Female Servers in the Extraordinary Form

And More on the Blessed Sacrament

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ROME, SEPT. 8, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Is there any definitive answer available regarding the use of female servers at celebrations of the extraordinary form of the Roman rite? -- A.J., Pontypridd, Wales

A: Although a clarifying instruction on several such questions was frequently described as "imminent," a long time has passed and it would seem that it is still in the pipeline.

All the same, it is important to remember that, even in the ordinary form, the use of female altar servers is in virtue of a specific permission and is not automatic. As the Holy See has explained on several occasions, the local bishop may permit the use of female servers but may not oblige the pastor to use them.

Also, the Holy Father's motu proprio granting permission for the celebrations of the extraordinary form was for the Roman Missal according to the edition issued under Pope John XXIII. Since the rubrics of this missal in no way contemplate the possibility of female servers, then it must be surmised that only altar boys or adult men are allowed as servers in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite.

To help us to understand the underlying logic behind this we can reflect on a particular situation.

It appears there was at least one case in which women were allowed some functions habitually carried out by the servers. In the preface to the 1936 first edition of H.E. Calnan's guide for altar servers, he mentions the following circumstance: "In most parishes, a dozen influences combine to restrict the supply of efficient Mass servers. Layfolk must be asked to serve at short notice, or without warning. A woman with knowledge of Latin may venture, because she has only to answer and not to move about."

The case foreseen here is when there were no assigned altar servers present. In such a plight a woman with knowledge of Latin could do the responses.

A woman could carry out this role because it was properly speaking a role of the assembly. In making the Latin responses the altar boys in a way represented and substituted the assembly, who frequently did not know the liturgical language. One of the challenges of being an altar boy (and a source of legitimate pride to his parents) was memorizing the Latin texts to be recited.

However, years before the conciliar reform there was already a liturgical movement that encouraged the whole assembly's recitation of these parts, and not just the server. This practice is relatively common today among communities that habitually celebrate the extraordinary form.

Father Calnan's mention that the woman "has only to answer and not move about" makes it clear that she did not carry out any of the other functions of the altar boy in serving the Mass. Since in these roles the altar servers substituted some of the functions of those who had received minor orders (and who were thus canonically numbered among the clergy), only males could carry out these functions.

In the ordinary form the clerical minor orders have been replaced by the lay ministries of lector and acolyte. However, even though they are lay ministries, only males may be instituted as lectors and acolytes. Since instituted lectors and acolytes are uncommon in most parishes, other lay readers and servers may be delegated. At this stage the rubrics allow either men or women to be chosen as readers and, were permitted, as servers.

In the extraordinary form, though, the minor orders and the liturgical logic behind them still exist. For this reason I would say that in this form the rule reserving altar service to boys or men remains in force.

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Follow-up: Blessed Sacrament Under Glass

Related to our Aug. 25 reply on the "Eucharist under glass" were a couple of other questions on file. A Wisconsin reader asked: "How does the Church address 'Eucharistic adoration on demand'? Our parish has an adoration chapel. Viewing and adoring the Eucharist can be done by anyone by opening two small windows in the tabernacle doors; the tabernacle doors remain locked and only the host is in view. This practice seems to trivialize the majesty of God. Is this practice liturgically correct?"

A Chicago correspondent added: "A generous soul donated a glass 'tabernacle' to an adoration chapel. The (very expensive) gift was accepted and now stands on the altar in the adoration chapel. It is left unattended for long periods of time, with monstrance and consecrated host inside, behind the glass. In the first place, am I correct in assuming that glass is an improper material for a tabernacle? If so, can the problem be corrected by using a curtain or veil to cover the 'tabernacle' when the chapel is empty?"

To the first question we can reply that exposition of the Blessed Sacrament is linked with an intense form of adoration. This entails a proper exposition, a certain fixed period of time in which the Eucharist is never left alone, and concluded by reserving the sacrament in a formal manner, preferably after Benediction has been given.

The situation described is clearly not adoration as desired by the Church. In fact, this practice contains a real danger of undermining adoration of the Lord present in the closed tabernacle. It appears to give the message that the only real adoration is of the Blessed Sacrament exposed, which is simply false.

This does not mean that this form of tabernacle with a window cannot be used for exposition. This possibility exists in some cases but only if the conditions mentioned above (not leaving the Blessed Sacrament alone, etc.) are fulfilled.

The second situation is slightly different. If this "glass tabernacle" can be considered as a protection for the monstrance during periods of public adoration, then it could be admitted.

However, it would be contrary to the norms if a transparent tabernacle is left unattended. Covering it with a veil when there is no public adoration would be a solution only if it were unbreakable glass that would make violation of the tabernacle very difficult.

I suggest, therefore, that it should be used only as a kind of protective throne to the monstrance during solemn adoration and that a proper solid tabernacle be obtained for the habitual reserve.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.