ALTAR serving competes against the array of attractive sporting and cultural activities available for our children today.
Swimming, soccer and tae kwon do promise the benefits of physical health, teamwork and general wellbeing while rugby, dancing and fishing sell outcomes that have found their way into the deep-set cultural and popular assumptions of our society.
What about altar serving?
Others may even ask: what’s that? What does it give to a child?
Many years ago, when I told my friends I was going to enter the Marist seminary, I was barraged with questions full of materialistic undertones: “What do you get from it?”, “How much money will you make?”
It was depressing. I yelled back at them with the premise that life is not all about what you get from places but it is about happiness that you feel when you give to people.
I argued that there was inexplicable joy that exuded from giving.
I’d say it’s a similar sense of joy that a child gets from serving at Mass.
But if we really examine the benefits of altar serving to a child which may be on par with the rest of the choices available in the market, what may they be?
First and foremost, the skills of concentration and being in sync with the flow of an event are tested and put into practise.
Mass is a liturgical celebration of words and actions that represent a variety of meanings from Catholic teaching and tradition.
Altar servers have to pay attention as to when to give the wine and hosts, ring the bell or process back to the entrance of the church.
They also have to pay attention when to kneel, stand, sing, not sing or hold the lectionary for the priest, and remember the cues associated with each action, as missing it may mean ineffective duty and sometimes bears slight embarrassment.
Importantly, they are expected to concentrate on the words and actions within the restriction that, generally, no discussion is allowed.
The show is on and so you must perform your role and perform it quietly but attentively in a social and spiritual environment – a specialised skill.
Concentrating, paying attention and being in sync are highly sought-after skills from competent people today.
Furthermore, the enjoyment of being able to prepare appropriate vestment colours, including dressing up to specific liturgical seasons, to select suitable vessels, and decorate the church for the themes of the liturgy, even as simple as lighting a candle or getting ready for the crucifix to be processed, are tactile experiences that can engage a child.
These activities require application of previous knowledge and a sense of aesthetics within the context of the liturgy or ritual.
Children are challenged to recall meanings, selecting from options, matching suitable items, looking for balance, adhering to expectation, prioritising for what’s more relevant, not to mention the fun from being able to wear outfits of religious and community significance.
It is a series of experiences that come from a combination of religious, transcendental, cultural and aesthetic knowledge and understanding that sporting activities may not be able to exactly replicate.
Third, the involvement of parents, teachers, friends and community members in the liturgy provides a deeper sense of belonging, identity and perhaps security for the child.
In most sporting activity, parents are reduced to mere spectators whereas at Mass or other liturgical celebrations, family members are participants, which is more satisfying for the child.
Fourth, the stimulation of the senses of hearing, seeing, smelling, touching and tasting in the public celebration of the liturgy shows the versatility of the activities.
Examples of those instances include: hearing the beautiful choral ensemble of the choir, smelling the perfumes of the incense, touching the Bible and the eucharistic vessels and tasting a small amount of bread and wine filled with meanings.
The psychological or experiential appeal of the activities may prove to be wholesome and engaging for the teenager.
Fifth, children’s sense of occasion and awareness of growth or cycle in the seasons are deepened.
Christmas, Lent, Palm Sunday, Easter, the feast of Christ the King and other significant events in the Church calendar do help kids understand elements of permanence, change, consistency and dynamism.
Changes in season reflect the different times, mood, prayer and events in life.
Narratives associated in these seasons inject meaning into those realities.
Altar serving in sacrament-based liturgies such as baptism, weddings or First Communion can introduce children into a sense of growing up, community, relationship, family, roles, identities, love, courage, hope and faith.
Furthermore, other liturgies such as funeral or anointing of the sick may bring more profound experiences for altar servers that an ordinary classroom or sporting field may not provide.
These experiences, including the homily of the priest can give the child rich soil for personal reflection towards more mature inspiration, memories and illumination for what is happiness and the meaning of life.
Catholic parents and other adults who have children under their care know that altar serving for children offers far more wholesome knowledge, experience and reflection than simply being at the altar.
On any suspicion that one day they’ll turn out to be interested in becoming a priest or a nun, then perhaps if that happens, they’re meant to be.
Altar serving is an extra-curricular activity that offers true and deep life-long skills for our children.
By Erwin Cabucos
Erwin Cabucos teaches at Brigidine College, Indooroopilly. He was a sacristan at his parish in Southern Philippines before studying at Australian Catholic University, Banyo.