Someone has asked how to improve the band of servers. I can only pass on the advice from what I have done at St Joseph’s Catholic School, and the advice from my friend and mentor, Fr Newman–pastor of St Mary’s. My own knowledge on this is supplemented by watching Fr Christopher Smith and Dn. John Heuser train our servers.
First the general principles: Servers should understand why they are serving at the altar. They do not serve at the altar because Father and Deacon can’t manage without them. We can. They serve not only a practical function, but a liturgical function. As they serve at the altar they picture the service that the whole people of God give to the church and to the liturgy. This fact affects all that they do.
Secondly, they serve a symbolical function. The Divine Liturgy pictures the celebration of worship around the Throne at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. They symbolize the ranks of heavenly hosts who circle around the throne and worship the Lamb. Yes, they’re supposed to symbolize the saints and angels, and that should also affect their behavior.
Thirdly, in their youth, they remind the whole congregation that unless you come as a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.
Fourth, the servers should be reminded that it is a privilege to serve. They should take pride in what they do, and be proud to be part of the server’s guild.
It is right to get these theological and liturgical principles in place before going on to the practical points, because without the meaning of it all, the practical points just seem like so much fussiness. So to the practical points:
- The servers should come to church dressed smartly. Black pants, black socks and black shoes look best when they are seen beneath the cassock. Sneakers, brown shoes, hush puppies and anything other than black dress shoes are a distraction and draw attention to themselves. I once saw a server in a church in England who not only wore sneakers, but wore ones with flashing red lights in the heels!
- The sharp clothes to church should also mean a button down shirt with a t-shirt underneath. That way, when the shirt is removed the boy wears an undershirt beneath the cassock. The cut of the cassock’s collar therefore sits well, and is not rucked up underneath a bulky collar.
- Servers should arrive at least fifteen minutes before Mass starts. Once in the vestry they should immediately change into cassock, and any functions before the start of Mass in the sanctuary should be done by a server wearing a cassock. It’s amazing how the cassock immediately changes the boy’s body language and carriage for the better. Ever notice how a guy looks and behaves better when he’s wearing an Army dress uniform?
- Each server should go into the sanctuary before Mass and pray before the Blessed Sacrament for at least a few minutes. This is not only to reinforce their own need of proper preparation for Mass, but it also reminds the whole congregation that they are there to pray, not to chat with friends.
- Roles should be clearly defined and clearly assigned to each server. They should know what they are doing and be properly trained and drilled beforehand. Nothing is worse than some server who doesn’t know what he is doing, and the priest or deacon having to steer them around with manhandling, glares and whispered words.
A few other ideas: Get rid of the most awful liturgical garment ever designed: the cassock alb. Here are just a few of the problems with it:
1. it is a mock monastic garment. Monks and friars wear habits with hoods. Why the goofy hood thing at the back if you’re not a religious? It blurs the line between proper liturgical vestments and monastic garb.
2. It’s usually made out of a cheap polyester fabric that you can often see through. How many times have you seen kids wearing a cassock alb and you can see that underneath he’s wearing a Black Sabbath T-shirt or she’s wearing hot pants and a halter top?
3. The cassock alb, when worn without a cincture looks like a bad Halloween ghost outfit. When worn with the cincture it looks like the child is trussed up in an oversized pillowcase. Throw ’em out. They were cheap to start with and they’re probably worn out anyway.
Invest instead in some decent cassocks and surplices. The advantage of the cassock is that even cheaper models look smart and dignified. Furthermore, because they are covered with the surplice, they last longer, don’t show the dirt and, if they don’t fit right, the crime is covered up.
Next, if the priest is too busy, find a man in the parish who will take the training and formation of servers seriously. A deacon or a good layman who will really adopt this as a spiritual ministry and not just a practical one will help with the spiritual formation of the boys and will do good work in the building up of the kingdom.
One other point: make belonging to the guild of servers something special. In arranging the liturgy try to avoid the AmChurch temptation to plop everybody possible into the procession. The lector, the person who reads the prayers of the faithful, the lady who did the flowers the person who runs the nursery, the choir director and the director of the soup kitchen are doubtless all worthy souls who are doing a wonderful service to the church. That doesn’t mean they need to be in the procession. Servers and clergy only in the procession. The reasons for this would warrant another post.
Finally, it is my experience that many boys and young men like to belong to a guild of servers where the standard is high, the expectations are strict, the training is rigorous and the camaraderie is encouraged. They like to belong to a group of other boys who take their faith seriously, and who are expected to meet a rigorous standard of behavior.
I’ll try to make some suggestions on how to improve things when you’re including girl altar servers tomorrow.
Father, thank you for your sanity. It is a pleasure to read your blog, and to know that, somewhere, things are being done properly.
Fr,Great information I am seventeen years old and myself and six of my friends serve Holy Week services in our parish along with an occasional Sunday mass. We like to consider ourselves the A team, our regular Sunday servers usually don’t know what they are doing and wear red cassocks and albs we prefer the old black cassocks we still have at our parish from the pre-concillar era. Since we so very often see servers who don’t know what they are doing we make sure that we carry out each of our roles with precision, and enjoying doing so all for the glory of God. This is great advice you give here. Thanks
Re: the girls:I’m afraid the cassock/surplice deal won’t work, due to girl’s figures post puberty. I don’t think the hooded alb is crazier than the cassock, but you can probably find them without the hood. If your budget permits, go with linen, as they look sharper. Flats. Preferably black. Pants should also be black. No ratty jeans A girl might also get away with long tailored white shorts, though trust me, any girl past puberty isn’t going to go in for those. White shirt (as you say you don’t want bleed through of Def Lepard T-shirts) No sparkly jewelry. Hair tied back for girls with long hair.No makeup that doesn’t look natural. No black and orange fingernails. Nothing that pulls “focus.”Had to laugh at the kid with flashing shoes. How did he make it out there without someone nailing his butt or putting black gaff tape over them! [“no flashing lights or rollers on your shoes!!!” is just about rule number one in my parish.]I guess you’d have demoted those legions of nuns who taught all those generations of boys how to serve Mass well. But then you were a protestant when you were a youth and might not know. Not many boys “skated” when sister ruler-of-iron took charge. The kid with the lights would have been dead by 2nd period. And buried before third.
I would be ecstatic at the prospect of black dress shoes. Around here, even boys who own a pair, because they are part of the school uniform, don’t wear them when they serve.The lowest point was the Mass where there were three servers, two of them girls, whose choice of footwear was silver spangled, sparkly flats, and flip flops so pale it looked as if her feet were bare.And people wonder why I drive 45 minutes to an hour to go to a Gregorian Mass.
Franklin was right, early to bed does help make us wise.
"I guess you'd have demoted those legions of nuns who taught all those generations of boys how to serve Mass well."None of the nuns who taught this former altar boy & minor seminarian would have regarded themselves as demotable by anyone outside of their order. I remember them as a pretty self-assured bunch who ran their own affairs in the school and convent.
This is very heartening.Is there a level at which an alter boy, with enough experience, can be Eucharistic minister?Or to put it differently, wouldn’t it be really good if Eucharistic ministers could only be experienced altar boys – no exceptions?I’m of the opinion that the Eucharist should only be administered by the priest or deacon at mass, but I’ve noticed at a cathedral I go to that sometimes the altar servers (who are male) administer the blessed Sacrament at the communion rail, which I like. Though there are also woman (not altar servers) administering – which I don’t like.
Excuse me, I should say the altar boys I mentioned at the cathedral are young men, not boys.
niggle, I totally see your point. The Eucharist isn’t really a sacrament if a woman gives it rather than a 14 year old boy who is an experienced altar server. Perfect logic on you part. Simply be aware that my flaming liberal pastor once told me a few months back not to chase after people who don’t put the Eucharist in their mouth right away. I’ve ignored his “advice.” And if he comes after me for chasing someone down the aisle, I’ll quit on the spot. Should make you ecstatic. Boys do this job so much better by default.
“niggle, I totally see your point. The Eucharist isn’t really a sacrament if a woman gives it rather than a 14 year old boy who is an experienced altar server.”The altar servers giving communion may very well be instituted acolytes, who stand in the first rank among extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. This is one of the jobs for which they are instituted, along with serving at the altar
j.:Quite right: I’ll give4 you 5 budks for all instituted acolytes you find outside of seminaries.Hint: most Joe/Jane Catholics don’t normally attend Mass at a seminary chapel.
Yes, but in Niggle’s case they were at a Cathedral, which is the other place you’re likely to find them. In many dioceses, Cathedral masses are at least sometimes served by seminarians. And they were young men, not boys.
Father, I’m curious as to your opinion (although I’ve already ventured a guess about what it might be) on servers where I attend Mass. There are a lot of female altar servers, which I am not crazy about, but that’s my opinion.However, there is a trend that I find bothersome and that is the sacristan (I suppose that is their title) serving Mass. In one case, this is an older gentleman and in one case it is an older woman, I’m guessing both are in their 60’s. This occurs most often at daily Mass…well, actually on Sundays as well. They often double as Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist when they serve as well. I find this a little odd, and bothersome, frankly. Any thoughts?
By the way, this is at the Cathedral of my diocese.
My 10 year old son is a server at our parish. Thankfully our parish is under the care of a religious order and a very devout novice trained my son and a few of the servers. The servers are required to wear a white dress shirt, black trousers and black dress shoes. Sadly, the novice is no longer at our parish. Joyously, he is a seminarian so our loss is God’s gain. I will have my son read your blog entry. Thank you for addressing this important topic.Dominus vobiscum,Kelly
I’m one pf the servers at my parish, and though we do have many servers, all well-trained,I do think there is more that can be done to enrich our spiritual lives. maybe have some of the older servers such as myself lead prayers before mass and after mass in the server’s sacristy.My parish is also run by a religious order,and last year, a novice took up training the servers. He’s done the greatest job!
Maybe women Eucharistic ministers happened when they removed the blessing that the priest used to do before placing the Host on the communicant’s tongue at the communion rail.I can’t recall what the words were (before my time), but the priest would say them while making the sign of the cross in front of the person’s face with the host, the body of Jesus. I know of a very orthodox priest who still does it. He also has only male altar servers. That this particular blessing has been removed makes me kind of shudder. For it is powerful; the kind of added gesture on top of the Real Presence that sears itself in the mind.I find it extremely hard to believe that a Eucharistic minister’s blessing (say when they bless a child) is equal to the priest’s – whether male or female. Which is why I was wondering about altar servers who are male “graduating” to a Eucharistic minister, for this would obviously fit in with all the reasons for having only male altar servers (becoming something like the priest), which in turn would also emphasize why, if the circumstances demanded extra ministers of the Eucharist, it should be given by the priest.But women Eucharistic ministers takes the cake. There’s something off about it. Now I’ve seen, and received from, women Eucharistic ministers who did their job with very much grace – but there’s still something off, and if not off, it is very much inferior to the ambiance when receiving from the priest. And since we are receiving Jesus Himself, don’t you think it would be rather important to surround the receiving of Him with all that will contribute to its being the best that it can be, at its most rich and essential and vital?But the spirit of androgyny which uses feminism as its puppet says otherwise.
Niggle – In the Traditional form of the Mass, Holy Communion is given only by a Priest or Deacon who says: “Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen” (“May the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul for everlasting life. Amen”) as he makes the sign of the Cross with the Host before administering it on the tongue.
Thanks Father,We are starting a serving guild ourselves and your advice is very welcome.
Father,Well said! Our parish has a mix of male and female altar servers, as well as a some adults… We have found that the cassock/surplice combination fits all but the most unusual body shapes (including the post-pubescent girls and the most senior of senior citizens who serve), and the cassock/surplice outfit looks good on the altar. We have an altar server guild, the Society of St. John Berchmans. This does indeed give the servers the feeling that they are part of something larger than themselves, and they all receive a lapel pin at the end of serving their first year.We have many servers (mostly young men) who continue to serve after high school, or serve when they are home during college.I, too, have a particular penchant for the dress code, but I don’t usually deny anyone the privilege of serving because of their dress.We have about 70 active altar servers, in a parish of about 725 families, which I think is a pretty good percentage. How do you feel about standardizing altar serving responsibilities and techniques in a fashion similar to what we Deacons and Priests have in the GIRM (General Instruction for the Roman Missal)? Some priests don’t allow the servers to do as much as others, and I think its a shame that some of the servers, who might eventually become clergy or religious, are discouraged from participating as fully as they might.Keep up the great blogs, and books! And tell my brother Deacon, John Heuser, I said Hello!! Deacon Greg