Carrying out ministry at the altar

By Patricia Kasten | January 8, 2015

Thus says the Lord: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit …” (Is 42:1).

This is the first of the four “Servant Songs” of Isaiah. As Christians, we view each of these songs in reference to Jesus. For ancient Israel, though, the servant was Israel itself, God’s Chosen People.

There are servants at Mass today. OK, they aren’t called servants; they are altar servers.
Did you notice the servers? How they dress? What they do?

Servants of any sort are often invisible. At least, good servants are. If they are clumsy, poorly dressed or not paying attention, they’ll be noticed.

But servants who “know their stuff,” usually go unseen. Still their work is crucial.

The priest is the celebrant of the Mass. Sometimes he is assisted by a deacon. But he is always aided by at least one server. On Sundays and important feasts, there are usually at least two servers.

Remember when altar servers were “altar boys?” Men and women, as well as children are now allowed to serve at the altar. As the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy wrote in 1994, “No distinction should be made between the functions carried out in the sanctuary by men and boys and those carried out by women and girls. The term ‘altar boys’ should be replaced by ‘servers.’”

There is still a ministry called “acolyte.” While an acolyte often functions as an altar server, acolytes are trained to perform additional functions, if needed. The formal ministry of “acolyte” is reserved for males. Acolytes often assist a bishop.

Requirements for all altar servers include being “mature enough to understand their responsibilities and to carry them out well and with appropriate reverence” and to have received first Communion.

On Sundays and feast days, servers will be marked by special attire. First and foremost is the alb, the long, white garment every baptized Christian is entitled to wear. Altar servers also wear a belt, called a cincture, which must be the liturgical color of the day. (This Sunday, it will be white for the Baptism of the Lord.) Some altar servers may wear a surplice — a dark-colored garment with no cincture and a lace over-garment. The history of the surplice is more recent and a bit unclear; it seems to have developed in the early part of the last millennium for processional use.

Altar servers, according to the General Instructions of the Roman Missal, “assist the priest and the deacon; these carry the cross, candles, thurible, bread, wine and water” (n. 100) and they also present the book to the priest. Altar servers are stationed near the priest during Mass, so they “can easily carry out his/her ministry at the chair or at the altar” (n. 189).

At times, in the absence of a deacon, servers place the linens, chalice and Missal on the altar, assist in receiving the gifts, and, if there is incense used, the server may even incense the priest and people.

And, of course, altar servers pray. In fact, they should pray the loudest of all, leading the rest of us in serving God through praise and worship.

Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of two books: “Linking Your Beads: The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers” and “Making Sense of Saints.”

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