Every so often the issue of altar serving comes into question, as it has again recently. There is an ongoing, extensive debate over who should be serving—boys alone, or boys and girls. Various recent articles taking opposite sides of the issue provide some insight into the arguments on both sides. I think both sides make fair points, but picking among those two factions is not the focus of this column.
The bigger concern about altar serving, as far as I am concerned, is how to keep kids – and I am going to focus on young men in particular – engaged during high school. Speaking to a few people at different parishes, it seems common that young men in high school often decide to no longer serve.
Disinterest in Serving at the Altar
Determining why young men no longer want to serve is important. For some it may be that they no longer find it a “cool” thing to do. High school is about becoming someone new, to some extent, and shedding the grade school persona. This is understandable on some level, but it is a shame that some of our communities may not be properly framing the service to our Lord as something that is cool, and thus altar service is one thing given up by young men.
Another reason I have heard discussed is that young men do not want to serve with young boys and girls, reaching all the way down into the low grades at some parishes. If I were a ninth and tenth grader, I could see how serving with younger kids would be less appealing, and how one might feel a little too old as a young man serving in a position at the same level as young kids.
Still an additional reason is there can be too many, and the role no longer seems to be an honor, or special. For a grade school student, doing something new and different is exciting. But as time wears on and kids age, the special nature of serving ebbs and may get old altogether. This could be happening for a variety of reasons: tepid parental support, weak encouragement from pastors, too few male mentors among sacristans and deacons, and societal pressures. It could also be that their parents have not been well catechized, and thus cannot effectively explain the importance of faith and service to a son becoming more inquisitive. And, of course, the son may just no longer want to serve.
It was suggested to me that teen Masses may also be a culprit, not only in drawing young men away from service, but setting them apart even from regular Sunday morning Mass with their own families. While teen Masses try hard to appeal to teens, many parents contend they miss their mark by diluting the reverence and sacredness of the Mass in favor of trying to be trendy. In doing so it is thus easy to comprehend why young men would not want to serve while being the focus of a congregation full of their peers. There is just too much social risk; avoidance seems the easy way out.
Perhaps a final possibility is that young men do not want to serve with girls or young women. While I can see this as perhaps a reason for boys not wanting to serve with girls in the first place, I do not believe it bears much weight with regard to young men no longer serving their parish who have already served with girls for several years. Boys typically become more comfortable around girls in high school, not less so.
Altar Serving Disinterest: Some Propositions
At my parish in Phoenix, we have over one hundred-sixty altar servers, both boys and girls. We start server training in the fourth grade. We are a parish of about seventeen hundred families, and have an accompanying grade school. Our standard altar serving arrangement is to have seven altar servers and a sacristan. We have five weekend Masses and one school Mass during the week, providing many opportunities to serve. Not all parishes are so blessed to have as many available servers, and my parish does a wonderful job training and allocating positions, yet we seem to be losing servers in high school. According to my research, we lose almost all of the girls when they graduate from eighth grade, but some boys remain longer. Eventually we lose the boys too. I have witnessed this at other parishes as well.
So how do we address this issue? It will vary somewhat from diocese to diocese and parish to parish, as each diocese and parish has different demographics and service requirements. In the case of having too many though, there seems to be some obvious solutions available. One would be to limit the service of girls serving at the altar – a solution that certainly has historical and magisterial precedence. Another solution would be to limit the grades and ages that are allowed to serve. If there are many servers and too few serving opportunities (with parishes finding themselves being creative on how to use them), then perhaps limiting access to serving would be wise. Still another possibility would be to eliminate the ability to obtain service hours for serving that some parishes allow. Service hours are wonderful and should certainly be encouraged by schools and parishes, but perhaps service on the altar should be limited to those truly seeking to serve their Lord. A final suggestion I have heard is having the older servers serve together at a certain Mass, so they are not serving with the younger kids.
But how would these changes help keep young men serving? Raising the service grade or age would allow young men a greater opportunity to serve with their peers, and not kids many years their juniors. Limiting or eliminating girls would certainly make altar serving special to young men, as there are fewer and fewer opportunities in society where young men can shine on their own. Consider the fact that having female altar servers is a novel idea in the Church (ca. 1994).
Another possibility, in addition to making service a bit more restrictive, is making it more attractive to young men who not only want to serve, but who have shown an aptitude for doing so. In many dioceses, sacristans are required to be at least eighteen years old. So that opportunity is not yet available for most young men in high school. My suggestion for the last couple years has been to create a «Junior Sacristan» position in parishes. At least in the Diocese of Phoenix, pastors have the discretion to create such positions.
In creating a Junior Sacristan position, it would allow young men to graduate to a more senior position in their parish. It would bridge the gap between altar serving in grade school and becoming a sacristan in college, when they would finally be eligible. It would, in theory, prevent the loss of many high school aged young men by giving them a position of honor and responsibility, which most young men truly seek and I would argue need on their way to becoming true men. Such a position would also allow them to do something unique that would only be available to those who show prowess. And the scarcer an opportunity is, often the more attractive it becomes.
Making the Junior Sacristan position identifiable would also be helpful in many respects. This could be done with something as simple as a medallion or an arm band. Or perhaps a pin of some sort would suffice. But whatever the identifier, having one would help sacristans, deacons, priests, and parishioners immediately understand who among those serving has the most experience, and can be trusted to more sacristan-level activities. It would also allow them to stand out among altar servers, much the way deacons and priests have their own identifiers. After years of reliable service, and having shown an aptitude, this would seem a fitting reward and honor for an aspiring young man.
Having Junior Sacristans would be beneficial for a few other reasons as well. It would help keep continuity among the servers at the various Masses, and allow them to mentor new servers. They would be the go-to guys for important Masses where more experienced servers are desired, and they could fill in when sacristans are unavailable. And perhaps most importantly, it would allow young men to serve Christ and work with their pastors more closely while potentially considering a vocation.
In 2001, Pope Saint John Paul II addressed altar servers at a General Audience, saying:
The altar server has a privileged place in liturgical celebrations. Those who serve at Mass present themselves to a community. They experience from close at hand that Jesus Christ is present and active in every liturgy… Therefore in the liturgy you are far more than mere “helpers of the parish priest”. Above all, you are servants of Jesus Christ, the eternal High Priest. Thus you altar servers especially are called to be young friends of Jesus. Strive to deepen and foster this friendship with him. You will discover that in Jesus you have found a true friend for life.
Clearly young men who serve at the altar are more likely to consider a vocation. In the 2013 survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), of the 366 ordained priests responding, 67% had been altar servers. In 2012, 75% had been servers; in 2011, 71%. Finding ways to keep young men interested in Christ and His Church through continuous service at the altar would only seem to help in that regard.
Whatever the reason young men no longer desire to serve, I believe it is something that Catholics – both clergy and lay – need to address. Young men almost to a man need Christ more in high school than at any time before, and we seem to be losing too many of our young men. I would argue that young women also benefit greatly when young men remain close to Christ. Parish communities need to focus on creating a culture of volunteer – not required – service at their parishes, especially among the young. We should seek ways to bolster the image and prestige of altar serving. Continuing altar service in high school is important, not only for service to Christ at the altar, and to further the potential for vocations, but also for the spiritual development of the young men themselves.