November 14, 2003

The Art of Altar Serving

The lost art of serving and how to get it back

By Brandon A. Evans

Second of four parts

Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, vicar general and pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis, believes that altar serving has become a lost art—and an underused tool in promoting vocations.

While serving is by no means dead—nearly every parish in the archdiocese has a program for young people to serve at Mass and many take it seriously—over the last few decades the role of server has diminished.

The Criterion recently conducted an informal survey of 109 parishes to catch a glimpse of the state of altar serving in the archdiocese. The survey, mailed to each parish, represents more than 4,000 servers and nearly 65,000 households.

“I think there’s been neglect of the ministry of server,” Msgr. Schaedel said. “In other words, the attitude is kind of like, well, we don’t really need them.”

As a result, he said that some parishes have poorly trained their servers and not invested them with much of a sense of social responsibility.

Perhaps, he suggested, this minimalizing occurred because many of the roles of an altar server have been made optional; and all too often something that is optional becomes unused.

Most parishes use two servers per weekend Mass, though a handful use more.

Those who have served know that two people is about what a priest needs to cover the basic functions of a server at a weekend Mass. For a daily Mass, one server could do the job.

At Holy Rosary Parish, Msgr. Schaedel made a policy never to turn any of his servers away from Mass—and many of them attend as many Masses as they can.

It is not unusual for six servers to volunteer at a weekend Mass there. Msgr. Schaedel always finds something for them to do—but said that he doesn’t make up meaningless jobs.

The roles they fill are among the “extras” that Msgr. Schaedel said are symbolic for the assembly and for the servers.

During the eucharistic prayer, for example, several servers will bear candles, while another swings the incense and another slips into the sacristy to ring the church bells at the consecration of the bread and wine.

“There’s so much that an altar server can do, so much that you can incorporate into the Mass,” said Andrew DeCrane, an altar server at Holy Rosary Parish and a freshman at Marian College.

Msgr. Schaedel said servers need to be well-trained or the parish is missing something.

“I think, whether it’s serving Mass, schoolwork, sports, you name it,” he said, “I think kids appreciate being taught how to do something correctly. I think they appreciate doing it and feeling good about it—feeling that they’ve accomplished something.

“So if you’ve got yourself in a situation where serving really doesn’t make any difference, where you don’t make any real effort to enhance it, so to speak, as a ministry, to have them well-trained, to keep them accountable, ….then I think kids lose interest,” he said.

That comes back to an idea of social responsibility. DeCrane said that the servers are in front of the assembly during the Mass, and that if they aren’t paying attention, the assembly will be distracted as well—but if they are reverent, it will help build the same virtue in the assembly.

Shirley Dreyer of the Serra Club of Indianapolis said that serving gives young people “a feeling of real responsibility and [being] part of the liturgy.”

That feeling of responsibility, if fostered, can translate into something larger.

Father Anthony Volz, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Indianapolis, said past servers “are people who are very active in parishes today.”

Serving, he said, can help launch young people into deeper involvement with their parish.

“It’s a training ground for ministry, not just religious, but all ministry,” said Mary Jo Lowe, a member of the liturgy committee at St. Thomas More Parish in Mooresville.

James Vincent, a recent graduate of Jennings County High School and member of St. Anne Parish in Jennings County, a young man himself, agreed that getting involved in other parish ministries could be a positive fruit of serving.

Father Joseph Moriarty, vocations director, said that whether or not servers will be formed with such virtues depends heavily on the leadership of the parish.

“I think if the pastor or the associate or the person who’s in charge knows what they’re doing, the kids will know what they’re doing, and why they’re supposed to do it,” he said.

Msgr. Schaedel agreed. Even such things as children having a lack of reverence regarding the Mass can be picked up from adults, he said.

If the adult leaders show the servers that their ministry is important—just like the ministries of lector, eucharistic ministers and musicians—then young people will take their cues from that, he said.

Another thing that Msgr. Schaedel and Father Moriarty agree upon—in an effort to continue to improve altar serving—is a more widespread use of daily Mass servers.

“I think having servers at daily Mass does several things,” Msgr. Schaedel said. “It gives them one more opportunity to serve, to practice, [and] it lets them know that the role of the server at Mass, no matter when the Mass is celebrated, is important.”

Currently, about 25 percent of parishes employ daily Mass servers, though it must be remembered that there are many parishes that do not offer daily Mass, or only offer a couple each week.

That number grows when the focus is narrowed to parishes with schools that also offer daily Mass at least three times a week during or before school hours.

There are 34 such parishes in the archdiocese, and 44 percent use daily Mass servers.

Several other parishes said that they have a school Mass each week that is served by students.

Msgr. Schaedel would like to see that number higher, especially when schools have the chance to supply a priest with student-servers.

“I would say if that situation exists, where you have a school and the kids are not allowed to come over to serve Mass during school, I would say that’s … unfortunate,” he said.

“As I think back, I don’t remember much about serving Sunday Mass, but I remember a lot about serving daily Mass,” Msgr. Schaedel said.

Father Joseph Moriarty, vocations director, said that he remembers fondly carrying his good shoes to Mass early in the morning when he was young. He thinks that giving young people the chance to serve daily Mass should be a priority for Catholic schools.

When children see their peers occasionally leaving class for Mass, Father Moriarty thinks that it essentially says that “this is the most important thing we do, and we need to keep it at the center of our lives. Everything that we do has to flow out of it and flow into it.”

Students who serve daily Mass during school hours would miss some academic learning, but Father Moriarty thinks that it is an acceptable sacrifice.

“I think that’s why parents send their child to a Catholic school; they have some understanding that their education is going to happen through and in their religious formation,” he said. “Why would they send them to a Catholic school otherwise?”

“For [children] to have the experience of serving daily Mass, even serving funerals,” Msgr. Schaedel said, “that’s part of a Catholic school education and always was—and I see no reason to change that.”

Father Moriarty agreed, and said that children can learn lessons of a different sort from their harder serving experiences.

“We shouldn’t ignore the amount of education, even in the school of life, if you will, that’s going to happen by this child having to confront the fact that he’s got to serve a funeral,” Father Moriarty said.

Msgr. Schaedel said that getting up early for a Mass before school is hard but teaches a child sacrifice.

While some parishes may see having adult servers as an option, especially for daily Mass, Msgr. Schaedel cautioned that children should be given the first priority.

“It is one of the few roles during the liturgy that children can do and do well,” he said. “I think in encouraging vocations, and just from the standpoint of getting them involved in some kind of liturgical role, this is something that children can do, and if we don’t offer them the opportunity as often as possible, I think we’re missing the boat.”

Msgr. Schaedel said it was his own experience serving daily Mass that became one of many factors in finding his vocation.

(Next part: Encouraging vocations through altar serving.) †


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