Altar Girls

April 19, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- Some people who were drafted into the armed services wonder why women have been so eager to be included into that tough life. On a different scale, I have somewhat the same feelings about young Roman Catholic women who have been lobbying to become altar girls.

The Vatican has just announced that girls will henceforth be allowed to perform these duties -- to light candles, to pour wine and water into the chalice held by a priest, ring bells and give the priest a little napkin to wipe his hands on.

I spent many dark and cold mornings -- in Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri -- performing those duties. They are not onerous in themselves; but priests with little quirks found ways to make them difficult. Like most of my contemporaries, I began ''serving mass'' at a young age -- 7. We wore long cassocks, and genuflected in them, going up altar stairs burdened with a heavy missal in both hands, so that we often stepped on our own skirts and staggered when not actually sprawling. Bells got kicked in the process, and cassocks torn.

Candles came in heights that looked about 10 feet to a child, and the metal taper-holders used to light the candles wavered near and around the wick for what seemed hours before the fire took. I was drilled out of altar-boy duties in one church because I propped the taper-holder insecurely, and it crashed to the sacristy floor in the middle of mass.

The going was not all bad. I remember predawn masses with small groups that had the air of re-entry into Christian catacombs. For a while I served mass for the scholar-priest Walter Ong, before anyone else was up or moving around. It was a quiet time outside time.

The very point of an ''altar boy'' is now lost, since the hard division of the priest from the laity, the sanctuary from the congregation, has been obliterated. The altar boy used to be a messenger across that sacred line, a kind of courier. But the modern liturgy has an entirely different (not necessarily inferior, just different) ethos. The altar girls are storming a melted barricade.

Then why the fuss? Partly because the Vatican made this trivial issue so important while denying girls the ability to serve mass. Partly because so many priests and congregations simply ignored the Vatican, on this point as on others. And partly because the Vatican recognized reality and gave up.

It is a pattern that is occurring on many fronts, with different intensities here and there, but with a growing realization that church officials are out of step with believers.

In one sense, there is nothing new here. Cardinal Newman used to invoke the ancient maxim, ''The norm of the community praying sets the norm of the community believing'' (''Lex orandi lex credendi''). Newman said the faithful as a whole, not just the magisterial few in Rome, are guided by the Holy Spirit. The Vatican said this new concession has nothing to do with any hope, down the road, that Roman Catholic women will ever be ordained priests. Rome probably believes even that. Talk about blind faith.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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