The Mass I: On Service at the Altar

Prescinding for a moment from the vexatious topic of altar girls (on which I will comment only briefly down below), I wish to discuss altar boys or, more precisely, what it takes to make an altar boy. 

I was never an altar boy. Indeed, I wasn’t even a Catholic until well into adulthood; prior to this I had only the vaguest notion of the existence of something called the Catholic Church, and no awareness whatsoever of altar boys. Even after entering the Church I was only dimly aware of such creatures; it wasn’t until I and my family began attending the EF in a serious – meaning weekly – way that I came to realize that (1) altar boys exist, (2) they are important, (3) serving at the altar takes training, practice, and effort on the parts of all involved (including the priest(s)), and (4) service at the altar has been, and still is, the place where many young men first consider the priesthood.

So, what does it take to make an altar boy? Let’s start with some examples; there’s lots, here’s a few: St. Benedict's Parish in Chesapeake, VA (which I discussed here) has a very well organized and intensive training program, Knights of the Altar. My oldest son served there back in the day. St. Mary's Church in Norwalk, CT, has an active training program run by the Deacon. St. John Cantius Parish of Chicago has the Archconfraternity of St. Stephen, where not just boys but men are encouraged to participate. Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Dunn, NC has a longstanding altar boy training program; this church offers the OF, the EF with an English homily, and the EF with a Spanish homily (there’s lots of “seasonal” workers in the Dunn area). St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church in Front Royal, VA has an active training program discussed in some of the Bulletins, this one, for example. Front Royal is also the home of, among other things, Christendom College, Human Life International, and Seton Home Study School. (PS: Front Royal isn’t all that large; I’ve been there. Must be something in the water.) St. Mary of Pine Bluff, WI reveals the fruits of their attention to service at the altar in many photos. Note well: with the exception of St. Benedict’s which is FSSP, in all of these thriving parishes the OF and the EF co-exist side by side. But that is grist for another post.

What do these parishes have common? 

First and foremost, the parish priest makes the training of altar servers a priority. The parochial vicar, a deacon, or someone else may actually oversee training. But it is important to the parish priest, and he sees that it is done, and done properly.

Secondly, there are expectations. The youngsters are expected to come to the training sessions. They are expected to “do their homework” - there’s lots of learning aids such as CDs and videos out there. A child (or a parent, for that matter) is not expected to learn do this on his own. But he is expected to try. The youngsters are expected to show up on time, and on the days they are scheduled to serve, and to dress appropriately. The parents are expected to help in these things. None of these expectations is hard; indeed, they are all pretty basic. But they all convey to the youngster that the adults take this seriously, and he should, too.

Thirdly, there are “role models.” It may be the parish priest, parochial vicar, or deacon, but it is a man with defined authority. There often are other men involved: high school and college age experienced servers, also adult men who serve. This also teaches the youngsters that service at the altar is not just “kid stuff”, it’s something that adults take seriously and in which the youngsters are invited to participate.

Finally, the training is organized. Serving at the altar takes effort to do well, this is true in the EF and in the OF, especially if there are “smells and bells” in the OF. St. Benedict’s had quarterly training sessions, Saturday morning, with pizza for lunch. Not every boy had to go to every session, sessions were sometimes tailored by role: for thurifers, for MCs, neophytes and younger boys; or by upcoming special events: Easter, Good Friday, Christmas, whatever.  Other churches have other schedules, but the point is that the training is regular and predictable.

It’s also important to notice what these parishes do not have in common: size. St. John Cantius is big. Sacred heart in NC is little. The others are in between. I know that many (Most? All?) of the parishes in Maine are “cluster parishes”: several formerly separate parishes now combined into one uber-parish with many church buildings. The priests are busy. I get that, for I am busy too. But the priests have help – deacons, paid staff, and many volunteers. There would be men willing to step forward and take an active role in developing altar boy training programs, as well as participate themselves in service at the altar. But it needs to be piloted by the parish priest.

Finally, two last things: 

(1) These considerations apply to both the EF and the OF. Every church benefits from well trained, on the ball, engaged altar servers, regardless of the form of the Rite. It says huge amounts about the church, the pastor, and the congregations. 

(2) I promised to return briefly to altar girls. The youngest of my three daughters, age 8, wants to be an altar server. She is quite serious about wanting to learn, and do it well, as has been the case with many of the young ladies I have seen who have been, and are, altar girls. What to do? Well, altar girls are a fact of life in this Diocese. It is also the case that currently there are very, very few altar boys (or girls, for that matter) in my parish; they need servers. So, she is learning to serve. I am supporting her, and helping her, and encouraging her and am, in fact, proud of how seriously she is taking it. She wants to do something nice for God, and He knows she’s heard me lecture that to the boys time and time again. I am not endorsing altar girls in principle: I think it was a remarkably unfortunate and confusing Papal decision, well beyond the scope of this little post. But I live in the real world, and as a father of a young girl who truly wants to serve God in the Diocese of Portland, Maine, and for whom there is no other venue of service more appropriate to her sex, there is nothing else I can do.