ASK FATHER: Visible tattoos and altar service

Jose Llul Altar boys smokingFrom a reader…

I was at Mass today at a parish with exceptionally reverent liturgies, communion received at the communion rail kneeling and on the tongue, male-only altar servers and EMHC, but something kept catching my eye and distracting me-one of the altar servers, who was also acting as an EMHC had a rather prominent tattoo on the backside of his hand.

Albeit, nothing offensive, but it was so distracting. Every swing of the thurible all I could see was his tattoo. Receiving communion, try as I might to ignore it, I caught myself trying to read it and see what it was (three nails and the Alpha and Omega symbols). Even the most slack jobs don’t permit visible tattoos. Is this permitted by the Church, or should visible tattoos be covered up when serving at the altar!

GUEST RESPONSE: Fr. Tim Ferguson

Personally, I’ve always found tattooing to be odd. I understand that in some cultures, especially in the Pacific, it is an important thing, a rite of passage and a way of defining oneself.

In the Holy Land, there is a centuries-old practice of pilgrims getting tattooed as proof of a completed pilgrimage

In our culture, tattooing is mostly seen as a sign of rebellion. Young people flaunt their rejection of their parents’ norms by having something permanently etched into their skin. I was recently intrigued by a news story about Mark Wahlberg, who is, by fits and starts, returning to the practice of the faith (and I am not holding him up as an ideal). Mr. Wahlberg had several tattoos and was getting them removed. He took his teen children with him to witness the painful process of removal, so that they might learn from his mistakes.

Back to the question. The Church universal has no rule prohibiting the tattooed from serving at the altar. Some may cite the prohibition from tattooing in Leviticus, but that’s from the old ritual law from which Christ freed us, much like the kosher laws. It would be entirely appropriate for a parish to have a policy on the matter or even a diocese to have particular law, mindful of the sensibilities of the local populace. Absent that, a priest would be within his rights to disallow someone whose appearance was inappropriate in some way, from attending him at the altar. No one has a right to serve.

This instance, as weird as I find tattoos, seems to be not inappropriate.

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  1. Nan says:

    Then do you ban tattooed church ladies? There’s a mother of several children, whose tattoos are sometimes visible in part. Her children are young and well behaved.

    [Ban from what? Service at the altar?]

  2. VexillaRegis says:

    Tattoos can easily be covered with make up.

  3. Deo Credo says:

    I think this is fairly ludicrous. I have no tattoos nor any intention of ever getting one but I don’t look down on people with them. I would be more concerned with the fact that there are extraordinary ministers than I would be over a small tatoo. It sounds like the questioner and the respondent are being fairly judgy for no reason. [Isn’t that a little “judgy”?   o{];¬)   ] I could claim to be distracted by overly judgmental parishoners, should they then be banned? Where does it stop? Focus on the mass and accept that the church is made of a wide range of people all different from one another.

    [A great deal would depend on the nature of the tattoo. Right?]

  4. jarocookies says:

    “Even the most slack jobs don’t permit visible tattoos.”

    Not so in the Pacific Northwest, at least in the Portland area. One can have visible tattoos and piercings in many lines of work, including teaching, real estate, and medicine. Indeed, it’s more unusual here NOT to sport those things. It may be different in other parts of the country, but here at least tattoos are, ironically, very mainstream.

  5. “Even the most slack jobs don’t permit visible tattoos.”

    I’m pondering this. We must run in different circles.

  6. Gregg the Obscure says:

    “Even the most slack jobs don’t permit visible tattoos.”

    I work for a large pediatric hospital. I started here four years ago, at which time the dress code forbade visible tattoos. In short order, though, that has fallen into abeyance. Doctors, nurses, administrators of nearly all descriptions sport inky ornaments to say nothing of the more “slack jobs”. It’s not for me, but I’d rather have 99% of the crew tattooed than to have any yammering on about homosexual identity or “transgender” or similar demonic filth.

  7. hwriggles4 says:

    I work with people today who have tattoos, even had a fraternity brother who tattooed the fraternity crest on his shoulder. Most people I know who have tattoos cover them up when going to work, church, etc. The inside of a hand isn’t an obvious spot, and some girls get small ones on their ankles, which aren’t stand out spots.

    I don’t personally like tattoos, and I know some cops and firefighters whose uniforms require them to cover them up while on duty.

    Others say your body is a temple, and tattoos oftentimes violate proper treatment of the body.

  8. frjim4321 says:

    I find it so curious that sometimes certain people claim entitlement to judge the appearance of others.

  9. cwillia1 says:

    They say the Copts tattoo a cross on their children to prevent kidnapping and forced conversions. We are made in the image and likeness of God and the Son of God became man to restore the likeness of God to the image. Now the question I have for any Christian thinking of tattooing his body is will this choice contribute to the restoration of the likeness of God in your person?

    That said, we are all a work in process, including every altar server. We all bear the marks of our poor choices. In the resurrection of the body all of these marks will be erased for everyone who is resurrected to eternal life. I imagine the Copts will bear their tattooed crosses as a badge of honor.

  10. Elizabeth M says:

    As long as the altar server is appropriately attired, try as much as you can to look away. Maybe the tattoo is something they now regret. Tattoos in the general population are not so much in rebellion (maybe the previous generation) but as a reminder, or an attachment to culture / gang, or love of an art form. It’s all about wanting to show those you come in contact with that you have a message to give them. Personally I don’t like tattoos. At one point wasn’t it a mortal sin to have a tattoo?

    Maybe the devil was trying to distract you, simple as that.

  11. bibi1003 says:

    “…but that’s from the old ritual law from which Christ freed us.”

    Tattoos aside, how do we identify which laws Jesus freed us from, and which laws we should always follow?

    Here’s why I ask. A liberal friend of mine tried to tell me that even if homosexual acts were seen as wrong in the OT, that changed when Jesus became man and walked the earth (her words.) I explained that Jesus and God are one and that they existed from the beginning; therefore, Jesus couldn’t negate something God said in the OT.

    Would someone help me with this? Is my logic incorrect?

  12. Even the most slack jobs don’t permit visible tattoos.
    I would like to join those who have commented “not where I live”. The above is not true for the UK either.

  13. B.Ruelas says:

    Seems to me that the almost religious anti-tattoo attitude stems from Puritan America. I know plenty of Catholic World War II/Vietnam vets who have tattoos and who serve or lector at Mass. I know some great traditional priests with tattoos. My own brother has a shield of the Dominicans on his arm.

    I agree that it’s entirely appropriate to establish certain norms on how one dresses and presents oneself at Mass (no pajamas, for example), but these of course depend on local customs. Nowadays many people have various piercings and tattoos, and the vast majority of people don’t care. In fact, many of these tattooed folk are the biggest fans of the EF.

    These kinds of anti-tattoo tropes I hear so often, to me, seems nothing more than another case of WASP envy.

    If anyone is sufferings from symptoms of WASP envy, I generally prescribe 2 daily dosages of Walker Percy, one daily himalayan salt bath while listening to a Bruckner Symphony, 2 servings of any variety of Poblano-Mexican food, 3 glasses of a good Cotes-Du-Rhone (you can drink one with the Messiaen), and at least 1 monthly visit to your local flamenco club. If you don’t enjoy any of this, I’m afraid the WASP has likely spread, and your only other option might have to go on Tango therapy or Messiaen therapy.

    [Any side-effects?]

  14. thomistking says:

    I must admit that I love seeing “odd” people at the TLM. There’s a young father with long hair and many ear piercings (who is wonderful with his children) that usually sits in front of me. Its reminder that solemnity and beauty are exciting things and not just for stuffy WASPs.

  15. catholiccomelately says:

    My dear Mother, may she rest in peace, was incredibly distracted at worship by acolytes (we were Lutheran) who wore bright socks. Given a tattoo with nails and the alpha and omega, I’d say it’s your problem, not his. I’d suggest that you take control of your eyes.

  16. Joy65 says:

    OK just my take on this——I do not have a tattoo, nor does my husband or either of our 2 sons. I won’t be getting a tattoo. I have friends and family members who do have tattoos. I won’t judge them because I do not know their reason/purpose for getting a tattoo or what state/place they were in life when they got their tattoo. I worked in the Elementary School system for MANY years. Some teachers/co-workers did have tattoos. They tried their best to cover them in a way that they were not as obvious while during the school day. I respected that. Now having said that, one niece has her sobriety “chip” tattooed on her arm as well as others. I am just so THANKFUL that we still have her here with us that it doesn’t bother me one bit that she has that tattoo. I actually look at it as a reminder for her and for us of what she went through. Like I said I won’t judge because I don’t know their purpose or what state they were in when they got them. The ONLY objection I have of any tattoo is if it is graphic, explicit, nasty or pornographic in nature and can easily be seen on their body because of where it is located. That is my only objection but I would object to those kinds of images or words publicized ANY where. I pray for them and ask God to bless them.

  17. Lynn Diane says:

    Our parish seminarian used to work for Harley-Davidson and so has motorcycle tattoos up one side of both his arms and down the other, all crowded together. He probably has more tattoos than that but none on his face or neck. He usually wears long sleeves except when its hot outside. He’s a great seminarian, loves Latin and is very orthodox. We think he’s very special and will be able to reach people other priests can’t. :)

  18. Thomas Sweeney says:

    No prudent man or woman would ever let themselves be tattooed nor would they encourage anyone else to be disfigured. As a sailor during the 1950s I saw many obscene tattoos gotten by sailors, with the aid of alcohol, and almost always regretted. Before the era of easy jet plane travel getting a tattoo was a symbol of having been overseas. Yes, having a naked woman on your forearm was not unusual but for the nostalgic the favorite was MOM. I suppose to make a judgment on anybody’s tattoos you should have a least one semester of art history or wonder why Michaelangelo or Raphael never got one.

  19. JARay says:

    I detest tattoos. Ever since childhood I have always regarded those with tattoos in the same way as I regard those who deface walls etc. with grafitti. Tattoos are grafitti on human skin. I have a son who has a large tattoo on his back and I have let him know in no uncertain terms that I hate the sight of it and he usually has his back covered with a shirt so I don’t see it very often. It used to be the case that only sailors and prison inmates had tattoos on their bodies.

  20. acardnal says:

    frjim wrote, “I find it so curious that sometimes certain people claim entitlement to judge the appearance of others.”

    Are you referring to some liberal priests/bishops who critically judge those who wear Roman chasubles, birettas, maniples, and other traditional Catholic vestments? Perhaps the pope wearing a tiara?

    Tattoos are not natural; they are man-made.

  21. Imrahil says:

    I personally can’t understand that tatoo Thing and wouldn’t make one myself.

    That said, in Church we should set personal preferences aside, even respectable ones such as that tatoos were introduced as a profession to be counter-cultural (right now you’re counter-cultural if you don’t have them, but I digress); and focus on plain old if necessary boring Christian reason and morality and remember that it takes all sorts to make a world.

    As long as there is nothing in Christian morality that forbids tatooing, and as far as I see there isn’t, then there’s nothing that would suggest it were inappropriate for altar-servers either.

    If the motive were either un-Christian in intention, or one of these show-evil-as-it-is-for-the-cathartic-effect pictures (as we have it in Metal subculture), the case might be different; but three nails and an Alpha and Omega?

    As I said I don’t get that tatooing myself. I also think that in normal circumstances you had better not tatoo yourself. But generally speaking – in everything that is not actual Christian morality, we need more, not less, willingness to allow one’s deviances from polite-and-unoffensive civic decency entry to the religious sphere (provided one has them and does not seek them on purpose, which again would perhaps be problematic).

  22. JGavin says:

    My Irish Catholic grandmother from Donegal referred to tatoos as” a badge of ignorance”. That pithy instruction sealed the deal for me. I find them revolting and un Christian. For though we may not be bound by a prohibition from Leviticus, I cannot but help call to mind the quote from St Paul, Timothy 3: 16
    “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness,”. If it was a bad idea for ancient Israel, it probably is not good for us. Furthermore, one risks Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and possibly HIV exposure. On a lighter note , Yale -New Haven Hospital has a required video as part of their orientation adjuring the viewer to cover their tatoos when rounding in that Hospital.

  23. asburyfox says:

    I detest tattoos. They used to be for bikers, sailors, the deviant, and criminals. It was seen this way especially for those of us who grew up in gang infested cities during the 90’s. I am an older millennial in his 30’s, not someone you could easily dismiss because of age. Yet nearly everyone in my generation has gotten tattoos. It has become so normal and mainstream. Friends and family members covered with tats. It such a visible sign of the paganazation of culture and vast loss of God in soceity. So I do support priests prohibiting visible tattoos for altar servers.

  24. Fr. Reader says:

    There are different views on this issue in different parts of the world. Some might say: “they used to be for bikers, sailors, the deviant, and criminals .” It might be true, but in other cultures they show belonging to a family, a town, a culture, or other things. I have a friend, good priest, with a tattoo with a religious motif in his hand. And of course (I suppose) we all know great people with tattoos. Personally I don’t like tattoos at all, but I don’t think it is so important to focus on this issue.

  25. asburyfox says:

    Wow, I have never heard something as absurd and ridiculous as a priest having a tattoo on his hand with a religious motif. As if he had absolutely no clue to the ontological nature of his priesthood. A priest has consecrated hands. His hands are consecrated at his ordination with oil. With his consecrated hands he blesses and administers the sacraments. Administers grace through the sacraments, and a priest decides to have a tattoo there? His consecrated hands are a testament and sign, without the need for the symbolism of something so vapid as a tattoo. This story is worse than the time I heard that a priest started wearing the star of David and Jewish horn necklace around his neck, when he found out that he had Jewish blood and ethnicity through dna testing. I thought he was dense.

  26. Akita says:

    I believe a tattoo defaces one’s body and that tattoos are odious and send a hostile and jarring message.

    As the body ages, the flesh sags, dries out and tattoos bleed over time and become especially unsightly. Trust me, I knew a ninety four year old man with a naked woman on his forearm. It was not pretty.

    Knowing fallen human nature I believe today’s tattooed bodies will repulse the young 50 to 70 years hence and that the elderly tattooed in nursing homes will be more at risk for abuse done in secret, as when being toileted, bathed, etc.

  27. Fr. Reader says:

    This pious and good priest does have a clue about the ontological nature of his priesthood.

  28. Imrahil says:

    Dear JGavin,

    the common reading in which this specific text from Leviticus is “useful for us” is probably that the Canaanites did so in service of the demons.

    After all, we do eat pork. We also generally don’t read the Old Testament as indicating that, if pork is conceded to us, we should at least eat little of it and rather eat beef. (I say “and rather eat beef” to exclude the quite different health and moderation issues at stake here.)

    I think we should be slow to describe something as “un-Christian” what we merely find revolting.

    And (dear asburyfox) if you say “the sailors, bikers, deviant and criminal” – well, you did mention the deviant and criminal. But you also mentioned the sailors and bikers. Sailing is an honest profession. Motorcycling is an honest hobby.

    Dear JARay,

    forgive me, but if you say “I detest tatoos. Look at graffiti! and tatoos are as bad as that!” sounds, to me, like, “I detest murder. Look at manslaughter! and murder is as bad as that!”

    Walls, other than human bodies, are man-made. A wall with a graffito, other than all the human bodies I recall at present, really can look better than without it.

  29. EC says:

    One more reason for altar servers to where gloves.

  30. nomdeplume says:

    “Even the most slack jobs don’t permit visible tattoos.”

    That’s not the case on the West Coast where my office of academic professionals have both visible and discreet tattoos. We certainly run in very different social circuits.

    In my more rebellious years, I got a tattoo of a rosary around my forearm. I did this more in honor my grandmother, a rather pious woman, than in a spirit of spiritual devotion. And yet it was a constant reminder of my religious heritage and it kept me from ever being able to completely adopt the atheist or post-Christian identity that I wanted to cultivate in my hipster 20s. This nagging reminder of my baptism is one reason why I returned to the Church at 30.

    At thirty-five I entered formation to the permanent diaconate. God willing, at 40, I’ll be serving at altar. Every time that I raise my arms, the sleeve of my alb may slip and expose this tattoo (and some of my many others). I had no idea that this might cause scandal among the assembly: people just have tattoos in California. This is a reminder however that I may need to never wear short sleeve shirts when serving at Mass…

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