November 28, 2003

The Art of Altar Serving

A day in the life of Holy Rosary Parish’s servers

By Brandon A. Evans

Last of four parts

Vincent Lynch is the first altar server to arrive to prepare for the next Mass.

As he works silently in the rectory at Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis, the sounds of the Latin High Mass resound in the church behind him.

The full morning light shines into the nearly century-old church and strikes the chalices, cruets and ciboria—all of which are gold.

He retrieves the large, ornate chalice, which the priest will use, and places inside of it a purificator that will be later used to help purify it.

Then he carefully places a glimmering paten on the chalice, and a large host on the paten. Over that he puts a square pall that will later sit atop the chalice to protect the Precious Blood, and finally he drapes it all with a chalice veil.

The colors are white and gold, properly majestic for the last day in the Octave of Easter: Divine Mercy Sunday.

Soon, Andrew DeCrane arrives to help and, in time, more servers appear.

It is the middle of a Sunday morning and as the Latin Mass ends the altar boys prepare the sanctuary for the noon English Mass.

The servers at Holy Rosary Parish, about 15 in all, are close and several of them are related. Many of them make it a point to serve as often as they can—sometimes serving every English Mass that is offered. Different servers attend to the Latin Mass.

The older servers profess a great love for the Mass, for the Church and for their pastor. They take their role extremely seriously, and know that if they are distracted in their ministry, that the gathered assembly will be distracted as well.

They are respectful, discreet, swift and well-trained.

But many of them are still children, and are not immune to giggles, missteps and errors.

Still, they run a clean liturgical ship under their pastor, Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, who is also the vicar general.

They credit him with everything that makes their ministry successful.

Nevertheless, Msgr. Schaedel only spends about an hour and a half formally training each server. The rest he leaves in the hands of the older servers, who lead by example and expertise.

Several of the boys, thinking beyond their days of close-knit “community” life as a server at Holy Rosary, have considered the priesthood more because of their work.

On this late April day, Vincent and Andrew, now recent middle school and high school graduates, respectively, leave the other servers to help the monsignor lead the assembly in a special monthly novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

The two flank their pastor during the prayers and Benediction, seamlessly assisting him with the thurible—used to incense the monstrance—and the humeral veil that Msgr. Schaedel lifts the monstrance with.

They bow their head when he does, kneel with him and stay at his side when he moves.

Afterward, they rejoin the six other servers that have arrived.

Eight is a good number of servers, Vincent contends. That is usually the maximum that Msgr. Schaedel uses, though he has a policy of not turning any of them away.

Nor is there a schedule. More than enough show up almost every time.

When Msgr. Schaedel saw how many youngsters wanted to serve each Mass, he dipped into the vast amount of “optional” jobs that the Sacramentary provides for altar servers—jobs that have, after Vatican II, fallen to the wayside at most parishes.

As the servers prepare, Msgr. Schaedel jokes with them and helps one get vested.

Vincent and Andrew talk about which incense they’re using. Andrew picks out sweet myrrh while Vincent muses about sandlewood.

By the time the church bells ring near the start of Mass, all eight servers—clad in their cassocks and surpluses—have found their way to the back of the nave.

The music starts, and the servers process in: Vincent elegantly swinging the thurible in front, followed by a cross-bearer, then four servers with candle-torches, a server with the container of sweet myrrh and then finally Andrew, a freshman at Marian College in Indianapolis, who will hold the coveted spot of master of ceremonies.

With the book bearer, a layperson, already in line with the servers, Msgr. Schaedel comes in last.

All approach the altar and genuflect (or, for those carrying candles or the cross, bow), and swiftly move through the sanctuary to their positions.

Jobs change constantly. The server that held the container of incense may, in the next moment, also be the server who holds the book up for Msgr. Schaedel—and just as quickly take another job, all depending on who is in the right place.

Keeping his hands firmly together in a symbol of prayer, just like all the other boys, Andrew constantly oversees who will be doing what and when.

The purpose in everything is to assist the priest and to blend into the background. With eight servers, they have to be pretty smooth to blend in—and they are.

Right before the Gospel, Andrew and Vincent quickly allow Msgr. Schaedel to refill the thurible, then as he rises Andrew sits while two candle-bearers and Vincent stay close to the priest.

After walking to the ambo, Msgr. Schaedel incenses the book and proclaims the Gospel while the candle-bearers keep silent vigil before him—and before the spoken Word of God.

Though the symbols of light and incense are prevalent here, they are even more so during the central moment of the sacrifice of the Mass.

When the eucharistic prayer is about to start, and while the assembly is singing the Sanctus in English, Vincent goes to the stairs in front of the altar—flanked by four candle-bearers—and kneels with the rest of the assembly and servers at the end of the song of praise.

Andrew, the emcee, remains standing to help Msgr. Schaedel turn the pages in the Sacramentary, though even he kneels at the epiclesis: the moment when the Holy Spirit is called down unto the gifts.

At the same time, one of the two remaining servers that are kneeling near the side of the altar gets up and goes in the back.

All the while, Vincent gently swings his thurible.

As the priest begins to pronounce the words of consecration, and the moment comes when Christ is offered again to the Father, all the servers bow their heads.

Then, as Msgr. Schaedel lifts up the consecrated host—the very body and blood of the Lord—the servers all look up.

The lay people in the pews either look down in reverence or gaze up to the elevated host in the priest’s hands.

Vincent swings his thurible high and in repetition.

The server at the side of the altar rings the tiny set of hand bells while the server in the back rings the steeple bells.

The candle-bearers clutch their torches, and Andrew gets a view of the sacred moment unlike anyone else present.

The same motions, the same acts of praise on the part of the servers, are repeated as the wine is consecrated.

After the assembly has completed the eucharistic prayer with the Great Amen, the servers rise and go to their places in the sanctuary.

They stay in the background during the Communion rite; moving about only to quickly clean the altar.

When Msgr. Schaedel is finished distributing Communion and cleansing his chalice, Vincent puts the chalice and the paten together the same way he did before Mass and takes it off the altar.

In a few minutes, the procession walks back out of the church and, as Msgr. Schaedel greets parishioners on the steps of the church, the servers scurry about the sanctuary, pulling the liturgical vessels and extra chairs back into the sacristy as well as putting out the candles.

Vincent puts away the chalices and the other boys get unvested.

With their serving responsibilities completed, Andrew helps one of the younger servers with a laser light, and the rest of boys relax and are eager to get outside. †


Local site Links: