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Christine LenahanSeptember 29, 2023
Altar server Shaniah Chavez holds a candle as she participates in the opening procession during the Easter Vigil at St. John the Evangelist Church in Center Moriches, N.Y., April 8, 2023. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The day after my first holy Communion, I begged my father to go to 6 a.m. Mass with me. Bleary-eyed but eager, I sat with my father in the polished oak pews, illuminated by the morning sun creeping through the stained glass windows. I was determined to receive Communion again, having convinced myself that I would forget how by the time next Sunday came around. Even though I was the youngest person in the pews by at least five decades that morning, I loved the sense of belonging that the church provided. 

That sense of belonging continued as my family and I journeyed to the same smoky, incense-filled chapel every Sunday. Across uneven sidewalks, we would walk one block from our home on the corner down to the church. Some days, particularly in the winter months, the walk was a pilgrimage, trudging through the frigid elements to reach the warmth of Immaculate Conception Church. 

In the years following my First Communion, my interest in participating in the Mass continued. I watched my peers—neighbors and classmates—don their small white robes each Sunday with a growing curiosity. I longed to join them in their roles as altar servers. Finally, shortly after the first day of the fourth grade, I carefully printed my name in black Sharpie on the sheet tacked to the parish bulletin board. Among flyers for vacation Bible school and calls for soup kitchen volunteers was my next step in furthering my relationship with the church community: the signup sheet for after-school altar server training. I was going to become an altar girl. 

On Wednesday afternoons, my sister and I eagerly participated in the training. The small cohort of trainees (my sister and I and our next-door neighbor) anxiously shadowed the older altar boys, now our fellow acolytes, for two weeks. Soon, serving at the Sunday Masses became the centerpiece of my week. 

Once I mastered ringing the bells during the consecration and passing around the collection basket, my responsibilities increased. During the entirety of a confirmation service, I was tasked with holding the bishop’s miter while my sister held the crosier. We sat in the first pew with perfect posture and questioned what this pointed hat and crooked staff had to do with God. My sister giggled at the older kids getting smudged with oil, their shiny foreheads passing by us in the pews. 

Walking down the center aisle, my sister and I would sync our steps and tip our heads forward in reverence as our dirty sneakers peeked out from under our bleached robes. Each week we rotated who would carry the processional cross. My small, sweaty hands clenched the polished, metallic brass of the staff. As we came out of the church, we would sneak smiles to the elderly women who dotted the edges of the pews as they waved at us with their little gloved hands and offered nods that said, “Good job up there.” We altar girls would stand framing the doorway like small guards as parishioners left the church and shook hands with the priest. People thanked the priest for a wonderful homily, for the spiritual guidance or for a Mass that did not surpass 50 minutes. I was mesmerized by how grateful these people were and how their lives seemed to be transformed by this Sunday ritual.

Though I became an altar girl in 2010, the notion of the altar boy still prevailed at my parish. Aside from me and my sister, there was only one other young girl who was an acolyte. I was proud to be one of three altar girls, but my pride was undermined by the uneasy feeling that I was being compared to the altar boys. They often had more experience, which seemed to give them confidence while serving. The boys were chosen for what felt like the best tasks, whether serving right beside the bishop during a confirmation or lighting the paschal candle before a baptism. Compared with my Sunday morning nerves as we prepared in the sacristy, the boys seemed so certain that their place was on the altar, while I sometimes felt undervalued in my role as an altar girl. 

At the end of each Sunday service, I hoped that my standing by the doorway of the church might mean that the other girls coming out could see that their place was not just in the pews, but on the altar too.

Ahead of this year’s synod, where laywomen have the right to vote on specific proposals for the first time in history, I find myself reflecting on how much serving on the altar has formed my experience as a woman in the church.

Being an altar girl taught me that the altar and the sacraments were not reserved for men alone, but that I have the right to participate in Mass in my own way. Now as I arrive at Mass, I’m struck with the familiar sense of belonging and pride I felt as a young girl who just wanted to be a part of that Sunday celebration. I know the excitement of getting to ring bells in front of the congregation or the nervousness that comes with having to wash the priest’s hands before Communion. I know the hopefulness of being a woman serving the altar and being involved in the church.

Knowing that women will participate in the synod instills within me that same sense of pride. While our scales of involvement are vastly different—altar serving at my community church and engaging doctrine under the pontifical secret are not quite comparable in scope—the meaning behind our actions remains the same. 

From serving as an acolyte in 2010 to watching women take an active part in the synod in 2023, this momentum—albeit, gradual—of inclusion only deepens my belief that the church is for everyone. While conversations at the synod will engage diverse ideologies, they will also integrate women into those conversations more fully, working toward greater gender equality within an institution that has historically marginalized women. 

I still carry the pride I felt as an altar girl as I file into the pews today. As we approach the synod on synodality with women entering the global stage, I am reminded that the church is something that all people can partake in, a community that we give ourselves to, and that gives itself back to us. Our church is just that: ours.

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