The making of an altar server

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They light candles and ring bells, carry the crucifix and hold the missal. In great cathedrals and modest chapels, altar servers perform simple yet essential acts in service to the heart of the Catholic faith - the sacrifice of the Mass.

If they are doing their job correctly, servers are at once invisible assistants and vital leaders, said Larry Cerruti, who has trained altar servers at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington for more than two decades. The priest represents Christ, and the servers are helping the priest, said Cerruti, "but they are also representing us, the community, and they lead us in prayer."

Before donning an alb or cassock for Mass, servers undergo extensive training, learning about the structure of the liturgy and mastering numerous responsibilities. In the Arlington Diocese, their instruction varies from parish to parish, but the trainers have a similar desire for the youths.

"My hope," Cerruti said, "is that whatever vocation they chose in life, that this will cultivate lifelong prayer, devotion and great fervor for their faith."

Mechanics with meaning

It was early on a Saturday morning, but Ryan Minogue, 9, was wide awake and smiling as he slid into a pew at St. Bernadette Church in Springfield. As one of 16 young parishioners in the final stages of altar server training, he was eager to walk through the Mass with his fellow trainees.

"I've always wanted to be an altar server," said Minogue. "It's hard work, though, remembering everything."

Although parishes have different approaches to training servers, all follow U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops guidelines. According to the guidelines, altar servers must have received their first holy Communion and "be mature enough to understand their responsibilities and to carry them out well and with appropriate reverence."

It's a "fairly even split" between parishes that have both male and female servers, like St. Bernadette, and those that have only male servers, according to Father Paul F. deLadurantaye, diocesan secretary for religious education and sacred liturgy.

After the Vatican approved the use of female altar servers at Mass in 1994, the decision to implement the change on a diocesan level was left to each bishop's discretion. In 2006, Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde told pastors they could include girls as altar servers or maintain male-only servers.

For the past decade at St. Bernadette, servers have been under the gentle direction of Jay Conners.

Conners divides training into four segments, which can extend into a total of 12 hourlong Saturday sessions. "It depends on how many kids there are and how quickly they learn," he said.

Each segment covers a different portion of the Mass. The boys and girls learn about the procession, memorizing how to approach the altar, where to store the crucifix and candles, and what chairs to sit in. Next they are taught when to hold the candles for the Gospel.

The third and busiest section covers the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when servers bring the chalice, ciborium (a cuplike vessel containing the hosts), the crucifix and candles. "Everyone has something to do," said Conners. The final segment covers the end of Mass.

At the cathedral, Cerruti trains boys in three two-hour classes. After a general orientation, he guides the servers through the mechanics of the Mass.

But the boys are not like waiters at the altar, and the goal is not simply to have them master when to go where. "The more comfortable they are in the mechanics, the better they can participate prayerfully in the Mass," said Cerruti, adding that leading the congregation in prayer through example is a key responsibility of the ministry.

Before serving at a Sunday liturgy, Cerruti places the boys in an internship period, where they serve alongside experienced servers at weekday Masses.

According to the USCCB guidelines, two or more servers should assist at Sunday Masses.

Father James C. Hinkle, parochial vicar of St. Theresa Church in Ashburn, begins altar server training with one session "to establish the groundwork," and then offers training to boys several times a year to build on their knowledge.

The first step is to help servers appreciate "the theology of the Mass," said Father Hinkle, who helped create an altar server training and recruitment video featuring an introduction by Bishop Loverde.

"I want them to grasp what cannot be seen. (Because) once they understand what is going on in the sanctuary it gives them a more organic respect for the Mass," Father Hinkle said.

The training and the dress code are different at each parish, but all are intended to promote reverence among the servers and minimize distraction during Mass. Boys and girls may not wear jeans, sneakers or open-toed shoes at St. Bernadette; boys serving at St. Theresa must wear black socks, shoes and pants.

To serve and inspire

Since the early church, young people have assisted at Mass and received countless spiritual benefits from the ministry, including discerning vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

According to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 80 percent of priests ordained in 2014 were one-time altar servers. Of the women and men entering religious life the same year, more than a third were either extraordinary ministers of holy Communion or altar servers.

Father Hinkle was an altar server, and he credits a "good portion" of his vocation to serving. The ministry shows young men what being a priest is like, he said.

But even for those not called to a priestly or religious vocation, said Father deLadurantaye, service at the altar can enhance young people's prayer life, their participation in the sacramental life of the church and their desire to give of themselves.

Altar servers often know more about the faith than many adult Catholics, Cerruti added. They learn, for example, that Kyrie, eleison (Lord, have mercy) - part of the Act of Penitence at the beginning of Mass - is Greek, not Latin.

The training youths receive is an opportunity to "learn the faith from the inside," said Cerruti, who, along with Father Hinkle and Conners, has a deep affection for and pride in his servers.

They are "a dedicated bunch of kids," Cerruti said. Be it rising at 6 a.m. to serve a 7 a.m. liturgy or giving up a Saturday evening for a vigil Mass, they "put a lot of themselves into it."

At St. Bernadette, as altar server trainees filed into the sacristy to put on their albs, Minogue was the first in line.

"I think it's so cool to help the priest," he said. "And to be able to serve people and to maybe inspire them, that's what I want to do."

Watch the video

To see a video created at St. Theresa Church in Ashburn on altar serving, go here.

Altar server prayer

Open my mouth, O Lord, to bless Your holy name.

Cleanse my heart from all evil and distracting thoughts.

Enlighten my understanding and inflame my will that I may serve more worthily at Your holy altar.

O Mary, Mother of Christ the High Priest, obtain for me the most important grace of knowing my vocation in life.

Grant me a true spirit of faith and humble obedience so that I may ever behold the priest as a representative of God and willingly follow Him in the way, the truth and the life of Christ.

Amen.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016