Imagine if an Altar Server/Acolyte…

Altar Server
Altar Server

by Therese Ivers, JCL

…were treated like some sacred virgins are treated during the Mass of their consecration.   Picture this.  The altar server goes up in procession before the Mass.  He then makes a sign of reverence and goes to his front pew (or seat right in front of the congregation’s first pew).  When it is time for the washing of hands and handing the water and wine he exits his pew, ascends to the sanctuary, hands the priest the water, the towel, and the water/wine.   Once he finishes handing these items, he exits the sanctuary and returns to his first pew or seat just in front of the first pew.  Ditto for holding the books. He can handle ringing bells from the pews.  He then renters the sanctuary to help with Communion distribution.  Once that is over he returns to the first pew.  What is wrong with this picture?

We are so USED to altar servers actually sitting in, ahem, the sanctuary, we don’t give it a second thought.  We know that this is where they are to be seated, so we don’t insist that they stay in the pews except for the few bouts of “serving” they do near the altar.  In fact, they are considered to be among the “ministers” that belong in the sanctuary, along with deacons and priests.  Altar servers (even duly instituted acolytes) are fairly minor functionaries, and yet they sit in the sanctuary.

Altar servers, like other ministers follow liturgical rules.The normal rules for Masses are specified in the Roman Ritual.  This is a liturgical book that has rules for how priests do Mass.  The rules for Masses primarily celebrated by the Bishop (and some can only be done by the bishop) are contained in a book called the Roman Pontifical.   It is the Roman Pontifical that contains the Mass for the Consecration of Virgins that only a bishop can celebrate.  Often, for a special Mass, there are special rules that apply only to that particular Mass, especially when it is a solemn “pontifical” Mass celebrated by the bishop.  The rules are very clear in English (and somewhat clearer in Latin) as to where the virgin candidates and then the newly consecrated virgins are placed in the Mass.  In a highly symbolic movement, the Bishop calls the virgins from the nave/pews to the sanctuary.  This is specified in paragraphs 14 and 52 of the Rite.

Why the call?  The bishop is calling the women to assume the dignity and position of the bride of the Son of God.  The women go from amongst the congregation and ascend to the sanctuary.  This is not merely a matter of providing a “stage setting” for the “audience” or congregation if you will, so that the people can see what is going on.  No, the movement is far more symbolic.  The bishop is leading the virgins to a closer union with Jesus Christ.  Once called, they leave the sanctuary only once; to retrieve the offertory gifts and physically deposit them on the altar (again without the typical interaction of bringing the gifts to an intermediary deacon or priest specified for most Masses).

The seating in the sanctuary for the newly consecrated virgins is there for a purpose.  The virgins do very little once they are consecrated- they bring the offertory gifts to the altar, they exchange the sign of peace with the bishop, and they receive Communion at the altar itself directly after the bishop.  Technically, for so little “action” the rubrics could have specified that they return to the pews immediately after their consecration (which takes place between the Gospel and the Offertory).  But the Church esteems the women who share with her the title of Spouse of Christ, Virgin, Bride, and Mother.  The Church is the Bride of Christ and at the wedding of Christ to his new Spouse, the spouse, the woman who is now a sacred person by virtue of the spiritual anointing given to her at the consecration by the bishop is to be recognized as a spouse of God and image of the Church Herself in a manner commensurate with her new dignity.  Hence keeping the newly sacred woman in the sanctuary.

What is really puzzling is that despite the fact that the Rite of Consecration is contained in the Bishop’s special book, people manage to dishonor the new spouses of Christ by sending them back to the nave (pews) even though they are supposed to be in the sanctuary.  Or worse, “segregate” them by putting them on the steps to the sanctuary away from the sanctuary proper.  Why is it that people keep misreading “sanctuary” as “pews” or “nave” for virgins during their solemn Rite of Consecration?  I just don’t get it.  The word is clear.  It is “sanctuary” in English, “presbiterium” in Latin.  The Rite specifies that after being formally called by the bishop, the virgins [leave the nave/pews area and] ascend to their places in the sanctuary, where special places are prepared for them.  Is it a reading comprehension error?  Could it be discrimination and an arrogant assumption that this is not the solemn celebration it is?  I honestly don’t know what is motivating people to place the virgins back in the pew but it is certainly a mystery as to why there is no problem in keeping minor functionaries like altar servers in the sanctuary but there is a problem in keeping the sacred spouse of Jesus Christ the Son of God in the same sanctuary on her wedding day.

It should be noted that the Church deeply honors and respects those who share with Her the title of Bride of Christ and Virgin, Bride, and Mother.  The mystery of the union of Christ and the Church is reflected most perfectly in the sacred virgin’s union with Christ.  In fact, one could posit that even if women were made cardinals, consecrated virgins would by their nature outrank them because sacred virgins share the Church’s own relationship Christ and cardinals are simply papal voters and counselors.  The Blessed Virgin Mary was the first consecrated virgin (consecrated at the Annunciation).  Sacred virgins are the image of the Church and Mary.

Respect for the Church entails respect for the sacred virgin who embodies and shares in the Church’s own mysterious spousal bond with Christ.  Properly understood, sacred virginity is not a challenge to become priests- the virgin’s highest dignity lies in that she is the legal and spiritual spouse of the High Priest.  Spouses share dignity.  The dignity is complementary.  Bishops with their fullness of the priesthood representing Christ and sacred virgins with their fullness of being Bride of Christ, embodying a representation of the Church as Virgin, Bride, and Mother.  This is why sacred virgins have no need to seek ordination- spouses share dignity.  Jesus Christ offered His life for His Spouse.  The priesthood exists for the service for the salvation of the Church that Christ loves so much.  In her capacity as spouse, the virgin like the Blessed Virgin, is a true mother to the faithful.  It takes two to tango.  Paternity and maternity are complementary roles.  Both are needed to bring life to the children of God in the Church.  As St. John Paul II so eloquently put it,

This means that the consecrated life, present in the Church from the beginning, can never fail to be one of her essential and characteristic elements, for it expresses her very nature… The idea of a Church made up only of sacred ministers and lay people does not therefore conform to the intentions of her divine Founder, as revealed to us by the Gospels and the other writings of the New Testament. 
– VC #29 (emphasis mine)

Yes, consecrated life, but in particular sacred virginity expresses the very nature of the Church.  That’s pretty powerful.  And St. John Paul goes even further by saying it is essential to the Church’s nature and that it is not a man-made device but established by God Himself.  It’s a discussion for another time, but although different forms of consecrated life can come and go, sacred virginity is the only vocation that fully expresses the nature of the Church herself as Virgin-Bride.  I would go so far as to say that it is probably THE only form of consecrated life that would always be essential to the Church because of its nature.  Further, historically, consecrated virginity has always existed in the Church, starting with the Blessed Virgin Mary and each century has seen women elevated to the Order of Virgins.  [While I’m at it, I’ll throw in another tidbit.  The Order of Virgins counts among its members a Doctor of the Church.  That’s pretty neat :)]

I’m still working on the follow up post I promised on more myths about consecrated life so keep your eyes peeled.

(c) 2015 by Therese Ivers, JCL.  All Rights Reserved.


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