Here in our own country reports about an interesting gathering in Rome during the early days of August were somewhat limited. But in perusing the Aug. 11 issue of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatre Romano, I learned that our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, welcomed some 50,000 altar servers who participated in his General Audience of Wednesday, Aug. 4. It was quite a gathering with representatives from 17 nations. The great majority came from Germany but Austria and France were also well represented.
At the end of the audience Pope Benedict blessed a statue of St. Tarcisius, brought by the altar servers to be placed at the catacombs of St. Calixtus. The pope talked to the servers about St. Tarcisius, their special patron, and his own time when he too was an altar server. He said: “The hope that I express to all is that this place, namely the catacombs of St. Calixtus, and this statue, may become a reference point for altar servers, boys and girls, and for all who wish to follow Jesus more closely through the priestly, religious or missionary life. May they all be able to look at this strong and courageous boy and renew their commitment to friendship with the Lord, to learn to live with Him always.”
The pope then went on to tell the young people about St. Tarcisius, a youngster who regularly came to the catacombs with great love for the Eucharist. St. Tarcisius lived during the time of Emperor Valerian, who was harshly persecuting Christians. Hence it was rather dangerous for people to bring the Eucharist to prisoners and the sick following Mass. But one day young Tarcisius asked the priest to send him. On his way, Tarcisius met some other youngsters who tried to take the Eucharist away from him. He refused, even though they kicked him and threw stones at him. He was so seriously injured that he died. When his dead body was brought back to the priest, Tarcisius was still clutching close to his breast a small linen bag which contained the Eucharist.
The pope used this story to remind the altar servers of the deep love and great veneration we must all have for the Eucharist. He encouraged them to serve the Lord in the Eucharist generously and faithfully, to guard their friendship with Jesus, just as St. Tarcisius guarded the most holy sacrament of the altar. He asked them to communicate to their peers the gift of their friendship with the Lord and to do so with joy, with enthusiasm, and without fear. He also told them how fortunate they were to be able to be so close to the altar when the sacred mysteries are celebrated and how important their service was for the spiritual growth of God’s people.
When I read about that gathering, I started thinking about altar servers here in our own archdiocese.
From my own observation it would seem that many parishes no longer value the role of altar servers in the liturgy. Many times I will celebrate Mass when there is a reader, a Eucharistic minister, a cantor, but no server. This puzzles me because the server comes closest of all to the altar and the mystery we celebrate. Maybe this results from the days when only men and boys were allowed to serve. But this is no longer the situation. The pope gladly welcomed boys and girls, young men and young women, to Rome for the gathering of altar servers. We too want to welcome them close to the altars of our own parish churches. When young people are not able to serve, during such times as funerals or weekday Masses, then I think adults should be prepared to assume that responsibility. The presence of an altar server is a reminder to both priest and people that Mass is a community rather than private prayer.
Young people, and even adults, will respond more readily to an invitation to serve at the altar if the expectations are real and meaningful. Little or no preparation before being called upon to serve gives the impression that this isn’t worth much of your time or energy. Future servers should be expected to participate in a simple formation program before they begin to serve. Many years ago the Bishops’ Liturgy Committee pointed out that such instruction should include information about knowledge of parts of the Mass and their meaning, the various objects used in the liturgy (their names and use), and the many and varied functions which the server will perform during the Mass and other liturgical celebrations. Servers also need to be told how to dress and how to behave.
Personally, I think they should be tested in their knowledge of the prayers and responses of the people at Mass, just as years ago servers were expected to know the prayers and responses that were used at Mass in Latin. It should be a lot easier in English, shouldn’t it?
Furthermore, there should be no distinctions in the functions of servers, whether they be by men and boys or by women and girls. The servers themselves should be mature enough to understand what they are doing and capable of serving with the appropriate reverence. They should already have received their first Holy Communion and normally would be expected to receive the Eucharist when they participate in the Mass.
During Mass, the servers carry the cross, the processional candles, hold the book for the priests when he is not at the altar, carry the incense and censer, present the bread, wine and water to the priest during the preparation of the gifts or assist him when he receives the gifts from the people, wash the hands of the priest, and assist the priest and deacon whenever and however it is needed. They should respond to all the prayers and dialogues and participate in the singing of the hymns and chants of the liturgy. They are not mere spectators. They should be among the most active participants.
Experience also suggests that altar servers, especially teenagers, are traditionally strong candidates for ordained ministry and the consecrated life.
The Holy Father concluded his remarks to the altar servers gathered in Rome last month by telling them, “You lend Jesus your hands, your thoughts, your time. He will not fail to reward you, giving you true joy and enabling you to feel where the fullest happiness is…. He asks of us fidelity in daily tasks, a witness to his love, going to church through inner conviction and for the joy of his presence. Thus we can also make known to our friends that Jesus is alive.”
May the good Lord fill the altar servers of this archdiocese with similar sentiments and may their numbers grow and their service enhance our common prayer.
Most Reverend John Vlanzy
Archbishop of Portland