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.