March 8 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Serving on the altar bears lasting fruit

Look holy and try not to faint was the advice for altar servers — but the experience has a significant impact, writes Fr Jamie McMorrin

Last weekend, our altar servers, new recruits and experienced veterans alike, were put through their paces at altar server basic training.

Together with the monsignor, I did my best to play the role of stony-faced drill instructor: there were no press-ups or pull-ups, but countless bows and genuflections; no 20-mile hikes with heavy equipment, but quite a lot of processing up and down the long aisles of the cathedral carrying processional candles and crosses.

Forget the Marines—by the end of the afternoon, our servers could have given the angelic host a run for their money.

It certainly brought back memories, not least because the monsignor and I had first got to know one another in very similar circumstances: he as a recently ordained priest, me as an enthusiastic eight-year old.

Together with my friends, from that point on, all the way until university, altar serving was an enormously important part of my experience of the Church.

In those days, our rather small parish boasted a huge squad of altar servers—as our parish priest liked to boast, more than sufficient, both in quantity and quality, for a papal funeral!

We took our responsibilities extremely seriously and would try to outdo each other in pious attention to detail.

There was stiff competition for the most prestigious duties: thurifer, responsible for swinging the smoking incense-burner, was, by common agreement, the ‘top job,’ well worth arriving early (and, if necessary, elbowing past your best friend in the car-park) for.

Being chosen to ring the bell, or carry the candles, was also a mark of some distinction. The last to arrive, or the least reliable, were instructed by the MC simply to ‘try to look holy!’

Fainting during the Mass was not uncommon: heavy altar server robes combined with a crowded and over-heated church more probably to blame than the rapture of mystical prayer.

My brother once became the stuff of altar-serving legend, by going one better and throwing up his too-hastily eaten breakfast right in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer.

The priest carried on, unfazed, while the chairman of the parish council processed solemnly down the aisle with a mop and bucket to clear up the mess.

Vomit and fainting aside, being an altar server played no small part in my becoming interested in the priesthood: for one thing, we got to know the priests better, and they got to know us.

They would use the moments before Mass as an opportunity for impromptu catechesis, as well as for catching up on our news. But it also inspired a closer relationship with Jesus.

Our physical proximity to the Sacred Mysteries led in turn to a desire for a closer relationship with the Lord who we knew, from the way the priest spoke and acted, was truly present on the altar.

Certainly as an eight-year old I couldn’t have articulated it like that: but I know that, over time, I did indeed come to love the Mass.

At first, getting to sit with my friends rather than with my mum was excitement enough, but we were also forced to pay attention, and knew that we had an important part to play.

We might not have understood every word, but we knew that something very important was happening. My friends and I began attending daily Mass during the school holidays, as well as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and Stations of the Cross.

Of that generation of altar servers, two of us became priests. But many others who didn’t, went on to maintain a deep love for the Mass, for the Church and for the priesthood that can be traced back to those days.

The parish where I grew up is by no means unique: recently, a young man who attends our young adults’ group told me of his days as a cathedral altar server more than 20 years ago, and of his fondness for my predecessors who had taught him how to serve. He attends Mass faithfully to this day.

This year, Archbishop Leo Cushley launched a new association for altar servers in St Andrews & Edinburgh Archdiocese, our own version of the guild of St Stephen.

Named after one of our local saints, St Cuthbert, the guild aims to encourage and reward the many faithful altar servers who serve in parishes throughout the archdiocese.

St Cuthbert, according to the legend, was inspired as a young boy to give his life to God as a monk after seeing a vision of the elderly St Aidan being carried up to Heaven by angels.

It’s our hope that St Cuthbert’s intercession, and the inspiring example of many dedicated priests of all ages, will help our young altar servers to stay close to Christ and his Church throughout their lives, and that, wherever God calls them, their experience as altar servers will bear lasting fruit in lives of generous service to God and to others.

St Cuthbert, pray for us!


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