From the knees up, they look like normal teens. One dons a black concert t-shirt and the other is garbed in a Notre Dame Football jersey. Both wear crumpled khaki shorts that have surely been pulled off the floor next to their beds.
But it’s the shoes that are the giveaway. Who wears black dress shoes and dad’s ribbed black socks with shorts and a t-shirt? At my Church, it’s the Altar Servers who pull off that look on a weekly basis. Hair perfectly combed and shoes shined to a sparkle, they arrive at Church twenty minutes prior to Mass and disappear into the Sacristy. It is there that the transformation from typical teen to Altar Server takes place. When they emerge twenty minutes later, garbed in Cassock and Surplice, these young men set themselves apart from their peers.
Blessedly, at my home parish, we have an abundance of Altar Servers. Our students wait until fifth grade to be admitted to the ranks, and serve on teams of four approximately once a month. In the Hendey household, we wait until sixth grade to start serving, to ensure that our boys understand, commit to and value their role in our parish. With both of my boys, the added year of maturity has helped them to take their Altar Serving duties seriously.
This weekend, my youngest son Adam served for the first time. As I watched him process down the aisle, his face glowing from the soft light of the candle he held, my heart caught in my throat. This was a day he’d anticipated and trained for with his team and our parish coordinator. Adam admitted to a case of nerves in the car on the way to Mass, so we paused for a prayer. Asking the Holy Spirit to be with Adam, I was relatively sure I was the more nervous of the two of us! Adam serves on a team with his older brother, so he knew he’d have Eric’s watchful eye and coaching to help him with any parts he might forget. I, on the other hand, feared the worst – Adam dropping his candle and lighting the carpet on fire, Eric bossing his brother around in the way an oldest child does sometimes, Adam neglecting his paten duties… I needed that prayer as much as Adam did.
Ask, and you shall receive – I won’t say that Adam’s serving was flawless, but he comported himself perfectly and handled his duties with reverence and care. His big brother lovingly and gently prodded him the few times he missed his cue, but I was probably the only person in the congregation that noticed.
In many parishes, Altar Servers are scarce or are dominated by female participants. I recognize how wonderful it is that in our church home, there are older high school and even college aged servers that my sons look up to and respect. I want my sons to serve for many reasons, but the following are some of the most compelling:
- Love of the Liturgy – In committing to their Altar Server duties, my boys truly participate in the Eucharist. They learn the order of the Mass, the aspects of the sanctuary, and the various altar vessels used in the Mass. My boys love serving, looking forward to each year’s “promotion” to a higher level of responsibility.
- Service to the Community – Through their Altar Serving roles, my boys contribute to the Body of Christ present in our parish. They learn that each area of ministry in the Mass is vital, from the greeters to the Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist. They see their role as essential and learn the importance of both commitment and of service to others.
- Healthy Relationships with Clergy – When I was growing up, my family had a very close relationship with our pastor. He was a frequent visitor in our home and a trusted friend. Today, I belong to a parish with 5,000 families in an era of dwindling vocations. The priests of my parish work round the clock to meet the needs of our community, but that feeling of closeness is not always present. Through Altar Serving, my sons have frequent interactions with our priests in a positive environment. If either of my boys is called to a priestly vocation, Altar Serving will surely be a fundamental step in their journey. If they are called to family life, their experience as servers will help them to foster a love of our faith in their own children.
Next time you participate in the Eucharist at your parish, take time to pause and thank the young men and women who serve the Mass. They are probably the only teenagers around who can tell you the difference between a corporal and a thurible. They are the ones who wake up early on Sundays to prepare the Altar for the Eucharist, who give up Saturday evenings with friends to serve the Lord. They honor their commitments and enter the sanctuary with care and reverence. They are the good guys – you can tell by the shoes!