I came across this brilliant elucidation on the complimentary male/female relationship within the Church, as it applies to the roles of priest and acolyte, and their relationship to the Sacrifice of the Mass. It was written by Father Joseph Fessio, S.J. back in the late 80s and appeared in the Catholic journal Fidelity.
While the entire Church is feminine and maternal, the clerical ministry within the Church is by nature masculine and paternal. Because the Bishop, the priest (and by participation the deacon) not only represent Christ but act as Christ in the Eucharistic Sacrifice of Sacrament and Word, only the masculine sex can represent sacramentally in an adequate way the male Christ Who Himself as male represents God facing creation and the bridegroom facing His bride the Church.
The sanctuary, and in particular the altar, is the sacred place, the Eucharist is the sacred act, its celebration the sacred time, and the priest the sacred person in the most profound and mysterious center of the entire Christian religion. The acolyte participates in this most Holy of Holies—most holy of times, places, and persons—by being the immediate assistant at the altar of the Priest acting in persona Christi. This he does especially by helping to prepare the sacrificial gifts. In this role as a helper or assistant of the priest he becomes as it were, the hands of the priest. For this reason, while it would not lead to the invalidity of the Sacrament for a woman to act as acolyte, it would be in serous disharmony with the very nature and character of the whole order of grace and redemption, the mediation of the priest and the symbolic character of men and women. In addition it would be a confusion of the role which is specifically that of the woman as representative of creation and the Church.
I have to say that, growing up Catholic, I never heard such a clear presentation of the Church’s teaching on this subject at Mass. Why is that? Well, Father Fessio led a group of American bishops and priests in Rome to make their case to the Vatican to prohibit the allowance of altar girls. Who was leading the fight on the other side? Think hard Milwaukee. None other than Archbishop Rembert Weakland. Fessio and Co. won the first round, but not long after, the Vatican caved under immense pressure. Milwaukee, thanks to Weakland’s efforts and allies, was the epicenter of the opposite reading of the liturgical vision you read above in bold print.
Fessio’s explanation is perfectly rational and airtight. Put this way, the silly accusations of discrimination, patriarchy and sexism in the Church seem quite small, not to mention intellectually and theologically barren. But we’re at the point where the liturgical aberrations have become so normative, that no one dares question the conventional wisdom anymore. If you have the temerity to suggest that perhaps female acolytes are not the best way for girls to engage in “active participation” at Mass, expect to be looked at as though you’re speaking Swahili. But that’s where we are today, folks.
This, of course, doesn’t mean we’re going to be silent.