September 2013 Print

Question and Answer

by Fr. Peter Scott, SSPX

Is it permissible for a married man to serve at the altar?

The serving at the altar for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is of such dignity that the Church has consecrated the various functions of the altar server by the minor orders. The Porter receives the power to ring the bells and to hold the book, the Exorcist receives the power to pour the water for the Lavabo, and the Acolyte receives the power to carry the candles and to bring the water and wine to the altar for the Sacrifice of the Mass. In each case the consecration of the cleric to God is symbolized by the exterior movements that he performs on the altar, so that the Porter gives a good example by his life to the faithful, so that he can call them to prayer; the Exorcist gives an example of purity of soul; and the Acolyte gives the example of the light of goodness, justice, and truth to enlighten the faithful and the Church of God, and of the spirit of self-sacrifice through a chaste life and good works (cf. Pontificale, Ceremonies of Ordination).

The appropriateness of the service of the altar by a cleric is consequently directly related to the holiness of the function, which requires a man consecrated to God. Furthermore, it is a public function, which is why, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out, “he takes the place of the whole Catholic people, in whose place he answers the priest who addresses him in the plural form” (III, q. 83, a. 5 ad 12). Consequently it is eminently appropriate that it be performed by a tonsured cleric, having publicly put on “the new man, who has been created according to God in justice and in the sanctity of the truth” (ibid.), and this even if no faithful are present.

Thus, if a tonsured cleric is present, he should serve the Mass. However, this is rarely the case, and yet the Church requires that there be an altar server. In his 1947 encyclical on the sacred Liturgy, Pope Pius XII taught this very directly: “It is our duty and command—as it is the command of Holy Mother Church—that out of reverence for the dignity of this august Sacrifice no priest should go to the altar without a server to assist and answer the Mass, according to the prescription of Canon 813” (Mediator Dei, §97). This canon states, in effect, that the priest is not to celebrate without a server (minister) to serve him and make the responses, and furthermore that this server must not be a woman, except that in the absence of a man, and for a just cause, she may make the responses from a distance and in no way dare to approach the altar. In such a case, of course, she is not an altar server at all. The reasons to exclude a woman follow from what was said above about the public and liturgical nature of the function of serving on the altar, which involves a kind of spiritual leadership of the Catholic people.

In his commentary on this question, Father O’Connell states: “Although he [the server] is supposed to be a cleric, in practice, servers who are not clerics are permitted” (The Celebration of Mass, p. 365). This is confirmed by the section on the Missal that lists the defects that can occur in celebration, which states as a defect: “if there is no cleric present, or another person who can serve, or if the person present is one who must not serve, such as a woman” (X, 1). This clearly means that a man non-cleric can serve and that this is not a defect, and such is the universal custom.

If boys are customarily used to serve on the altar, it is because they are all potential vocations, presumed to be chaste and virtuous, and to have at least the possibility of becoming clerics in the future, if it be the will of God. It certainly gives the boys a great opportunity to develop their love of the Church’s beautiful ceremonies, its sacredness and symbolism, and they are wont to pay great attention to details, as do clerics.

However, this does not mean that a married man is in any way excluded from serving. The key question here is to remember that it is a public function, with a role of spiritual leadership with respect to the faithful in assistance at the Mass. It is consequently imperative that such a man be chaste according to his state in life (marital chastity is a virtue) and that he be an example of virtue and that he live at least the consecration to God of his baptism. In fact, it would be much more appropriate for a married man living in the state of grace to serve than for an unmarried man or boy who is not able to go to Holy Communion because he is not in the state of grace, or whose life and works are a cause of scandal. In each case, he cannot forget that he is performing the role of a soul consecrated to the greater honor and glory of Almighty God. The important proviso, though, is that the married man not become sloppy about the ceremonies, movements, and Latin responses, and that he pay as much attention to doing all these things precisely as a cleric, or as a boy who is learning them for the first time.

How do I answer someone who affirms that his eternal soul has had past lives?

The first point in any response is always to recognize the element of truth in any such statement. The element of truth is that the soul is “eternal,” not in the sense that God is eternal, but meaning, using a Catholic expression, that it is immortal, that is, that it cannot die or otherwise stop existing. Now, this soul that cannot die is always the same soul as it was. It cannot be a different soul or the soul of a different being and still be an immortal soul.

From this we can exclude reincarnation, which makes the same soul pass through a series of different levels of being, such as animals. If this were the case it would not be the same soul, the same individual, identical to itself. It would be a different soul, that is, a principle of a different life than what it was. The reason for this is that the soul is the principle of life, and that the same soul cannot be the principle of two different kinds of life, animal and human.

This person seems to be saying that he has had different human lives. The first and most obvious question is to ask him to prove it, which obviously he cannot do. Any memories he might have could just be imagination, and they have to be proven by some outside reference point if he is to be taken seriously.

However, the same philosophical argument can be used as with reincarnation. If a soul had had a different life, then it would be a different soul and a different individual being than what it presently is. The one soul cannot change its matter, and become now the form of one body, then of another body; now of one being, then of another being. It would have to be a different individual soul to take a different individual body or being. Hence it could not be the same person who has different lives. The human person is made up of body and soul, so that as soon as you change one you immediately change the other.

This cannot be denied by anybody who acknowledges that man has a spiritual side to him (his faculties of intellect and will), as well as a bodily side. The body and the soul go together, the soul making the body human, and the body being by nature the body of this soul. To say that the two can be in some way separated goes against all the evidence of the senses, which point to the unity of man, body and soul. Hence it is impossible to assert that one person has lived different bodily lives.