Altar serving a pivotal influence in many priests’ vocation stories, survey finds

While not every priest was an altar server before seminary, many were, and the role led them to a deeper understanding of the Mass, a recent survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) found. Regardless of whether a young man feels called to the priesthood, altar serving can build a sense of responsibility and direction and can help draw young men deeper into their faith, Detroit-area priests say. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

More than 7 in 10 priests ordained in 2020 served as youngsters; experience can lead to deeper appreciation, understanding of Mass

DETROIT  When Fr. Jim Houbeck was 8 years old and in second grade, he began serving as an altar boy at his home parish, Our Lady Queen of All Saints in Fraser. As he stood near the altar, gazing upon the Eucharist as the priests offered it up, he wondered if perhaps he could do the same. 

Now looking at it from the perspective of a priest, Fr. Houbeck, associate pastor of St. Anastasia Parish in Troy, sees what an incredible honor it was to serve Jesus at the altar, and how his time as an altar server influenced the pursuit of his own vocation. 

“I think (altar serving) is one of those things that we misunderstand. (We think) that it’s just a nice thing or you just look good up their serving, but as I know, you get to be attentive to the priest who represents Jesus Christ,” Fr. Houbeck said. “Altar serving can be a great way of thinking about a vocation and praying about a vocation.”

While assisting the priest during Mass as an altar server, Fr. Jim Houbeck, current associate pastor of St. Anastasia Parish in Troy, began to wonder if perhaps he could someday step into the role of the priest. (Detroit Catholic file photo)

While not every priest was an altar server, many were, and the role led them to a deeper understanding of the Mass and a reverence for the Eucharist, opening a door to the possibility of a priestly vocation. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), more than seven in 10 priests ordained in 2020 served at the altar as youngsters. 

While both boys and girls can benefit from the experience of serving, the CARA survey suggests the experience might be particularly beneficial for young men considering a priestly vocation. 

Regardless of whether a young man feels called to the priesthood, altar serving can build a sense of responsibility and direction and can help draw young men deeper into their faith, Detroit priests say.

Fr. Zaid Chabaan, who became the Archdiocese of Detroit’s newest priest on Saturday, May 22, said altar serving shaped his faith as a young man long before the 32-year-old considered a vocation to the priesthood.

As he served at the National Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, the future Fr. Chabaan learned the different parts of the Mass and realized that his role wasn’t just to serve the priest, but the whole congregation. This led Fr. Chabaan to take his role seriously, and as he grew in maturity and age, he began to help shepherd the next generation of young altar servers. 

A young boy assists Fr. Stephen Pullis during Mass at St. John Vianney Parish in Shelby Township in 2019. As a server, youngsters are taught to pay close attention to the liturgy, which in turn can lead to a deeper love for the Mass. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

“I tried to be very reverent because I was serving the Lord,” Fr. Chabaan said. “I once heard that an altar server’s dispositions during the Mass can either lead people to prayer or turn them away from prayer, and that really stuck with me because everyone’s watching you. 

“Everyone can see whether you’re picking your nose, or if you’re slouched over in your seat, or if you have your arm next to your head, and so if you don’t look attentive and if you don’t look engaged, people’s experience of the Mass is affected by that,” he added. 

Fr. Chabaan added seminarians and priests who previously served often have an easier time learning the order of the Mass when it comes time for them to celebrate it on their own. As a server, he said, it was imperative that he knew what came next so the priest wouldn’t miss a beat. 

Fr. Zaid Chabaan, whose ordination to the priesthood took place on Saturday, May 22, 2021, began altar serving when he was 11 or 12. With time he realized that not only was he serving the priest, he was also serving the community. (Tim Fuller | Detroit Catholic)

As a mother of 14, Cassandra Giroux has watched her son, Charlie, go from a dedicated altar server to the seminary as he discerns the priesthood. 

“He wanted to ride his bike to church even from a young age,” Giroux said. “It was a little more than three miles away, and even at 12, he would take his bike to go serve. He wanted to get there early to serve –– it meant a great deal for him to be there.”

Giroux was surprised when Charlie, now in his second year of theology studies, decided to attend Sacred Heart Major Seminary, but she said his experience of getting to know priests as regular people led him to consider a vocation to the priesthood. 

“Charlie always believed that his life would be one of service to God, whatever he did, and I think he just observed priests as real men, and he saw the priesthood as a viable option for living for God,” Giroux said.

Charlie Giroux, a seminarian at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, used to ride his bike three miles in order to serve Mass at SS. Cyril and Methodius Parish, his mother said. (Archdiocese of Detroit photo) 

Stacy Lawler, a mother of four sons ages 13 through 18 who all serve Mass at SS. Cyril and Methodius (Slovak) Parish in Sterling Heights, told Detroit Catholic her boys have taken greater ownership of their faith lives by being altar servers, and it has called them to be more responsible and aware of the sacraments. 

“We’re all called to be active in the Mass and participate as a congregation, but as an altar server, there’s just a different level of attention to it,” Lawler said. “I see that they know more about what’s taking place, especially during the consecration. They’re very attentive to Jesus as the center.”

Lawler said Fr. Libor Marek and Fr. Juraj Nuota have been gracious in guiding her boys, and now, Lawler sees her sons passing on their knowledge to a new generation of servers. She’s also seen their desire to serve grow, as the boys serve as often as they can, even during weekday Masses. 

The discussion of the priesthood as a possible vocation has always been an open topic in their home, Lawler said. 

“The only way you can know if God’s calling you to a vocation of a religious life will be to keep your heart open and stay close to Him,” Lawler said. “So, (altar serving) is just another piece of the puzzle of fostering that, and all four boys, in very different ways, have their hearts open to God’s call. And time will tell how that plays out, in God’s time. His will be done.”

Ultimately, Lawler’s biggest hope for her sons is that they always seek God. 

“If they do that and they seek His will, they will find true happiness, even in the hardest of days,” Lawler said. “That’s my prayer. My husband and I pray this all the time. ... God knows a lot more than I ever will.” 

Discerning a vocation

To inquire about a priestly vocation in the Archdiocese of Detroit, schedule a discernment weekend or speak to Fr. Craig Giera, director of priestly vocations, visit