QUAERITUR: Woman training altar servers stands in as priest. Sacrilege?

From a reader:

My parish priest recently asked an older (semi-retired) female altar server (former MC & Sacristan) from another parish to train our altar servers for enrolment into the Guild of St Stephen (http://www.guildofststephen.org/).

First of all she discourages genuflecting (as it looks uneven if those carrying things don’t genuflect – and being older she can’t do it as easily) – but when training for the lavabo  / consecration / ablutions she had another female server from her parish stand in as the priest, and used the real chalice (and drank the unconsecrated wine herself from the priest’s chalice). Is this sacrilege?

There are several points to consider.

First, I cannot tell if this involves the Novus Ordo or the Usus Antiquior.  If it involves the Usus Antiquior, then it is deeply wrong to discourage genuflecting, because it is required.  If it is the Novus Ordo, then… well… as deeply stupid as the rubric is not to genuflect when passing in front of the tabernacle, there is a rubric about that.  That rubric is so dumb that were someone to confess to me that he genuflected anyway, I would have a hard time getting worked up about it.

To have a female stand in as the priest during a practice…. sacrilege?  Welllll…. no, probably not.  It would be better were a male of any age to do that.  Far better.  But, so long as the female wasn’t dressing up, etc., I guess I could in a grouchy way live with that for the purpose of a practice.

Should women, for example, never be able to help an Extraordinary Form altar boy learn his Latin responses?  Learn to hold his hands properly when standing?  Genuflect properly?  If those things, then why not a little more?  If there are no men available to teach them, then who?

Now…using the real chalice?  I don’t like that at all.  That is unnecessary for the purpose of a practice.  They don’t need a real chalice, even though they might want to practice carrying the chalice from the credence table to the altar.   Using actual wine for the practice?  Drinking from the chalice.  This is starting to sound a lot like “simulation” of a sacrament, which would be a very serious matter indeed.

Anything that smacks of simulation – by adults in front of children – should be avoided.  Young children “playing Mass” is a different matter, though parents ought to watch that like the proverbial… NSA.  I was going to say proverbial hawk, but… you know.

This opens up another, deeper, issue.

Some things used during sacred liturgy are constituted as sacred things.  The chalice is one of these.  They are to be used in a sacred space, the church building, and then within the even more sacred space of the sanctuary, the proper place of those who are set aside as consecrated persons.  It does make a difference who enters the sanctuary and what he or she does there.  Also, the priest’s hands are consecrated so that he can handle sacred things.  I am always pleased to see altar boys or lay people working in sacristies who are trained to handle sacred vessels while wearing gloves or with some other cloth between their bare hands and the vessel itself.

It is important for our Catholic identity to revive a strong sense of the sacred: sacred times, places, persons and objects.

If you are really concerned that someone is going over the line in these practices, then it behooves you to bring your concerns to the attention of the parish priest.  I would’t go to him for something trivial, however.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    With regards to only priests handling sacred vessels with bare hands, I have noticed that tonsured seminarians from the FSSP handle the sacred vessels with bare hands all the time. Furthermore they fill in as subdeacons when one or an ordained minister is not available and handle the sacred vessels during Mass. I’m sure the FSSP would never do something not permitted, so something tells me that tonsured seminarians are an exception to non-consecrated hands touching sacred things.

  2. mamajen says:

    Before we switched parishes, I had thought about volunteering to start a training program for altar boys. Playing the part of priest isn’t my favorite idea (even when I’m just at home playing with my son), but sometimes women are the only ones who step forward to get things done! I would probably try my best to recruit a male for that role, however.

  3. Jeannie_C says:

    “…and drank the unconsecrated wine herself….” stay tuned for part two as the story unravels.

  4. frjim4321 says:

    Using a real chalice is a bit over the top as far as I am concerned. But maybe it was just an el-cheapo “communion cup,” like one of those unattractive pewter things. That would not bother me quite as much. If she was using one of the priests’ personal ordination chalices or something like that it would be a big problem for me.

    It’s hard enough for kids to know the difference between real and make-believe these days. It works find just to mime having a chalice and not have the prop. For first communion practice we don’t use props and it works just fine.

  5. Johnny Domer says:

    This relates to another question I’ve often wondered about: what was the traditional/pre-Vatican II practice with regards to lay persons touching the chalice/paten/ciborium for Mass? Were they not allowed to do it? Could they do it as long as they wore gloves or had a purificator between their hand and the vessel? Was the practice backed by actual legislation, or just a kind of pious tradition? I have heard conflicting reports, and would be interested to hear a ruling from any commenters-in-the-know.

  6. APX says:

    For first communion practice we don’t use props and it works just fine

    We did for mine. We used unconsecrated hosts and unconsecrated wine to repeatedly practice the whole communion reception and passing the chalice and properly holding it and drinking from it both if they passed it to us as well as if they held it while we drank from in in case the EMHC thought we were too small to handle the chalice properly. They also wanted us to get used to the taste of wine so that it wouldn’t catch us by surprise and cause us to make a weird face. I quite enjoyed First Communion practice. :)

    I also received both my first communions from lay people.

    I can’t really see a need to use sacred vessels or imitation sacred vessels for altar boy practice. I don’t even think priests use them when they’re practicing for solemn Masses. Maybe the subdeacon holding the veiled paten if he’s never done it before…

  7. “tonsured seminarians from the FSSP handle the sacred vessels with bare hands all the time. ” but isn’t there a world of difference between a tonsured seminarian and a female from the laity?

  8. APX says:

    but isn’t there a world of difference between a tonsured seminarian and a female from the laity?

    This was in comparison to priest’s consecrated hands. This does bring up another area of consideration… Consecrated Virgins. She’s consecrated, thus set aside as sacred. She’s also a female from the laity, not religious. Hmm…tonsured seminarians aren’t even consecrated…hmm….

  9. Imrahil says:

    Sacrilege? No.
    Simulation? No.

    As for the rest, meaning necessity for certain exercises for preparation and all that… “that’s too extensive a field”, as the Lord von Briest would have said. (I’m alluding to Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane, just for those who did not have that one as a school lecture and may not understand.)

    As our generous host wisely said, “If you are really concerned that someone is going over the line in these practices, then it behooves you to bring your concerns to the attention of the parish priest. I would’t go to him for something trivial”. And I would not, from the facts presented, judge this is the case. Something you might do otherwise on your own, maybe. But that’s, in prudence (both “must the Church really deal with that?” and “I don’t want to get myself into trouble unless really necessary”) not enough for a complaint.

    There’s a rule about those not genuflecting who carry the cross and the torches… though I never cared about that one. There is none, if I’m rightly informed, for the incense… though the incense is the only one standing in front of the exposed Holy of Holies itself, with even the priest kneeling down (except for the incense itself of the Holy of Holies, and for the blessing of course).

  10. thank you APX for the response. will keep up with the comments. Need clarification. Reading further will help.

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  12. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Something consecrated to the Lord’s service is set apart, never to be used ever again for any lesser service. There’s a whole thing in the Bible about the Temple’s “cups and plates and vessels” that were carried off to Babylon, misused, and eventually made to come back again, by the Lord. And there’s a very classic Biblical interpretation that compares the Babylonian captives being sent to Babylon and then brought back, to those very same Temple cups and plates and vessels. And we too are like those cups and plates and vessels; God will go to great lengths to bring us back to His service, which is our only real purpose in life.

    Any chalice, paten, or ciborium consecrated for the Catholic Mass is more holy than the Temple’s stuff, because the Real Presence is more intimately present than even the Shekinah clouds of glory in the Temple. So yeah, it behooves us to be very circumspect in how we treat chalices, even if it’s “plain” or “not personally meaningful.” That blah chalice is one of the most sacred objects in the world, and we are privileged if we’re allowed to touch it. (And that’s why beautiful chalices are given such beauty – to look a little more like what they really are.)

    So if the purpose is to make sure that the kids don’t slop the Precious Blood on the floor, that’s a purpose that’s fitting. OTOH, it would probably be better to have an unconsecrated brass or tin chalice from the dollar store or the Ren Faire as a practice chalice, because that would show respect for the consecrated vessels, and prevent damage or nastiness to real chalices being used as practice when they get dropped on the floor, treated badly by rebellious kids, etc. (And yes, it would be smart to write “Unconsecrated Practice Chalice” on the thing to prevent any mistakes, and to keep the practice chalice with the educational materials for First Communion prep, not in the sacristy.)

  13. Supertradmum says:

    All but one, and I emphasize ALL the NO parishes I have attended in England, Wales and Scotland, in six dioceses, allow women to unlock and open the tabernacle doors, and remove the ciborium of Consecrated Hosts either at Mass or in Communion services or Adoration (the large Host for the monstrance). And, women also put the Eucharist in the Monstrance and take it out.

    I apparently cannot complain about this as it is so widespread and the done thing. But, I have seen this at Adoration, Mass and Eucharistic services for over three years. Only one NO parish here in Dublin is one where I have not seen this. The women are Eucharistic Ministers, sacristans, secretaries or just lay people from the congregation, and I find this appalling. Actually, I do not think lay men should do this as well, but because of the numbers of women at daily Mass, it is more common.

    How can we ever go back in the NO atmosphere of such blasé attitudes towards God?

    On the other point, why cannot the parish priest teach the altar servers? Is this a new problem because of girl servers, a bad idea from day one?

  14. The hands of the deacon are not consecrated and he handles sacred vessels all the time—indeed, it is a hallmark of his ministry. (The deacon “serves at table” and later, as a priest once noted wryly,”it’s the deacon’s job to do the dishes.”)

  15. scholastica says:

    I’m pretty sure the sacred vessels are no longer consecrated, but simply blessed as per the Book of Blessings, which somewhat mitigates the travesty of the vessels being handled by the lay and used for practice, but brings on another travesty. (In the Ordinary form of course).

  16. Supertradmum, in forty years of southern U.S. parishes, most of them generally liberal rather than conservative, I have never seen a lay person (male or female) take a consecrated host from the tabernacle and place it in the monstrance.

  17. slainewe says:

    “…sometimes women are the only ones who step forward to get things done!”

    Isn’t this the problem? Should anyone be “stepping forward?” Should not a priest know the men in his flock enough to know who is qualified for a particular task; then himself offer them the privilege of service; and personally train them for their holy duties?

    (This assumes an all male minor orders. When females are involved, I understand priests and laymen excusing themselves from the whole process.)

  18. Henry Edwards says: Supertradmum, in forty years of southern U.S. parishes, most of them generally liberal rather than conservative, I have never seen a lay person (male or female) take a consecrated host from the tabernacle and place it in the monstrance.

    I have seen it where I live, in the Pacific Northwest.

  19. Fr Jackson says:

    Dear Fr Z. I was most interested and intrigued to see your comments about a “dumb” rubric! If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that there is a precept out there that was legitimately promulgated by a legitimate Pope, that yet lacks legitimacy from at least some point of view: hence its “dumbness” – and in consequence, it looks like you are ready to discuss whether it is truly compelling morally. Sounds good to me, Father… now follow my gaze… ;)

  20. scholastica says:

    Henry Edwards et al. – Lay people-men, but usually women-expose and repose the Blessed Sacrament, but without Solemn Exposition/Benediction. This happens in good parishes with great priests here in VA. Surprisingly, it is permissible.
    Sometimes they will (with permission) remove a host from the ciborium for the sick-makes my skin crawl. I have on one occasion asked the priest to do so, when he seemed to expect me to do it.

  21. APX says:


    I don’t understand what you mean by “this assumes an all male minor orders”.

    Unless someone has actually received minor orders, there are no minor orders in a parish. Altar boys (unless they’re a seminarian who has received minor orders) do not have minor order by virtue of the fact they’re serving at the altar.

    Though, for what it’s worth, back in at least the 50s and 60s, in the absence of a man or boy to serve Mass, a woman was permitted to say the prayers for the priest from a distance.

  22. AnnAsher says:

    What then would be the status of the practice orchestrated by the Serra Club to have the priests consecrated chalice, the one used at Mass, cleansed by the priest and then sent home with parishioners as a symbol to pray for priests ? I think Serra suggest buying a chalice for the program but our local military parish has, for years, sent home with parishioners the consecrated chalice used by the priest in the preceding Mass. Serra calls it the “Elijah Cup”

  23. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Using somebody’s house as a temporary sacristy for one piece of sacred equipment is not using the vessel itself for an unfitting purpose. Nobody thought shame of the recusants for hiding sacred vessels in their houses to keep them away from blasphemous treatment.

  24. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Re: just handling sacred vessels, there have pretty much always been female sacristans, and sacristan assistants, in female religious communities. But like I say, you have to be circumspect about it and not casual.

    Re: handling Him, I suppose that a lot of these people have been empowered to serve as EMHCs for the sick or EMHCs to do certain Eucharist tasks, etc. I would hope so, anyway. If they haven’t been, they probably shouldn’t be doing it.

  25. AnnAsher says:

    @suburbanshee, I see your point but I also think cases of necessity are different from making a gimmick out of the sacred vessels. It is good to call attention to praying for priests and I recognize the symbolism in the chalice. Just use an unconsecrated chalice – one not used in the Sacrifice of the Mass.

  26. slainewe says:


    Sorry. I should be more accurate. I meant those fulfilling the role of the minor orders.

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