It’s a little embarrassing for me to admit this, but one of the things I found most intimidating about deacon formation is something many schoolchildren do expertly on a regular basis: serving at the altar.
|Deacon Kyle Eller
With some deacon candidates it’s the intellectual study or the prospect of speaking in front of a lot of people giving homilies that bother them. Those didn’t scare me.
But I’m a convert who didn’t practice the Catholic faith until his 30s. I had no childhood service at the altar to draw from. After being received into the church, I knew there were some adult men who were servers, but I found that prospect daunting. I took the Mass very seriously, and I knew I could be clumsy. (For similar reasons, I resisted any thoughts of being an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion.)
So entering formation, I knew nothing of how to serve at the altar. And who wants to be a novice server in front of people who regularly see fifth graders who are experts? Humility is not always my strong suit.
I think my first time as an altar server was at a Saturday evening Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary, alongside a couple of my deacon classmates. That may be the Mass where, unbeknownst at first to me, my cincture slipped off and found a new home resting on the floor in front of the altar (and everyone) for part of the Mass.
But those days passed quickly. In God’s marvelous way, those fears that seem so misplaced to me now have become signs of his presence in my life. As I said “yes” to God’s call, I soon grew not only to be comfortable serving at the altar and distributing Holy Communion but to find great joy there. Those skills became the foundation for the liturgical part of diaconal ministry, even to Latin Solemn High Masses.
It’s still amazing to think that I get the privilege to be so close to this place of encounter with God and that I get to serve as an instrument to bring Jesus to his people in the Blessed Sacrament. I like to hope that my reverence for the Mass and my awareness of my own capacity for clumsiness find healthier expression now, not in fear but in care and diligence in service.
It’s beautiful how, if we humbly cooperate with God in faith, the liturgy takes all of our faltering human efforts and gathers them and harmonizes them and melds them into a cooperation in the work God himself is doing in the Mass. I thought I would be more self-conscious, but when the liturgy goes as it should, I find my mind is instead drawn to God.
Those fears I’ve overcome, as well as the relative recentness of my own halting first experiences as a server, lead me to really appreciate the altar servers we have and (I hope) to sympathize with them and encourage them and help them grow in confidence and skill when I serve with them. I try always to have a peaceful, confident smile and a clear direction if something goes amiss and a word of thanks and encouragement when Mass is over.
And it’s hard to fully appreciate how much those servers bring to the church. They are often wonderful young people to begin with, who are a joy to be around. Their eagerness brings energy and life to the liturgy and to the parish. They are a sign of life in the church — a symbol of continuity and the faith being handed on in their families and in the parish.
Their service, in turn, can be a kind of formation in virtue for them, an experience of being given progressively more important public responsibilities to carry out as they take their rightful place in the parish community. Service at the altar is good training for life, where we must learn not only the carrying out in a detailed way various tasks but doing them in a kind of heirarchical cooperation with others, with attentiveness and listening and understanding and prayerfulness and flexibility and reverence — and often with patience and grace. And this work is ultimately directed to God, something true in all of our work, but much clearer and more manifest in the liturgy.
As with so many areas of church life, and life in general, I have a sense that the COVID-19 pandemic has left things with altar servers in a twilight state of not being fully restored or recovered. Recall that even after the suspension of public Masses was lifted and we were able to come together again, for many months there were significant safety protocols restricting on how servers could be present.
How many young people simply have not resumed serving since then, perhaps unsure how much they even remember? How many young people who were coming to the age when they normally would have started serving didn’t get that opportunity in a timely way because of the disruptions? Only a few weeks ago I assisted at a Mass outside my parishes, and the server was returning to service at the altar for the first time since the pandemic. Praise God! What a blessing! But I can think of others who have not returned.
So please, if you are a young person or a parent of a young person, give real thought and prayer to this. Our young people serving at the altar are such a gift and blessing to our parishes. And the reverse, I believe, is also true. Serving at the altar can be scary, but as I can say from my own experience, you may find it to be far more wonderful and joyful that you can imagine right now, and it may prove to be a great blessing in your life.
Start with a quick conversation with your pastor after Mass.
Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].