THE BLOG
01/10/2015 11:04 am ET Updated Mar 12, 2015

Confessions of an Altar Boy Wannabe

Envy, the nuns warned us in Catholic grade school, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. I had to go to confession a lot when I was a kid --- especially when it came to envy of the stuff my brothers had that I craved. Lincoln Logs. Tonka Trucks. Football gear. And beautifully starched stiff roman colors and white surplices over perfectly ironed red cassocks every Sunday on the altar.

Memories of my envy of the altar boys came flooding back last week when I read Cardinal Raymond Burke's curious claim that the acceptance of girls as servers at Mass is the real reason why priestly vocations are in decline and the Church is in crisis. He said in an interview on the website of The New Emangelization [spelling is not a typo]:

The introduction of girl servers also led many boys to abandon altar service. Young boys don't want to do things with girls. It's just natural. The girls were also very good at altar service. So many boys drifted away over time. ...I think that this has contributed to a loss of priestly vocations.

Women! Always the problem since Eve took that first bite of the apple.

Growing up Catholic in the penultimate years of the Old Church, before the full force of liturgical changes wrought by Vatican II came to our parish in the Philadelphia suburbs, I accepted the True Order of Things for girls and women in the Church as a given, even though I harbored secret doubts and resentments that dare not speak their name. Like why did the boys get to wear those lovely garments --- up there, on the altar! --- while I sat on the hard pews hot and itchy in my wool coat and dorky hat with Mom rattling her crystal rosaries and glaring at me every time I wriggled.

With five boys in the house Mom had a closet full of cassocks and surplices to iron and keep in beautiful condition --- and, Lord, did she hate ironing as a general rule ("wash & wear" was the general rule) but those vestments got her loving care. Even when they came back from the sacristy covered with candle wax, maybe some spilled wine stains, and all wrinkled up because Someone (John? Tom?) did not put them back on the hangar but carried them home in a bunch, Mom made sure those garments were restored to pristine sacramental readiness.

Serving Mass was at least as important as football practice in those days, and Dad would be up early to take the assigned altar boys to the 6:00 a.m. first Mass of the Day. Later on in the day, Mom would roll up to school in the Plymouth station wagon to gather the troops for football, cassocks giving way to pads and helmets. I stayed home acting like I didn't care, who wanted to be with all those uncouth smelly boys with their cooties? But then it would be Saturday with the Big Game and Sunday with High Mass, all first downs and touchdowns and bells and incense and "Et introibo ad altare Dei" (Latin response at Mass, "And I will go the altar of God") and I would slide into my green funk of Envy again while I tried to memorize the answers to the questions in the Baltimore Catechism.

59. Q. Which are the chief sources of sin?
A. The chief sources of sin are seven: Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy, and Sloth; and they are commonly called capital sins.

Why didn't the nuns warn those boys about Pride as they swished about the altar with their long brass candle lighters, later emerging as acolytes alongside monsignor from the secret caverns of the sacristy where I imagined there was a gigantic sign: NO GIRLS ALLOWED!

By high school I was over my acolyte envy as my entrance into the rituals of a Catholic all-girls school and later a women's college (Trinity, where I am president today) began to reveal the true facts of Catholic life: women were real power players in the Church, teaching and running the schools, colleges, universities and hospitals and generally busy about establishing their own powerful cultures of influence among the faithful. The men came around once in a while to say Mass, and in the aftermath of Vatican II the whole thing was less mysterious as the priest turned around to greet us in our own language; oh, and we girls got to help out with the candles and cruets of water and wine. Mysteries fell away as we realized that serving Mass was just like setting the table and serving dinner, a familiar ritual for girls, illuminating the roots of the liturgy in the Last Supper.

Hmmm. So why didn't the boys ever help with dinner at home?

Cardinal Burke is right about one thing: There are a lot of women in the sanctuary, always have been, even in times when their official presence was less visible. Claiming that the Church has recently become feminized as some kind of epithet denies the central roles that women have played in the Church across two thousand years of history, starting with the somewhat irreplaceable role of Mary. And how about a headcount of those who were present at the Crucifixion and Resurrection? Women!

Sure, women have issues with the Church, and a good case can be made that the Church's problems are not because of too many women but rather not enough in key places. Whether women should be priests, should be present in the Synod and Conclave are ancient debates that are likely to continue for millennia to come.

But now that I'm at an age where I have a healthy aversion to incense and ostentation, I have come to appreciate that the real issues for women in the Church are not ideological but quite pragmatic: the institutions women staff and often lead are struggling, whether schools and colleges, or healthcare and social service agencies. For many people, Catholics and others, the experience of Church is not in a church building but in places where the real ministry occurs - classrooms, clinics, hospital rooms. But the economics of operating these services has changed dramatically as real labor costs have replaced the free labor of women (the nuns used to work for free, and this was called "contributed services") on the balance sheets of these corporations.

I got over my acolyte envy; Cardinal Burke and his ilk need to get over their aversion to women. All of us in leadership roles for the Church and its institutions need to come together to figure out how to sustain the service enterprises that are the collective ministry of the Church in the world. Now THAT is a topic for a Synod where women truly should be heard!