Voices Online Edition
Volume XVII, No. 4
Where Are the Men?
by Joanna Bogle
One of the biggest problems facing the Church in Europe and America is the absence of men -- especially young men -- at our Sunday parish liturgies.
Look around you at Mass this Sunday. Where are the teenage boys? Where are the young unmarried men? You will see some young dads with families. You will see some small boys. But once a lad gets to about 12 or 13, and is of an age to protest and to exert his own ability to refuse to cooperate in some family activity, then Sunday Mass is definitely off his agenda.
Why is this? Take a look at your parish liturgy. Often it is very female-oriented. Most of the readers at Mass are women. Most of the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion are women. Probably most of the altar servers are girls. This used to be the one area that boys could claim, but now many -- maybe most -- parishes have girls, which naturally means that boys think that serving Mass is girlie and so they swiftly disappear.
Most of the hymns are pitched for female voices and often are led by a woman at a microphone. If there is a folk group with recorders, guitars and flutes, it will consist mostly of girls. A boy who offered to play the recorder for Mass would be regarded, in teenage parlance, as sad.
At the main Mass on Sundays, the smaller children will typically be taken out at an early stage for activities that usually center on coloring in pictures and some storytelling linked to the Scripture readings of the day. There may be some men among the leaders of these activities, but it's rare -- they are mostly run by women. On the children's arrival back into the church, the congregation seems to be in the position of people attending a school concert. The ladies lead the children in and help them to display their work in front of the altar. Sometimes they take the children into the sanctuary and stay with them there for the rest of the Mass.
If you are a young man, you are not especially interested in watching other people's small children on parade, or seeing their cut-and-stick artwork on display. You do not want to listen weekly to a girls group playing the recorder and guitar. You are quite polite and will not be rude about all of this -- after all, the children are probably quite charming. But you will just quietly slip away. It is not part of your world. And these displays certainly do not inspire anyone to contemplate the Divine mysteries of the Mass and the worship of God.
A priest surrounded by all this female activity can look increasingly isolated and even frankly rather odd. He looks stranded as ladies and small children circulate, doing their own thing. When, by way of attempting to join in, he thanks and praises them, he vaguely seems to be currying favor. None of this makes his position look vibrant or significant. Nothing emerges that would make a boy think of the priesthood as the early Christians must have done when they looked at the Apostles, or persecuted English Catholics of penal times when they looked at Edmund Campion. There is little if anything to inspire a boy to see in the priest an alter Christus and make him want to follow him in service.
How can we change things?
Why do men not accompany their families to Mass? Why do young single men stay away? Could we see if there could be one Mass on a Sunday that is aimed at them -- maybe with minimal fuss and music and trimmings (i.e. no greeters on arrival, no pressing of hymn-books into reluctant hands, no obligation to hug or exchange greetings at the Sign of Peace)? Such a Mass could emphasize time for silent prayer, acceptance that those attending might like just to be there and get on with it. It might have a sermon that mentioned things like the duties of men as husbands and fathers and heads of families, setting a good example for children, etc. remembering that sometimes men don't mind tough talk and don't always appreciate a soft-sell when the matter is important.
Are men encouraged to be readers? Has a specific appeal been made -- perhaps not publicly, which could look silly, but discreetly by the priest and/or other readers specifically seeking out suitable men and talking to them about it? We could also encourage proper choirs with male voices following the injunction of Vatican II that people should learn and sing Gregorian chant. We could ask serious questions about how many Extraordinary Ministers of Communion are really needed, and then ensure that the task is not given predominantly to females. We could recognize that habits of worship are formed when young: children of both sexes love ritual, color, music, candles, and an air of mystery, and we need to ensure that the liturgy offers these things in great abundance, making it attractive to both boys and girls. We could also think about the importance of bringing stories of male saints -- of courage and faithfulness and heroism and adventure -- into sermons, to capture the imagination and stir the heart of all listeners.
And then there is the whole question of girl altar servers. We need to be realistic here: introducing them has not been a spectacular success. Their presence as attendants to a male priest can make them look like subservient handmaids. Alternatively, they sometimes seem to take charge so the sacred mysteries of the Mass become a comfortable bustle in a chatty kitchen. Somehow, the silent ritualistic presence that is an essential part of altar service is something that women and girls seem not to be comfortable in achieving.
A clarification of Church law has recently confirmed that there is no obligation to use girls as altar servers and no bishops can force a parish to have them. The way is open for priests to look widely at their people's real pastoral needs.
One solution is to use men as altar servers while encouraging children, especially girls, to have a proper role in a dignified Offertory Procession. This can be led by them, bearing candles and wearing special robes, culminating in a ceremony at the altar steps where the gifts are handed over and the candle-bearers remain and take part in the Mass from the altar-rails with a special status of their own.
The theology of the body, as developed in recent papal teachings and going back to thinkers and philosophers such as Edith Stein, has much that is useful here. Men and women do each have a role in God's plan. There was no error in creation when we were made of two different kinds -- on the contrary, we are meant and made to knit together, to bond in marriage, to form families. There is a nuptial meaning in the Eucharist -- which is at the core of this important truth, centered on the great reality of Christ the Bridegroom and the Church as His glorious Bride.
Young men don't need to stay away from church -- God made them and loves them and wants to feed them. We must not exclude them by our actions or our attitudes. From among them will come our future priests. Perhaps that is why they are being so strongly tempted to stay away.
Joanna Bogle is a British Catholic journalist who frequently appears on radio and television. She is the author of a book for girls aged nine and up, We Didn't Mean to Start a School ($10 - write Mrs. Bogle at 34 Barnard Gardens, New Malden, Surrey, KT3 6QG, England.)
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