young men see and want to follow.

  14. Central Valley Catholic says:

    Pray God for more men like this as priests and bishops. Especially here in the diocese of Fresno, Ca. where some parishes still have banner ministries and the only on the altar is christ surrounded by the womens club. Oh the suffering in California, especially in the Fresno diocese.

  15. Francesco says:

    Well, the fact is Fr. Dufner does *not* celebrate Mass Ad Orientem. We also still have women Eucharistic ministers who fiddle around in the tabernacle during the Agnus Dei and we sing horrible screeching pagan anthems from the Gather songbook. All is not what it seems.

  16. Francesco says:

    Oh, and did I mention the 20 year old altar server who refused to be baptized?

  17. Insofar as the altar boys are concerned, this is how it looks most every Sunday at our TLM:


    Ours is a relatively small TLM community, but essentially every boy of age in our community is an altar boy. And I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them said they want to be priests. Brick by brick.

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