Altar Servers: core formation
...Altar servers are not the focus of the rite but, in their ministry, they enable the rite to proclaim the mystery of Christ through Word and Sacrament...
"...servers participate in the liturgy. While they fulfil important functions, they are present with all members of the assembly as full and active participants...."
...All ministers in the liturgical celebration should have an understanding of the liturgy as communal ritual that, through symbolic action, engages participants in an encounter with the living God...
The late Anscar Chupungco OSB often described the essence of the Roman Rite with the words: sober, practical, simple and noble functionality. Its rituals, prayers and structure reflect these qualities and, if we were to return to this appreciation, we would gain a greater understanding of the spirit of the Roman Rite. When we consider the mission and ministry of the altar server, we rightly recall the noble simplicity of the rites we celebrate as an expression of the essence of the Roman liturgy. Altar servers are not the focus of the rite but, in their ministry, they enable the rite to proclaim the mystery of Christ through Word and Sacrament.
The modus operandi of altar servers should hardly ever be noticed. They should look so much a part of the rite that their presence does not intrude. They do not draw attention to themselves but help the people devote their attention to the liturgy. Their role is basically silent, apart from responding wholeheartedly to spoken and sung responses with the rest of the assembly. If they are not present, something essential to the smooth functioning of the liturgy is missing. Unfortunately, where servers are ill-prepared, they attract notice by being unable to respond to the needs of the liturgy. At the other extreme, servers sometimes draw attention to themselves through showy gestures, by being overconfident and self-important, or displaying a ‘reverence’ which is artificial. This contradicts the spirit of their role.
First of all, servers participate in the liturgy. While they fulfil important functions, they are present with all members of the assembly as full and active participants. They model active participation for people. Their role derives from their baptismal calling to live as the people of God. It demands a continuity between what they do at the liturgy and how they behave outside it. Good servers are ever aware of their mission to be Jesus for others around them. Servers cannot pretend to be ‘holy’ in the sanctuary and then be self-centred, critical and rude in daily living. While many would say that the server assists the priest through holding the Missal, or carrying the bread and wine, or other tasks at the altar, in the broader context they assist the whole assembly. They indicate the important parts of the Mass by carrying candles during processions and before the book of the gospels, and they make sure all that is needed for the celebration is brought, carried or moved into place at the right time. This assists not only the priest and other ministers, but the entire assembly through careful attention to detail and allowing the rite to run smoothly.
Understand the Liturgy
All ministers in the liturgical celebration should have an understanding of the liturgy as communal ritual that, through symbolic action, engages participants in an encounter with the living God. The various ages of altar servers will determine their level of perception. However even a most basic understanding will lead the server to appreciate the importance of the gathered assembly giving praise and thanks to God as an expression of the Church’s faith and worship. When servers have such an understanding of what they are doing and an appreciation of the nature of the liturgy, it will lead to a harmony of purpose that will enhance people’s faith.
Understand the Ministry
Altar serving is one of a variety of liturgical ministries that contribute to the celebration of the Eucharist. Each role or ministry has its part to play. Servers offer themselves – their faith, time and talent – for the benefit of others and so build up the worshipping community. What then do servers need to appreciate about their role as liturgical ministers? In first place, their role is important and flows from their baptismal calling to participate in the mission of Christ. Their service to the gathered assembly of Christ’s faithful includes preparing the place of worship and the components needed for worship (candles, books, vessels, and so on). During the liturgy they hold and carry these things, assisting the noble celebration of the Eucharist and serving the whole Body of Christ. Specifically, they assist the presider in his ministry of leading the worshipping community. This is not mere assistance through menial tasks, but a contribution to the power of the rite to give glory to God through fitting worship.
Understand the Mass
Servers should have a good grasp of the two parts of the Mass: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Each part has a rite of preparation: the introductory rites open our ears for the proclamation of the word, and the preparation of the gifts and altar lead into the celebration of the Eucharist. Servers’ role in the Introductory Rite and the Liturgy of the Word will include taking part in processions, carrying candles in the entrance and at the Gospel, attentive listening to the word proclaimed, holding the Missal for the presider, and for more solemn occasions preparing and using incense.
For the Liturgy of the Eucharist, their role is more critical as they prepare the altar, ensuring everything associated with the use of the bread and wine is ready, reverently prepared and presented. The importance of having the sacred vessels, cruets, various linens, Missal, candles, incense, all ready for use at their appropriate time can never be underestimated.
Essentially, servers will need to have an excellent understanding of the flow of the Mass as it moves from
one part to the next.
Understand the Terminology
Servers should have a good grasp of the names of various books and vessels. When asked to go to the
sacristy and bring a vessel or book that might have been forgotten, they will know exactly what it is and where it is found. So they should be familiar with terms such a chalice, ciborium, paten, thurible, Lectionary, Missal, cruets, and the various linens that are used for the celebration of Mass such as purifier, corporal and pall.
Guidance, Training, Review
Those who ask to be involved in this ministry should be received with encouragement, especially the young, as this is not only a first personal experience of participating in a ministry but also a key moment in their growing appreciation of the liturgy. The church building opens up a new world of sacred space which the server will experience in a more intimate encounter, and introduces many new and unusual names of places, furniture and objects. Learning a new language is part of the server’s preparation for this ministry.
Teaching will involve the formal rehearsal of processions, where to place things, and ‘what comes next’. Practice makes the server more comfortable with the role. Younger servers especially will be glad of some repetition in rehearsal to help them know what to do. Serving is a physical activity. Servers need to develop agility, discipline and coordination to enable them to genuflect, walk up and down stairs in a robe, walk together in a procession, and present water and wine to the priest with dignity. Regular periods of review should accompany the ministry of server. Practice times for major ceremonies such as the Easter Triduum should be a priority and allow the server to engage more wholeheartedly in
these solemn liturgies without feeling anxious.
Growing servers require a regular review of the size of their robe.
Servers also appreciate being given greater responsibility as they mature in recognition of their commitment and reliability. An excellent skill to foster is the ability to look ahead in the Missal and notice something that may be different or out of the ordinary: a solemn blessing, for example, that features during a particular season. Such an observant awareness allows the server to be ready for any eventuality, especially an unexpected one.
The Whole Person
Altar servers are engaged in an activity that involves the whole person: body, mind and spirit. They join the assembly in participating through processing, listening, praying, responding in silence and song, sitting and standing, giving thanks and praise, giving and receiving. However their role takes them to a more intimate encounter with these aspects through their particular activity and ministry in the liturgy. When servers are happy in their role and show pride in their appearance, their serving is life-giving. There is a certain joy in being able to minister to Christ’s faithful in this way and give praise to God.