The laborers are still worthy of their hire — so give them something to do!

An altar server prepares a censer for use during a Mass on July 1, 2021, at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, N.Y. (Gregory A. Shemitz | CNS photo)

Last issue’s tale of St. Tarcisius, patron saint of altar servers, reminded me of my own altar service, lasting from 1958 to 1970 at Christ the King Parish in Hollywood, Calif. We vested in festive red cassocks for all Sundays of the year save Advent, Lent, and funerals, when black cassocks were worn.

Back then, we acolytes performed many duties after learning the Latin Mass responses. We were shown the locations of the Low Mass candles and the tall candlelighters, bells, cruets for water and wine, the fingerbowl and towel, patens and altar cards. We also were expected to prepare the incenser and incense boat. We learned to light charcoal for the incenser 15 minutes before Requiem Masses, or for the ceremony of Benediction following novenas, Stations of the Cross, or for the annual Forty Hours devotion.

Solemn High Mass, celebrated on Christmas, Palm Sunday, the Feast of Christ the King, and Easter Sunday, together with the complexities of the Easter Vigil ceremonies, entailed thorough rehearsals. Older boys, including my brother Sandy, who’d been through these rituals already, helped the priests instruct the younger boys, as an earlier generation had instructed them.

Assisting the sexton, we removed the green felt cover protecting the linen cloths if we had to set up the altar for the first Mass of the day, replacing it after the last Mass. We gathered the small votive candles and scraped out the wicks stuck in wax. We might even separate palm leaves the Saturday before Palm Sunday. Becoming familiar with the parish routine, we discovered a sense of place within the parish family.

In the late 1950s, Msgr. Peter John Corcoran, Christ the King’s founding pastor, entrusted our supervision to Fr. Thomas McGovern, decidedly Irish, with a cheerfully round face and ready smile. He always thanked us after Mass before removing his vestments.

Fr. McGovern’s appreciation took a more substantial form when we performed particularly difficult jobs well, such as when I was 10. I was the only server to show up for devotions followed by Benediction one Saturday afternoon. Reverently bustling about, I handled incenser, bells, cope and humeral veil with aplomb.

Afterward, while thanking me in his hearty brogue, Fr. McGovern turned out his pocket. I still recall the silver cascade of quarters, dimes and nickels falling into my hands: $1.40.

Popsicles, Superman comics, bicycle decals and Adams magic tricks then cost only a dime each. Wimpy’s stand just up the street sold burgers for 30¢, and Mrs. Goods’ Donut Shop sold its wares for a nickel. By 1960 standards, $1.40 was a veritable fortune to a kid.

Emptying the church’s six poor boxes was another of our tasks. They were located under each of the six statues in the nave. The poor boxes consisted of slotted oval brass plates set flush against the walls into which coins or bills were shoved. The money dropped down a brass tube within the wall, and plopped into small, thick-sided wooden boxes on the floor. Unlocking an iron grill in the baseboard, the box was pulled forward on wide, steel tracks like a railroad car to be emptied. How deliciously mysterious it all was!

In the rear, under St. Anne’s statue, the plaster surrounding the brass plate had been broken away in a bungled burglary attempt. An ever-widening hole exposed the tube within the wall. For years, a blank matchbook cover dangled below the slot on which Msgr. Corcoran had written “Burglar Alarm” with his fountain pen. I wasn’t fooled.

My friend, Loren Lindo, and I were on poor box detail one Sunday after the noon Mass.

He carried a small canvas bank bag into which I dumped the money. We seldom got more than two or three dollars from any one box. Folding money was rare. Twenty-five dollars total was considered a windfall.

Pickings from St. Anne’s poor box, the only one surrounded by thick cobwebs within the wall, were always meager. This day, having pulled the box along its track to empty it, I caught a gleam within the dark recess. Squelching my fear of black widow spiders I reached around the box — and found a fifty-cent piece! The back of my hand brushed against something that wasn’t spider-silk, so I pulled it out, too. It was a five-dollar bill folded in fours.

Excited, Loren reached in and hauled out a fistful of change. Removing the box to get a better view, we beheld Fort Knox. Over the years shortsighted ladies and elderly men with palsied hands had missed the slot and dropped their offerings into the gap in the plaster.

In the sacristy, Fr. McGovern, amazed at the more than $80 we had unearthed, thanked us profusely. He promptly took two five-dollar bills from the pile of money, insisting that Loren take one and I the other, with his compliments. As members of the parish family we understood the gesture and appreciatively accepted the reward.

By the way, one might suppose the rest of this found money would go to repair the plaster, but Msgr. Corcoran was a scrupulous, hardheaded Irishman. The windfall went into the account for the poor. The hole was not repaired until after he retired two years later.

Now, a note to pastors and associates: in many parishes, altar servers are losing their sense of place in the parish family. Please give them more responsibilities.

Instill a sense of continuity by having older servers teach the younger ones. Adults, many of whom have never been acolytes, explain servers’ duties from books and certification classes. It’s not the same thing.

Altar service still belongs to altar servers. How can serving be a source of priestly vocations if acolytes don‘t own their proper liturgical functions, are given no real duties, and don’t know the parish routine?

Today, the servers process in and out carrying the processional cross and candles. They may hold the candles on either side of the ambo during the reading of the Gospel. They present the water and wine to the celebrant; and may hold the Missal for him to read from. Incense is seldom used now. So servers aren’t taught when to light the charcoal, let alone how to hold the thurible. What’s left really is not enough activity to form a ministry.

Special Ministers of Holy Communion often cause liturgical role confusion. They encroach on the few functions left altar servers by standing around the sanctuary taking empty ciboria to the sacristy for washing.

The Instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004), says plainly, “All, whether ordained ministers or lay faithful, in exercising their own office or ministry should do exclusively and fully that which pertains to them.”

Ministers should minister. Servers should serve: the rule is that easy.

Educate your children about altar service. Familiarize them with the parish routine. Heartily thank them for jobs well done.

It’s a privilege to serve at the altar of the Lord. If soccer is more important to some kids, drop them from the roster. Invite the rest out for pizza. Or to a ball game. Take their parents, too. The laborers are still worthy of their hire.

And keep in mind, Jesus always insisted that children are the most important members of His kingdom.

Sean M. Wright, MA, award-winning essayist, Emmy nominee, and Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is a parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Santa Clarita. he answers comments at [email protected].



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