Too many women on the altar? Yikes!

by Caitlin Hendel

President / CEO

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Is it possible Cardinal Raymond Burke says these things just to watch the response from the good folks at NCR and from women around the world?

Perhaps, but I'll bite anyway.

In an interview with a group called The New Emangelization (get it? eMANgelization because it's a ministry for men, although I thought that was already called the priesthood), Burke decries the influence of women in the church, saying an increased focus on them has "feminized" the church.

According to Burke, there are way too many women on the altar these days -- servers, lectors, eucharistic ministers, oh my! Who let them get on the other side of the Communion rail? Oh, wait, no more Communion rails. Maybe that explains it.

"Apart from the priest, the sanctuary has become full of women," he said. "The activities in the parish and even the liturgy have been influenced by women and have become so feminine in many places that men do not want to get involved."

I spent years in the pews watching the boys -- my peers -- serving weekday and Sunday Masses and desperately wishing I could join them. How cool would that be, I'd think, even though I was supposed to be deep in prayer. I'd mention this to some of them (I attended co-ed Catholic schools and so actually talked to boys -- or, worse, they talked to me), and they'd dismiss my sense of envy. Oh, be glad you don't have to do that, they'd say. No fun at all.

In 2005, I joined the lector ministry at our parish in Maryland. I cannot emphasize this enough: It changed my faith. To prepare for the readings, I started to study them, the history and the theology behind them. I became fascinated by Paul, his stories and his letters. My prayer became much more meaningful and effective. I discovered the online ministries at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., which then led me to St. Ignatius and the practice of discernment.

There's a good chance I would no longer be a practicing Catholic, and I guarantee you I would never have applied for a job at National Catholic Reporter if I had not been allowed up on the altar.

During a panel discussion at John Carr's Initiative on Catholic Social Teaching and Public Life at Georgetown University this fall, a young woman from the audience asked me what women can do to advance in the church today. I rambled on about lectoring, serving on parish councils and, of course, joining the tremendous network of sisters communities (and running a Catholic newspaper), but in the end, I sadly told her there was no way at this point to crack the stained-glass ceiling.

Obviously, Burke is an extremist, and we really ought to dismiss his ideas as just that: fringe ideas from an ultraconservative. But, I'm sorry. I cannot let this one ride. It is not fair, it is not right, and I cannot believe it was Jesus' intent to shut women out of the chance to shepherd the people of God.

I am always eager for the chance to stand before our congregation and read Scripture on Sunday mornings and even more grateful for the chance to work for this news organization. But I will never understand the concept of too many women on the altar.  

[Caitlin Hendel is CEO and president of The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Co. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter: @chendel.]

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