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Boys and girls and liturgy

If you’re into androgyny  — the idea that maleness and femaleness are of no real consequence for our lives and loves, our discernments and our destinies — read no further; you will only suffer elevated blood pressure.

If, on the other hand, you agree that there are deep truths about us, about the world, and even about God contained in that famous phrase from Genesis, “male and female He created them,” then come with me to a typical suburban parish where I stopped for weekday Mass a year ago.

It was late in the morning and the parish school’s eighth graders were attending Mass as a class. There were perhaps fifty youngsters, evenly divided between boys and girls. Yet here was the liturgical batting order (so to speak): all three cantors were girls; the lector was a girl; one of the two altar servers was a girl; both gift-bearers were girls; and both Eucharistic ministers were elderly women.

I guarantee you that the same thought, inchoate or explicit, went though the head of every eighth grade boy in that congregation: “This is girls’ stuff.” Or, for the more refined, “This is women’s work.” Now try to imagine suggesting to any of those boys that he consider a vocation to the priesthood.

Having been one and having lived with two, I have no illusions about thirteen- or fourteen-year old boys. More often than not, they’re slovenly, clumsy, easily distracted, moody, fractious, and goofy — often serially. There’s not the slightest question in my mind that, at this particular Mass (or any other, for that matter), the girls in question sang more beautifully, read more articulately, and served more reverently than their male counterparts would likely have done. I am also deeply impressed by the many good works done by women as Eucharistic ministers. But permit me to suggest that no pastor, teacher, or school principal serious about promoting priestly vocations would ever organize a Mass the way that one was organized. Eighth grade boys are restless enough with “church stuff.” Do we really want to suggest that this is all a girl thing?

The Catholic Church will not ordain women to the priesthood because the Catholic Church is not authorized to ordain women to the priesthood: that is the clear teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, and it is not going to change. Why that is the case is a serious, complicated theological question. The most intriguing answers begin with the fifth chapter of Ephesians and its teaching on Christ’s “spousal” relationship to the Church: Christ loves the Church as a husband loves a wife. A priest, according to Catholic teaching, is an “icon,” a living re-presentation, of the eternal priesthood of the Lord. The “iconography” of Christ’s spousal gift of himself to the Church is most intensely embodied in the Eucharist, in which Christ gives his flesh and blood to his spouse. That requires a priest who can re-present (“make present again”) Christ in his male donation to his bride.

The radical equality of men and women, both made in the image and likeness of God and both redeemed by Christ, does not mean that men and women are interchangeable as icons of God’s presence to the world. That’s not easy to grasp in a unisex culture that treats maleness and femaleness as a plumbing issue, not a question of “iconography.” But that’s how the Church thinks about these things, because in the Catholic sacramental imagination, stuff counts.

Why? Because we live in a divinely-ordered world in which the extraordinary is revealed through the ordinary. So maleness and femaleness count, just as bread, wine, water, salt, and oil count, in this sacramentally configured universe of ours. And in the final analysis, that’s a far more humanistic way to look at sexual differentiation that today’s androgyny.

What does this have to do with eighth-grade Mass at your local parish? It means deliberately avoiding liturgical androgyny and trying to “compensate” for the male priesthood. It means arranging the liturgy so that boys have at least as large a role as girls. It means getting more priests involved in distributing communion. It means making a conscious effort to avoid telling those scruffy, distracted, self-conscious about-to-be-men, “This is girls’ stuff.”

George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.
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