November 7, 2003

The Art of Altar Serving

Serving gets young people involved in the Mass

By Brandon A. Evans

First of four parts

Nearly every parish in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis has a program for young people to serve at Mass. But how servers are trained or how serving is used to get young people interested in religious vocations varies greatly from parish to parish.

The Criterion recently conducted an informal survey of 109 parishes to catch a glimpse of the state of altar serving in our archdiocese.

The survey, mailed to each parish, represents more than 4,000 servers and nearly 65,000 households.

On average, there are almost seven servers per hundred families at any given parish—though in smaller parishes (those with under 250 families) that number is nearly doubled.

Altar serving is an important part of the Roman Catholic liturgy, said Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, vicar general and pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis.

“It’s a chance to function liturgically; it’s a chance to be, if you will, very close to the priest and interact with him,” Msgr. Schaedel said.

It also shows altar servers that Mass is the first priority among Catholics.

“I think [servers] become more attentive to the action that takes place at the altar,” said Father Daniel Staublin, pastor of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg.

“I think it also teaches them responsibility,” said Marilyn Hunter, liturgical coordinator at St. Matthew Parish in Indianapolis.

She said that it gives the children a way to serve God and the community.

Among the things that The Criterion looked at in its survey was how long it takes to train a server, and who trains them.

Parishes reported that, on average, they spend about three hours training a server.

Msgr. Schaedel said that the most valuable training, though, occurs “on the job.”

Father Richard Eldred, pastor of St. Thomas More Parish in Mooresville, said that as soon as he came to the parish he started having four servers at each Mass—done so that the children could have more opportunities to serve.

It also gives the younger servers a chance “to just sit and watch,” Father Eldred said. They can best learn by watching the experienced servers.

As Msgr. Schaedel said, sometimes the best way to reach young people is through other young people.

Particularly in smaller parishes, a high level of interaction among the servers can bring about a small community of friends.

James Vincent, a 2003 graduate of Jennings County High School and member of St. Anne Parish in Jennings County, can attest to that.

He said that he has a common bond with the servers that enabled him to make friends with people he might normally have never even met. In his eyes, they became more of a true parish community.

Until recently, James had been in charge of training new altar servers for four years, though he had been serving much longer than that.

While it may be an exception for a young person to do most of the training, it is certainly not an exception to see a lay person filling that role.

Unlike the old days, about 53 percent of servers are trained by lay members of the parish, 40 percent by a priest and 7 percent by a religious.

While it is generally accepted that increased lay participation has been a blessing for the Church, Father Joseph Moriarty, vocations director, said that there is no substitute for giving children the chance to interact with their parish priest.

“I think that at some point in the training, they need to [work] with a priest, because that’s who [they] are going to be serving with at Mass,” Father Moriarty said. “And I think that there is no substitute for relational ministry.”

Father Staublin has a massive army of servers—almost 150—and he trains them all.

“Every time [young people] have the chance to interact with the priest, or a religious, on a more informal basis, I think the better off we are … in young people feeling comfortable around the priest and really feeling like they’re part of the parish and that they are doing something really important,” Msgr. Schaedel said.

Just as those who train servers have changed, so has the actual make-up of youth servers.

Ten years ago, every server in the archdiocese would have been, or should have been, a young man. In 1994, the Vatican decreed that an authentic interpretation of the Code of Canon Law meant that both boys and girls could be altar servers.

Final decisions were left up to each bishop as to whether or not they would extend this opportunity. Most did, including Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein.

The archbishop, in his weekly column “Seeking the Face of the Lord” on April 22, 1994, stressed that the matter was a pastoral, not doctrinal, issue, and that serving in no way constituted another version of Holy Orders.

“Servers represent the worshipping assembly at the altar in a role that is distinctive from that of ordained ministers,” he wrote.

Later that year, new norms were drawn up and the archbishop welcomed the

practice to the archdiocese. Included among those norms were that efforts should be made to bring about a balanced number of male and female servers.

That is exactly what has happened. Averaged across the archdiocese, among the servers, 53 percent are male and 47 percent are female.

Even in the smaller parishes in the archdiocese, most of them rural, girls still make up about 40 percent of servers.

Laura Berlage, a freshman at Cathedral High School and altar server at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Indianapolis, said of serving that since she was young she “always thought it looked pretty cool.”

She said that she loves being involved with work on the altar, and that “it can help you think about what you are actually doing” when attending Mass.

“It is kind of different being a lot closer to the actual celebration and consecration,” Laura said.

She has also learned the purpose of different things at Mass and what they are called.

Despite the positive changes in the ministry—which is one of the only ways for young people to be involved in the Mass—and the seriousness with which many parishes address serving, there are some changes that are less than welcome.

(Next part: The lost art of serving and how to get it back.) †


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