I remember Sister Marie pleading with the boys in our class to sign up for Sunday service. The 7 AM liturgy was especially hard to fill. For that one she had to offer extra credit points to get volunteers, which I never thought was fair.
I remember asking my mom why girls weren't allowed to be altar servers. "Because Jesus picked all men for his disciples," she answered, with no more thought than when I had asked her how long to boil the spaghetti we were having for dinner.
Her matter-of-fact explanation didn't satisfy me, but I lived with it as I volunteered for the other parts of the Mass: bringing up the gifts in the offertory procession, composing and reading petitions for the prayers of the faithful. I was even allowed to prepare the altar for the eucharist, laying out the paten and chalice. But then I had to disappear--girls couldn't be on the altar for the consecration of the bread and wine.
According to my mom, the church had modernized itself plenty. She told me that before the Second Vatican Council, all liturgical functions in the sanctuary, like setting out the chalice, were restricted to men. She watched her daughters prepare the Table of the Lord in awe, thinking about how far the church had come.
But I wanted more.
I wanted to be on the altar for the actual party. Not just for the preparation of it.
I waited seven years.
I was eighteen years old, a college freshman when I was finally allowed to stand beside the priest during the consecration, to be the one to bless the congregation with incense, to be on the altar for the fun part. But I was an exception. The bishops hadn't revised any codes at that point. The role of the acolyte or altar server was still reserved to boys and men. But since I attended an all women's college, no men were available to facilitate the clergy, and the bishops were forced to extend the invitation to women.
I took full advantage of the situation. Not only did I serve as an acolyte for many liturgies, I coordinated one of the Sunday Masses. This meant I now played the role of Sister Marie back in the fifth grade who had bribed my classmates with extra credit points to get them to serve Mass.
Unlike Sister Marie, I never needed to offer perks or bonuses to get volunteers. I suppose other women were as intrigued as I was by this special function that was reserved for men. Maybe they secretly wanted to make their contribution, however small or insignificant, to the women's movement.
One thing was for sure, though. My college classmates and I performed the duties of the altar server just as well, if not better, than the fifth-grade boys in Sister Marie's class. And we were loyal. For four years we served at Mass, right up until the Baccalaureate Mass, when our white liturgical albs shone like stars against the black academic robes of our graduating classmates.
One year later, I was sitting in a graduate theology course. The guy in front of me, flipping through the most recent issue of the National Catholic Reporter, turned around and asked me, "Did you know girls can now be altar servers?"
I shook my head no, and he explained to me that during a Special Assembly, on June 16, 1994, the bishops revised the guidelines for altar servers, stating that "the determination that women and girls may function as servers in the liturgy should be made by the bishop on the diocesan level so that there might be a uniform diocesan policy."
My first thought? Sister Marie's bribes weren't effective. My second thought? How wonderful that young girls today are invited to participate in this very special role at Mass. How fortunate that they can say, along with eleven-year-old Jane Hedrick, "I like being an altar server because it's fun and it's nice to serve God."