November 21, 2003

The Art of Altar Serving

Serving can be a springboard to vocations

By Brandon A. Evans

Third of four parts

It’s no secret that altar serving can move young people to think about their responsibility to the Church—and for boys, that means the priesthood in a special way.

“I see it as a springboard for vocations, or a way to awaken vocations in … boys and young men,” said Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, vicar general and pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis.

“And to be quite honest, I tend to think that it’s even more important today than it was 50 years ago,” he said. “Now, with the scarcity of priests, altar serving is one of the few opportunities that any youngsters have to interact directly with a priest.”

He added that a majority of priests, if asked, would probably say that serving as a child was one of the things that helped them to think about the priesthood.

Father Daniel Staublin, pastor of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg, said that his serving experience helped him consider a vocation.

“I enjoyed doing it,” he said, “so I think it gave me a sense of Church that was something that I wasn’t afraid of.”

Father Joseph Moriarty, vocations director, said that serving was instrumental in his call to the priesthood.

Serving brings young men close to the priest and allows them to see what his life is like.

“I think serving helps you see the Mass from a different point of view,” said James Vincent, a recent graduate of Jennings County High School and member of St. Anne Parish in Jennings County. Serving helped him see more of the person in his parish priest.

“He’s basically a really, really good role model,” he said.

Vincent said that his serving experience has also made him think about the priesthood.

Andrew DeCrane, an altar server at Holy Rosary Parish and freshman at Marian College in Indianapolis, said that serving, and being so close to the priest and the Eucharist, has helped him to think about vocations.

Father Rick Eldred, pastor of St. Thomas More Parish in Mooresville, said that he thinks that altar serving is “a great builder for vocations.”

And that doesn’t just mean vocations for young men.

Shirley Dreyer from the Serra Club of Indianapolis said that girls who serve will be drawn deeper into the liturgy and feel more involved. Anything, she said, that brings them closer to worship “will certainly awaken in these girls a spiritual attitude.”

Father Moriarty noted that when most parishes pray for vocations to the priesthood, they also pray for vocations to the religious life.

Father Moriarty suggested perhaps having a “club” of sorts for male servers that focused on the priesthood, while female servers also had a club that focused on religious life.

“I think a lot can be accomplished by having the men as a fraternity and the women almost as a sisterhood or a type of sorority,” he said.

“I think there’s a lot to be said for the identity of young men and women that they can establish in a single sex environment,” he said. It would be a chance to focus on the charisms of both sexes.

Boys could have a special gathering on the feast day of St. John Vianney, while girls could develop a deeper theology of the Virgin Mary’s spirituality, for example.

“I think it’s pouring energy into the identity of who they are as boys and girls,” Father Moriarty said.

Msgr. Schaedel thought that something similar might help.

In a recent informal survey by The Criterion of 109 parishes, almost every parish reported that it in no way separated or put different focuses on the boys and girls in their server program.

Regarding vocations, each parish was also asked if they encourage their altar servers specifically to think about vocations to the priesthood or religious life.

Thirty percent answered yes.

“That’s a surprise to me,” Father Moriarty said. “That’s higher than I thought it would be.”

He said that he doesn’t hear any feedback from his brother priests about the ways that they might be specifically targeting altar servers.

Msgr. Schaedel took a different approach.

“I’m surprised to see that it’s that low,” he said. “I would say that parishes are missing an opportunity to encourage vocations among altar servers. For the most part, boys or girls, if they’re interested in serving at the altar, that says something.”

Parishes with less than 250 families, though, responded with 50 percent answering yes.

Msgr. Schaedel said that he thinks “very small parishes tend to be a little more mindful of the fact that we need to promote vocations, because they know they may be the first to lose a full-time priest.”

On the other end of the scale, only 17 percent of parishes with at least 1,000 families answered yes.

It is assumed, though, that if a priest or a parish life coordinator sees any young person that has special promise, that individual encouragement will be given to him or her.

Also, several parishes did respond that they encourage vocations, but through religious education or school programs.

Robert Alerding, a member of St. Matthew Parish in Indianapolis and charter member of the Serra Club of Indianapolis, said that the club has always recognized serving as a fertile ground for vocations to the priesthood.

Alerding was an altar server in his youth, and “considered very, very seriously going to the seminary.”

The Serra Club has, for years, given outstanding servers awards. Each year, they contact every parish in the archdiocese and ask for a list of graduating servers and for the most outstanding server of the year.

Dreyer said that most of the parishes participate in the free service.

The eighth-graders get a certificate, while the best server at each parish gets a special medal from Serra International.

Dreyer said that parishes usually give out the awards, named in honor of Alerding, at graduations.

She said that there are some priests in the archdiocese that once received medals for being outstanding servers.

Joseph Naughton, a member of St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis and a member of the Serra Club, said that it is nice to give out awards for something other than sports. Also, the servers often get recognition in front of their peers.

Father Moriarty said that last spring he was invited to speak about vocations at a luncheon held in the Indianapolis North Deanery by the Knights of Columbus.

It was a recognition event for all the servers in the deanery—to at once honor them for their work and also to speak to them about vocations. A Benedictine sister also spoke about vocations.

In the Criterion survey, parishes were asked if they ever attended such an event, or held their own recognition event of any sort, for their servers. This could range from a pizza party to a trip to an amusement park.

One in four parishes responded that they had indeed honored their servers.

“I think that’s a real poverty for any ministry,” Father Moriarty said.

Even on a basic level, he said, children can be inspired to sign up for serving consistently if they know that they will have a fun event planned for them at the end of the year.

Among larger parishes, though, 42 percent had honored their servers, compared with 23 percent of smaller parishes.

On the flip side, when parishes were asked if they would support a deanery-wide server recognition event, 82 percent said that they would. Some preferred to simply have a local parish event.

Of parishes in the Indianapolis-area, 93 percent said that they would support a deanery-wide event.

Msgr. Schaedel was confident that such events, if they are organized, would be well-attended.

The more that servers are encouraged, used for more than the minimum and taken seriously, the better the art of serving will be and the more young people will be encouraged to think about their vocation, he said.

“I think we have to make an effort to decide that we do want to have servers at Mass, [decide] what their appropriate role is, and train them to do it well and make them feel like it’s important,” he said.

(Next part: A day in the life of Msgr. Schaedel’s altar servers at Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis.) †


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