Altar Servers have been a part of Church history since the earliest times, with those male faithful who were deemed worthy assisting the priest at the altar while he said the Holy Mass. From the very beginning, the duties of “ACOLYTE” or learner were strictly the domain of young males, as women had no place near the altar. Acolyte was one of the seven levels of ordained ministry in the Latin Rite that culminated with Deacon and finally, Priest.
In later times, up to the reforms of Vatican II, which changed the language of the Mass from Latin to English, the role of altar boy became a solemn duty of dedicated youth to serve before the altar of God before reaching adulthood and marriage. The duties were serious and involved lots of study.
If you think altar serving today is a chore, let me tell you about how things were in the recent past, the 1950’s and 60’s - what an altar boy had to do and had to learn to serve at God’s table.
First, all boys who made their first communion were expected to become altar boys. Parents expected that their boys would go to the altar. On Sundays, you saw only girls with their parents in the pews. The boys always served if they attended Mass
Altar boys were expected to serve from the age of 7 or 8 up to the age of 19. In this way, each church had consistently 20-30 altar boys on duty. When older boys went to college or got married, new ones were always there to take their place.
You just didn’t show up and expect to serve that Sunday. First, there came summer school. There, the boys studied Latin and woe to the altar boy who could not learn his Latin responses, he would have to come before the pastor and recite them from memory over and over again!
The candidates practiced the many complex duties the altar boy had to perform:
- how to stand with hands folded,
- how to lift the priest’s chasuble at the consecration,
- how to change the Missal from the Epistle (first reading) side to the Gospel side of the altar
- how to prepare the incense and the proper way to swing the thuriber (incense burner), so that the sweet smoke came out in clouds at Benediction or during Solemn Masses.
- how to properly hold the cruets of water and wine and to pour the water over the fingers of the priest, and always
- how to bow properly after performing their tasks.
In the fall, once they were accepted, new altar boys were given a cassock (long black garment like a priest wears, but with no collar) and a starched crisp white surplice to wear over it. Each boy had a place to hang it and was expected to take them home frequently to be laundered and starched by their parents. God help you if Father saw you in a sloppy dirty cassock or surplice!
The new altar boy was assigned to a team with a partner (or two).
Depending upon the number of altar boys, every 6 or 7 weeks throughout the year, each team was assigned a week of daily masses, Monday through Saturday, that they had to serve – NO EXCUSES!! Despite snow, rain, or summer vacation, we came, because Father expected it, our parents expected it, and we wanted to because it was our duty. In this way, every daily Mass had 2 or 3 altar boys.
Before every Mass the altar boy had to prepare the altar: light the 6 high candles at the main altar, remove the altar cover which covered the altar, lay out the vestments for the chalice (veil and burse) and help the priest dress (after the alb, hand the priest the amice, then the cincture, then the maniple worn on his left arm(not used today), then the stole, then the chasuble). Then he would hand the priest his biretta, or little black hat that the priest would wear to the altar. Now, Father was ready to begin Mass.
On Sunday, the altar boy was expected to serve at the Mass he attended. It was common to have 10 or 15 altar boys at each Sunday Mass! God help you if Father came to church and there were no altar boys!
Then, of course were the duties of adoration, two altar boys to kneel before the Blessed Sacrament from Holy Thursday after Mass until Midnight, and then all day Good Friday and Holy Saturday. NO EXCUSES – Father assigned you an hour and you were expected to be there, to kneel, pray, adore and Keep Jesus company during those holy days.
For every wedding or funeral, at least two altar boys were there – even if they had to miss school! Imagine that.
Finally, for special feasts there were mandatory practices – for Holy Week, Christmas, Confirmation, 40 Hours, etc. Being an altar boy was like being in the Army – each duty had to be performed smoothly, on time, gracefully and with full reverence to God.
Serving was fun, and not just work. Father had various picnics and events for the boys and even contests during the year – especially Lent, where a list was kept to see how many boys would serve at EVERY Mass for the full 40 days. He always gave out simple presents for good performance.
We enjoyed being altar boys. It was a sign of pride to endure the training, learn the strange words in Latin and to serve God.
We are establishing and Altar Server Corp here at Saint Rose. We want to come back to the roots not only in the altar, but also in social and educational way. As we have seen, Altar Serving is a ministry, a calling to serve Jesus and His Church in a special way. It is not too difficult, but requires study, dedication and a desire to do your best. Working together as a group, servers are in close contact with the priest and with each other, forming close bonds and social friendships.