Five kinds of altar servers that are killing priestly vocations...

Why do we need servers at all?

Before diving into my argument about how certain servers kill priestly vocations, let me make one thing clear. Servers are not absolutely necessary to the Mass. The Mass is a participation in the eternal sacrifice. In as much as this is the case, everything that we do on earth is merely a reflection of what already takes place in eternity. The only person necessary for the Mass to take place is a validly ordained priest, who stands as mediator in persona Christi (in the person of Christ). The altar server is necessary for the sake of reflecting more fully and fittingly the eternal divine liturgy. Therefore, if the server does a poor job and takes away from this imagery, it is better for the sake of the faithful that no servers are used at all. Fr. Dwight Longenecker, in his address to altar servers does a nice job explaining the role of the server:

Our worship on earth reflects the worship in heaven. What we do here at the holy sacrifice of the Mass is a kind of distant echo of what goes on in heaven. There, the Lamb of God is offered in one timeless and eternal sacrifice. There the saints and angels worship around the throne of the Lamb. In that city there is no sun, moon, or stars, for the Lamb Himself is the light of that city. This altar you see here is a reflection of the altar in heaven. This chalice is a sign of the eternal Precious Blood of the Lamb. This host is, on earth, the sign of the Eternal Bread of heaven. The priest is an icon of Christ the Lord — and who are you? You represent and reflect on earth the heavenly host... That’s why we have children serve the Mass if we can, because you children remind us adults of what the Lord Jesus said: “Unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” So just by being children you remind us what we must be like to become like the saints and angels.
(Read the full text)

Secondly, let me make clear that the majority of seminarians used to be servers. The number one ministry in the Church that contributes to priestly vocations is altar serving. Every year newly ordained priests are surveyed, and every year the number of priests who used to be servers hovers around 75%. It is not a shocking number. There is a natural progression of ministries. It begins with altar server and moves to priesthood. The problem is that we have a problem getting young boys and men to serve in the first place. So, what are we doing to ensure that more young boys and men get the chance to serve? And what sort of things prevent young boys and men from serving? Here is my list of five kinds of servers that take away from the natural progression toward priesthood:

The Overzealous Adult Server

Although today we are seeing an influx of 'second career' vocations, the majority of vocations are called at a high school and college level. Generally, they are referred to in the Church as the "youth," which is anywhere between 16-35 years of age. So, in order to draw more youth into the seminary, they ought to serve anywhere between 7-35 years of age, and the younger the better. Discernment does not start as an adult. We often times hear our call from an early age. So, we should encourage young boys to serve as early as possible and start fostering an openness to priestly life. 

The overzealous adult server (OAS) is one that show up infrequently, but nevertheless, does great harm to early discernment.  The OAS shows up to Mass early, helps the sacristan (or is the sacristan), and then decides that he is going to serve. His heart is usually in the right place. He wants to help as much as possible. He wants to make sure that the Mass is beautiful, but he often fills a role that can be filled by someone who is in the early stages of discernment.

When someone shows up to serve, he might say, "It's ok. I can serve for you if you don't want to," or "Don't worry so-and-so we have enough servers today." It is perfectly acceptable to have more than two or three servers. Consideration should always be made for as many servers as you can fit in the sanctuary. Each server can and should perform a different function, e.g. one server should be solely concerned with the Missal, another with the candles, another with the thurible, another with the lavabo, etc... In fact, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal requires this, when it is possible:
All, therefore, whether ordained ministers or lay Christian faithful, in fulfilling their function or their duty, should carry out solely but totally that which pertains to them. (GIRM 91)... If there are several present who are able to exercise the same ministry, nothing forbids their distributing among themselves and performing different parts of the same ministry or duty... However, it is not at all appropriate that several persons divide a single element of the celebration among themselves, e.g., that the same reading be proclaimed by two readers, one after the other, with the exception of the Passion of the Lord. If at a Mass with the people only one minister is present, that minister may exercise several different functions. (GIRM 109-110)
Generally, these rules are written for ordained ministers. As you can see, however, from the first line, "All, therefore, whether ordained ministers or lay Christian faithful..." this rule extends, therefore, even to servers. Following Fr. Longenecker's logic, the servers represent the angelic host, different servers representing different choirs of angels and each choir performing a different function.

This should also not be taken to mean that it is never appropriate for adults to serve. In cases where there is an insufficient number of servers, adults are quite necessary. Furthermore, they can fill a much needed role as Master of Ceremonies (MC). MCs take a central role in directing servers from within the liturgy. A good MC directs not only servers but the priest and deacon as well.

Acolytes are generally seminarians instituted in preparation for diaconate. "The acolyte is instituted for service at the altar and to assist the Priest and Deacon. It is his place principally to prepare the altar and the sacred vessels and, if necessary, to distribute the Eucharist to the faithful as an extraordinary minister." In the progression from server to cleric, it is the last step before diaconal ordination. The acolyte is an altar server much like the MC. In fact, the MC usually performs the functions of the acolyte when he is not present. The MC, however, should not distribute Communion. When both an MC and acolyte are present, the MC does nothing more than direct liturgical traffic. Good MCs lead to good servers, which in turn leads to more vocations.

The Sloppy Server

The Sloppy Server is one who cannot keep his act together while serving. Maybe the poor fella' suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder. Maybe he has just never been properly educated about the role an altar server plays in the liturgy. Maybe it is simply some combination of the two. Whatever the reason is, the Sloppy Server is a distraction. He plays with his cincture and is constantly adjusting his alb. He has suddenly discovered he has cuticles and has a deep scientific interest in them. There is a song playing in his head and he compulsively sways to the beat of it. His Nike® basketball shoes are untied and his cassock is too small, showing the slightest bit of leg so that you know he is wearing shorts (you hope). His hands are never joined prayerfully. He is sleeping in the corner of the sanctuary during the first and second readings. He is simply a hopeless cause and ought to be commended to the intercession of St. Jude.

Then again, maybe he is not so hopeless after all. Maybe this young man has a vocation to the priesthood stirring within him somewhere deep down inside. It is locked up in a room that no one has bothered to open. It is not his fault he cannot stay focused. He has nothing to do. The pastor has eliminated nearly every server role other than holding the Missal and washing the hands. 

I think you get the picture. The Sloppy Server is probably one of the most common servers we see today. With the right training he would probably develop a sense of the necessity of his duties. He might actually learn that all the little things he does has meaning, and the things that he should not do take away from that meaning. Meaningful actions are very rarely boring. They engage our attention and put us into a sort of trance. 

Anyone who has ever trained servers or been trained as servers knows that there is a tendency to set aside the meaning and focus on the usefulness or practicality of altar serving. At parishes where the servers still ring bells at the consecration (yes, there are some parishes where this does not happen), how often is this action explained as, "We ring the bells to get everybody's attention because this is the most important part of the Mass, Jesus is now present." Setting aside the fact that this is not the most important part of the Mass, we have failed to explain why we use bells. Why not a fog horn? The meaning has been left out and the practicality has become central. 

To paraphrase Fr. Robert Barron, the Mass is the most useless and therefore the most important thing that we do. The idea is that it is not done for some practical or useful purpose. The Mass is simply the worship of God. It is done for no other reason. God does not need our worship. It is done solely to express our great desire and love for the Author of Creation. It is a thing of profoundest meaning and completely impractical. 

The key corrective to the sloppy server is meaning. Meaning and importance are tied to each other so tightly that our entire life becomes a sort of gospel about what is most meaningful to us. If we teach the meaningfulness of the Mass to the servers, we might just end up with a couple of them dedicating their lives to God, His Church, and the Mass in priesthood.

The Tyranno-server rex

The T. rex Server is in charge, he is a tyrant king, as the name implies. As I pointed out in section on the OAS, duties are to be divided up among many servers and "in fulfilling their function or their duty, should carry out solely but totally that which pertains to them." The T. rex Server dominates everything. He carries the processional cross, holds the book, rings the bells swings the incense, and all to the exclusion of other servers. 

Tyranno-server-rex eats unconfident, poorly trained servers for breakfast. You have no right stepping foot in his domain unless you are his equal. If you have not received enough training to fulfill duties flawlessly, step aside. The T. rex server is dedicated to serving properly and beautifully. He strives for excellence and orthodoxy. He, however, lacks true charity. Real charity is not exclusive. It is a gathering force. A so-called "orthodoxy" that lacks charity is a cheap imitation of true orthodoxy. So, in his attempt to please God, because of his exclusion and domination he fails to obey the rubrics of the Church and fails to please God.

The skilled server ought to teach, train, and encourage less skilled servers. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, "It is better to illuminate than to shine..." The philosophical principle, "The good is self-diffusive," means that charity cannot help unite. A server who wants to please God cannot help but teach, train, and encourage less skilled servers, whereby he draws them closer to God. Sharing knowledge of the meaningfulness is maybe one of the most important things that a skilled server can do. 

A good server draws other young men to serve at the altar. The more male servers, the more likely more young men start discernment early. Early discernment is particularly effective when it is accompanied by skilled servers who are charitable and inclusive. This is why the Tyranno-server rex is so harmful to priestly vocations.

The Alb Server

There are three different paragraphs that set the rule for what altar servers are to wear. I will admit in advance that the rule is for altar servers, and others, to "wear the alb or other appropriate and dignified clothing," e.g. the cassock and surplice. This seems to indicate that the primary and suggested attire for the altar server is the alb. That being the case, it should be made clear that there is no provision made for additions to the alb, such as a cross on a necklace, other than the cincture. In the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the law is:
339. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, acolytes, altar servers, readers, and other lay ministers may wear the alb or other appropriate and dignified clothing.
This law is adapted from the Latin, which states:
339. Acolythi, lectores, aliique ministri laici albam vel aliam vestem in singulis regionibus a Conferentia Episcoporum legitime probatam induere possunt.
339. Acolytes, lectores, and other lay ministers wear the alb or they may wear something else legitimately approved in each region by the Conference of Bishops.
This law proceeds from paragraph 336, which states (emphasis mine):
336. The sacred garment common to all ordained and instituted ministers of any rank is the alb, to be tied at the waist with a cincture unless it is made so as to fit even without such. Before the alb is put on, should this not completely cover the ordinary clothing at the neck, an amice should be used.
Altar servers, however, unless they are instituted acolytes, are not "instituted ministers." Altar servers are deputed lay ministers not instituted lay ministers. It is important to keep in mind that "the non-ordained faithful do not have a right to service at the altar, rather they are capable of being admitted to such service by the Sacred Pastors. (Notitiae - 421-422 Vol 37 (2001) Num/ 8-9 - pp 397-399)" Instituted ministers have an obligation to service that deputed lay ministers do not. For this reason, when an instituted lector is present, a lay reader should not read. 

The alb, according to the Universal Church, is proper to bishops, priests, deacons, acolytes, and lectors, not to servers, readers, cantors, and the like. Regional law (p. 339 in the Dioceses of the United States) extends this vestment to altar servers, readers, and other deputed lay ministers. According to p.336 the the original unadapted text of p.339 should be understood like this, acolytes and lectors wear the alb, but they and other lay ministers may also wear something else legitimately approved. This rendering does not imply that the regional Conference of Bishops does not have the authority to extend that privilege. They do. Unfortunately, extending that privilege does not seem faithful to the first paragraph in the series on the matter, which states (emphasis mine):
335. In the Church, which is the Body of Christ, not all members have the same function. This diversity of offices is shown outwardly in the celebration of the Eucharist by the diversity of sacred vestments, which must therefore be a sign of the function proper to each minister. 
Continuing then with the subsequent paragraphs, 339 seems out of place: 
336. The sacred garment common to all ordained and instituted ministers of any rank is the alb, to be tied at the waist with a cincture unless it is made so as to fit even without such. Before the alb is put on, should this not completely cover the ordinary clothing at the neck, an amice should be used.
339. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, acolytes, altar servers, readers, and other lay ministers may wear the alb or other appropriate and dignified clothing.
My argument seems to favor the alb, in this sense: If the alb is the proper vestment of the ordained, servers who wear the alb should feel more priestly and should identify themselves more closely with the priest, right? No. Servers wearing albs conflates, visually, the offices and functions of the ministers, deputed, instituted, and ordained. In doing this, each office loses its meaning and becomes a matter of utility. When this happens, there is no longer an ordered trajectory towards the priesthood. Rather, the server feels more like he is bussing a table than filling an office.

In that case, there is no identification with the priesthood. Only when there is a hierarchical structure of servers duties and a visual distinction between the highest duty and the lowest instituted office will there be a sense of priestly identity. The server needs to feel as though he is getting closer to the priesthood in order to discern his vocation. By drawing closer to the priesthood, his own identity is juxtaposed with the identity of the High Priest Himself.

The Female Server

This is always the most controversial issue of all. If you say that you are not in favor of female servers, you are automatically and erroneously pegged as a chauvinist. Trust me, I am no chauvinist. If I can nuance my position enough, maybe you will agree with me, not on the matter of whether or not there ought to be female servers, but simply regarding priestly vocations. 

The Church has taken a stance on priestly ordination of women. No one should be so deluded as to think that the Church, who has not changed Her position on the fact that God is Triune since Her inception, is going to change that stance now or ever. That being the case, anyone concerned about the decline in numbers of priestly ordinations since the 1960s should make every provision to ensure that every male Catholic asks the question sometime in their life whether or not God is calling them to priesthood. 

I have already expressed my position that more servers equals more discernment. So, let me go one step further. The more you serve the Mass, the more you discern a priestly vocation. The more you identify yourself as a server, the more you identify yourself on that trajectory towards priesthood. So, just as with the OAS, room should be made for young, male servers. 

On this matter, the Church has said (Notitiae - 421-422 Vol 37 (2001) Num/ 8-9 - pp 397-399)
"It will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar" (Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conference, March 15, 1994, no. 2). Indeed, the obligation to support groups of altar boys will always remain, not least of all due to the well known assistance that such programs have provided since time immemorial in encouraging future priestly vocations (cf. ibid.)
Therefore, even though there is nothing theologically or ontologically that can prevent female servers, we ought to keep in mind that altar servers more than any other group or ministry contribute the greatest numbers of men to priestly discernment. Moreover, their discernment often times begins as servers. Logic and basic mathematics demands more than any theological argument that male servers should be the norm.

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