Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Altar Girls? A Question Once More? Only in Arlington

O c'mon, do you realy think the
gates of hell are going to prevail if
girls are allowed to serve at the
The Diocese of Arlington has made the news again—it’s never good and this time downright foolish.  It seems that a local pastor, Father Michael Taylor, has decided to disallow girls from serving mass in his parish.  Almost two-thirds of the parishes of the diocese do not permit girls to serve mass despite Vatican assurances that there is nothing in Church law that prohibits it.  I really must admit that I am a bit baffled by this.  If we said that only white kids could serve at the altar we would see the arbitrary injustice involved but hey, it’s ok to discriminate against girls because we have a tradition that upholds that custom.  In Virginia they had a tradition that discriminated against blacks too, but fortunately that has been done away with, at least in the more visible situations.  Come to think of it though, how many black priests does the Diocese of Arlington have?  About as many as they have women priests, I would guess.  After all there is no law against ordaining blacks as long as they have the biological equipment that certifies a candidate as fit for ordination.  And that brings us to the crux of the problem in the Arlington Diocese.       It isn’t Father Taylor’s fault, at least not at the root.  I know Father Taylor.  When I lived in the DC area back about ten years ago I attended mass at the parish where he was the parochial vicar.  He is a sweet man.  He is the sort of priest you want for confession.  He is just good.  The problem is that he is also, well, to put it bluntly, stupid.  That’s ok, God doesn’t always choose the best and the brightest and—by the way—I do think that Father Taylor is among the best, just not among the brightest.  He could never grasp the big question but would always get hung up on some semi-relevant (at best) detail in any situation.  He tried so hard to do the right thing but would have a failure of moral courage because someone somewhere told him some obscure law or theological detail or papal whim (real or imagined) and without checking it out, he would make the wrong decision.  It was never from an uncaring heart, only from the confusion of super-ego and conscience.  And where were those super-ego tapes—those little “voices of authority” in one’s head coming from?  Well that is part of the problem in the Arlington Diocese too.  There is the magisterium of the Church  and then there is the shadow magisterium of a group of self-appointed mentors who have too long shaped the minds of many of the younger priests of that diocese, confirming them in ignorance and disinformation.  When Father Taylor would say some of the outrageous things he would say and I would ask him for his source it was always Father Fasano or Father McAfee, or Monsignor O’Brien or Father Pokorsky or someone else in the “Gang of Thirteen.”  Once when I was at the AAR convention I was having lunch with several professors from Saint Mary’s Seminary Emmitsburg, and in relating to them various stories about the Arlington clergy, I asked them—teasingly—what they were teaching up there at the Mount.  “O, they’re not learning that from us” I was assured.  Amidst laughter they told me “They have a special post-graduate program in the diocese where they bring in the ‘experts’.”    
      Much of the Arlington quagmire dates back to the episcopacy of John Keating (1983-1998).  Well actually the problem is rooted in the fact that the Arlington diocese, like all of us except the Blessed Virgin, was conceived in sin and born in iniquity, but we won’t go there in this entry.  John Richard Keating was a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and had been, I believe, administrator of the Archdiocese between the death of Cardinal Cody and the appointment of Joseph Bernardin as Archbishop.  Bernardin knew he was on a very different page than Keating and so to remove him from power (he had been Vicar General prior to Cody’s death) without humiliating him, Keating was named the second Bishop of Arlington.  He reminds me of an eleventh century bishop of Reims in France, Manasses II (1096-1106), whose famous quote, describing the office to which he was called, was “This wouldn’t be a bad job if you didn’t have to sing Mass.”  Bishop Keating was an administrator, a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat.  He was a superb canon lawyer and responsible for introducing the “psychological maturity” argument into the annulment process.   He wasn’t a bad man, at least as far as anything I have heard.  He just wasn’t very religious.  Nine o’clock Sunday Morning would find him, most weeks, not in his cathedral but out on the links at the Washington Country Club.  After his death, a crypt was constructed in the cathedral to hold the remains of the Bishops of Arlington and Keating’s body was removed from the mausoleum at Fairfax Memorial Park where it had been temporarily entombed and properly put in the episcopal crypt.  The joke was circulated among the clergy of the diocese the following Easter that this had been the first Holy Week the Bishop had spent in his Cathedral.  While he would show up at the Cathedral for the Mass of the Chrism and the Easter Vigil, he would not permit baptisms and confirmations at the Vigil and would only allow the minimum number of Old Testament lessons so that the liturgy would not go over an hour and a half.  “This would not be such a bad job if you didn’t have to sing Mass.” 
     Bishop Keating was a great delegator of responsibility which is to his credit, but he seems not always to have followed up.  He really didn’t care much if individual priests or parishes were conforming to Church practice as long as they weren’t actually breaking any canons.  This led to a lot of idiosyncrasies in Arlington.  Some places had “Solemn High Masses” which were the (at the time required) Novus Ordo Rite but which were counterfeited with Deacons and “Subdeacons” and an ad apsidem posture to masquerade as the old Tridentine Solemn High Mass.  Birettas and cottas and even maniples were salvaged from closets and drawers, altar-rails were installed and kneeling for communion restored, and old time religion, Catholic style, became somewhat normative in the Arlington Diocese.    And when the clergy informed the bishop that should he permit girls to serve Mass as was being done in other dioceses, they were “outta here”—well, Keating was not one for confrontation and so “altar girls” were on the verboten list. 
     This preconciliar Shangri-la was bound to attract vocations from other dioceses where seminarians were afraid that they might not be permitted as priests to do the grocery shopping in their soutanes or required to take a Latin exam before being permitted to say Mass in the language.  There was a very enterprising vocation director, Father Jay Gould, who scoured seminaries around the country for men who would be thrilled to be part of this ‘50’s revival and for years Arlington had an abundance of vocations.  Conservatives in the diocese, clergy and laity alike, look back on the “Golden Days of Gould” when vocations abounded and cassocks were de rigueur.   A prominent Washington Archdiocesan Monsignor who had served as driver/Master of Ceremonies to the late Cardinal Hickey (Archbishop of Washington 1980-2000) told me that he had once ribbed the Cardinal saying: “What’s wrong with our Archdiocese?  Keating is ordaining twelve priests this year, you’re ordaining two.”  Hickey’s response to the disparity of vocations was “We don’t want the lawsuits.”   So much for screening.   
      All this is background to the issue of female altar boys in Arlington.  About five years ago, Bishop Loverde, the current bishop, lifted Bishop Keating’s ban, allowing pastors—with the advice of the Parish Pastoral Councils—to permit girls and women to serve Mass.  Rome had no problem with it; the Bishop had no problem with it.  But there are always those like Father Taylor, who know better.  I am not saying that sometimes priests and even lay folk don’t know better than bishops—or even the Pope.  History bears out the facts.  I am only saying that a smart priest doesn’t come into a parish and stir up a hornet’s nest over an issue as inconsequential as this one.  But then, as I began, while Father Taylor may be no less intelligent than many of his colleagues, he sure didn’t demonstrate street smarts, much less pastoral sagacity, here.   


  1. Fr. Fasano at St. Andrew's in Clifton was very dedicated to his alter boys, he did not allow alter girls. There are plenty of way girls can serve the Church. That previous year I was there (1999) Fr. Fasano had 18 young men enter the Seminary. Check and see which seminaries are flourishing. Our parish in California has never had a vocation. We are sadly liberal and usually have only alter girls, as boys at this age are not very comfortable around girls. This is where vocations stem. WAKE UP

  2. Actually I know Father Fasano both from h is days at St Catherine's in Great Falls and at St. Andrews. And I know many of the seminarians whom he recruited--most of whom are now, thank heavens, no longer studying for the priesthood. I don't consider Father or his seminarians to be a strong case for your argument. To the contrary. and by the way--it is "altar" and not "alter."