Reflections on the Installation Mass

What an honor to serve at the Installation Mass of Chicago’s Ninth Archbishop, Blase Cupich and to wish the best to Francis Cardinal George as he begins a much deserved retirement after 17 years.   There are so many stories to share!

Let me start by saying, I’ve taken the Red Line train to Holy Name Cathedral dozens of times!  Tuesday morning, I was so excited/nervous that I got off the train one stop too soon.  And I was so exhausted on the way home that I went two extra stops before I realized that it was time to get off!  (I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there someplace.)  Needless to say, it was a really incredible day!

Amanda Thompson, Christina Bax, Beth Knobbe, Sarah Balough
Altar Servers: Amanda Thompson, Christina Bax, Beth Knobbe, and Sarah Balough

How Did This Happen? 
Almost a month ago, I received a phone call from the Office for Divine Worship.  They had recently met with Bishop Cupich to discuss the installation ceremonies.  Bishop Cupich specifically requested both men and women altar servers at the Installation Mass on November 18.  There would be four women and four seminarians represented.  Would I be willing and available to serve?

I said YES immediately for two reasons. First, I grew up in Nebraska, as did Bishop Cupich.  (Although, I don’t think ODW knew about this!)  I did not know the Bishop, but there is a comradery that exists among Nebraskans in Chicago, and I wanted to show my support. Second, I’m kind of a church-nerd, and I really wanted to be there! Seriously, how else does one get a front row seat for a Mass like this?!  (Unless of course, you’re the Mayor, and even he was seated in Row 7.)

Honestly, in the excitement of meeting our new Archbishop, the significance of women altar servers had been lost on me.  As one of my seminary classmates, now at a church on the East coast, quipped to me afterwards, “this would never happen in my Diocese!”

What Was It Like?
The mass was wonderful – beautiful, prayerful, lively, humorous, spirit-filled!  You can watch the procession and listen to the homily online.  As a matter of fact, I should go back and watch it myself!  There was a pillar blocking my view of the Cathedra, so while I could hear everything just fine, I could not see any of the ceremony!

It was liturgy with style and grace at its very best!  I found myself repeating the refrain of my favorite liturgy professor, “Hold holy objects with reverence and care.”  In other words, don’t drop the candle and don’t trip on the stairs!

In some ways, the Mass itself was not all that different.  And yet, this Mass was incredibly significant!  It was one of those grand occasions where I’m tempted to impart meaning on every minor detail.  With all the pomp and circumstance, everything seemed so much larger than life.  I will try not to embellish too much!

A Spirit of Welcome! 
On the day the Church installed a new Archbishop, “welcome” was an overriding theme!  There was an atmosphere of welcome and inclusion that I hope to hold onto for a long time.  To be honest, being welcoming and inclusive is not something that the Church has always done well, and I think we still have a long way to go.  There are moments from this day that I will truly treasure.

When the altar servers gathered in the sanctuary for rehearsal, instinctively and without prompting, there began a round of introductions.  Everyone made sure that names had been shared – Andy, Adam, Beth, Christina, Fr. Matt, Fr. Brad, Juan, Michael, Amanda, and Sarah.

Beth, Christina, Fr. Ken
Beth, Christina, Fr. Ken

As we waited for Mass to begin, the atmosphere in the sacristy was like a gathering of old friends – priests, deacons, lay men and women, seminarians.  There were hugs and handshakes, conversations about parish meetings, and genuine concerns expressed about the recent school closings.

Women serving on the altar is not something you see every day – and certainly not at the installation of a bishop!  If anyone objected to our presence, no one said it.  Not with their words or their body language.  As a matter of fact, I heard “thank you” a lot – thank you for being here, thank you for serving, thank you for all that you do.  I heard this from priests and laypeople alike.

After mass, I ran into a priest who I’ve met many times.  He is a very faithful and capable priest, but his demeanor is rather … stiff.  It is easy to mis-read his cues as unfriendly.  When we passed each other in the sacristy, he exuded the warmest smile and most friendly greeting that we have ever exchanged!  On this day, in particular, that one encounter meant a lot!

Other Things You Didn’t See on TV
This is a fabulous picture! I find it funny, because the high-def photography makes it appear as if Cardinal O’Malley is standing immediately behind us.  He was easily 8-10 feet away!

Christina, Beth, Bishop Sean O’Malley (background), and Bishop Blase Cupich

During the hand washing, I kept thinking about my Sacraments class and various lectures on liturgical symbols – symbols make real what they signify, so make sure they’re done well.  I used a lot of water!!

I also took a good, long look at Bishop Cupich’s hands.  Hands carry a history, hands tell a story.  My grandma had hands that were strong enough to carry a crate of calf bottles and knuckles big enough to knead bread dough.  Bishop Cupich has hands that are soft yet well-worn with age and wisdom.  Hands that have surely baptized babies and anointed the elderly. Hands that will touch a lot of lives here in Chicago.  Christina and I also both noted how he looked us in the eye during the rite.  He has these piercing blue eyes, set deep into his face – inviting people in and reading everything around him.

At the sign of peace, we turned to greet those around us.  One of the bishops, sitting in the area near us, walked over and said, “I’ve never seen altar servers SMILE for the entire liturgy!”

Also during communion, one of our fellow altar servers, Juan Ramirez, sang every verse and refrain of the hymn Pescadores de Hombres without ever opening the worship aid.  As I turned to look at him, I could see all the bishops seated behind us – not exactly the epitome of ethnic diversity.

The liturgical ministers (readers, greeters, ushers, musicians) represented the breadth of the church of Chicago.  Prayers of the Faithful were recited in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Ojibway, Croation, Italian, and Tagalog.  I enjoyed the shouts of “Vive!” in response to Bishop Cupich’s greetings in Spanish.  It made me long for a day when our bishop’s conference is a wider representation of the people of God.

Finally, what does all this mean?

Christina, Blase, Beth
Christina and I meeting Bishop Cupich at the reception.

I am sure there are people for whom this change in administration is more than a little nerve wracking.  Change is always hard, and I’m sure those changes will be coming soon.  It was great to be a part of the excitement and anticipation of something new.


I’ve been through more transitions than I care to remember in recent years!  I’ve seen how leaders set the tone for an organization.  We pick up cues about what is acceptable, what is preferred.  I see how young people mimic the work of their mentors, until they begin to find their own way.  If this Installation Mass is any indication of what is to come, then what a great example for others to follow!

Is Bishop Cupich sending a message?  To paraphrase his first press conference, I think Pope Francis has sent us a pastor.  Bishop Cupich recently had this to say about women in the church:

The church must engage the larger issue of women and begin by listening to women them­selves…. This is a very big knot that needs attention and it will not be untied lec­turing women, and it will not be solved unless men in authority in the church clearly and deeply understand that there is a very great difference between the way women approach things and the way men approach things.  (Talking About Faith to a Skeptical World in a Secular Age)

If Bishop Cupich is serious about listening to the needs and concerns of women, then inviting women to serve at the table of the Lord is certainly a good place to start!  What a joy to witness and participate in this new beginning.

13 thoughts on “Reflections on the Installation Mass”

  1. Its a shame that you have been so misled, as women will never be deacons, priests, or bishops. Just like men cannot be mothers, women cannot be fathers. Female altar boys are a complete waste of resources. These are positions meant for boys who are discerning the priesthood…truly an apprenticeship for the priesthood. Seminaries should be filled with young men discerning that call, not middle-aged women. These tactics were tried for decades in the diocese of Rochester (NY), with devastating results on priests and laity. Church attendance fell to an all-time low, with nearly zero vocations. Chicago has been marching its way toward that, and now has begun to run. His Excellency is mistaken. Female altar boys is not the way to go. Recognizing the true and beautiful difference between male and female, which is Catholic teaching, is the way to go.

    1. In Rochester, during the last few years of Bishop Clark’s episcopacy, vocations have seen a resurgence.. But I have to say that being an altar server is NOT just for young guys who want to be priests. If that is its purpose, then it has failed since only a miniscule number of the boys become priests.

  2. I arrive here a little late – by “internet-ian” standards anyway. However, I am looking for something for a reflection I am writing, coincidentally about the surprises that the Holy Spirit holds for us during Advent. So the “surprise” that led me here, should not really be seen as surprise or coincidence – simply grace.

    Your words moved me to tears in the best sort of way. Thanks for sharing your experience with us so generously and joyfully. Archbishop Cupich’s installation had already filled me with great joy and gratitude; your post continues to carry that spirit along.

  3. The purpose of having altar boys is to inspire young men to consider priesthood. Now if you will to continue to use altar girls this girls will eventually be inspired to become priest, sadly it will never happen in the Catholic Church. Use altar boys and take that opportunity to inspire them to priesthood. This is not about equality this is about vocation.

    1. The purpose of Altar Servers is to carry the cross, hold the book, wash the hands, assist the priest at the altar, etc. (see instruction #7 here). While I’m sure many men were inspired to consider priesthood because of their service at the altar – and I hope more continue to be so inspired – creating vocations to the priesthood is not the primary function of the role of Altar Server. The USCCB makes clear that the determination of women serving in this role is to be made by the local Bishop. It was an honor to be of service on this most special occasion.

  4. Beth
    Your telling of your experience at the installation of your new Archbishop was a great read. We’ve had girl servers in this parish since 1970 (never thought of asking permission) and they are more dependable than the boys.
    Fr. Paul – St. Gabriel’s – Toronto

  5. Beth,
    Thank you for sharing your story of your experience at the installation and your response this morning. Both are inspiring! I gather from your thoughtful sharing, as well as the accurate description above and your lack of defensiveness from the previous comments, that you are a woman striving to live your faith in an adult fashion! It is my hope and prayer that the boy Altar Servers who are being inspired to priesthood would show the ability to SERVE right along side girls and women. If they can’t, we shouldn’t ordain them.
    Fr. Dave – Nebraska

  6. Beth, Thank you so much. It’s nice to see modest, beautiful, smiling female faces in Church for a change. Thank you Priests and the 3 recent Popes for welcoming women into the Church. I adore seeing both men and women celebrating the Mass. There is so much wrong in this world, I just am not able to see anything wrong with what these women are doing. God Bless all Catholics (traditionals and modern). We are the same body.

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