Back around Christmastime, the priests at our parish started running announcements in the weekly bulletin, asking all males of any age to prayerfully consider becoming altar servers. Altar servers were in short supply, particularly for the weekday Masses.
From time to time, I attend the 6:30 am Mass before heading to work, and I’d witnessed the altar server shortage on a number of occasions. In fact, not too long ago, there was no altar server available twice in the same week. And while the Sunday Masses usually have younger men serving at the altar — even boys as young as 8 or 9 years old — it’s hard to find young people who are available during the week. As a result, the weekday Masses typically have adult servers.
The first Sunday I saw the announcement, I did prayerfully consider it — for about 30 seconds. Then I was distracted, and my mind and heart moved on to other things.
The second Sunday I saw the announcement, Kathryn saw it too. That started some dialogue between the two of us. She seemed to think it would be an appropriate way for me to serve the parish. I met the basic qualifications: I was male, I had two arms and two legs, and I was healthy enough to kneel for extended periods of time. Moreover, having had some facility for learning languages when I was younger, we seemed to agree I could overcome the challenge of memorizing some rather lengthy walls of text in Latin. After our initial dialogue, though, I again did nothing.
The third Sunday I saw the announcement, I finally acted — immediately, before something distracted me again. I pulled out my phone in church — something I rarely do, but Mass hadn’t begun yet — and tapped out a quick e-mail to the priests, letting them know I was ready to serve but needed to learn how. One of the priests responded two days later — they were both very busy with Epiphany house blessings at the time — and offered to train me.
I had three hour-long training sessions with the priest, most of which ended up being one-on-one, since there was no one else at the time who needed to start from the beginning. Mostly we focused on gestures, posture, and movements around the altar, all of which were new to me. I practiced memorizing the Latin on my own time — at home, at the gym, at work, in the car — so that the priest could just focus on correcting my pronunciation where needed.
I specifically learned the Low Mass with one server, as that was the greatest need for the parish. Ironically, I still don’t know how to serve the Low Mass with two servers, even though it’s roughly half as much work for each server.
There was one session where I did share the priest with a couple of young boys who were working on their Latin. I was talking to one of their fathers before the session, and he had assumed I had a son who was in training. I set him straight that, no, I was the altar boy in training. It was kind of charming that the priest, who normally addresses me by my first name, would call me “Mr. Gilman” around the boys. I’m not sure the boys were entirely comfortable having a fellow student who was almost 40 years older and sporting a grey beard.
The third session was sort of a dress rehearsal. It was my first time wearing a cassock and surplice, although I did try a few on for size during the previous session. I immediately gained a new respect for women who can walk around looking elegant wearing a floor-length gown. I stammered a little with some of the Latin verses, and I missed one visual cue at the altar, but after the rehearsal, the priest felt confident I was ready.
That was a few weeks ago, so I let the volunteer coordinator know I was ready to serve in March. Our parish uses an app to schedule altar servers, so I filled in my availability, and when the March schedule was posted, I had been assigned the 6:30 am Mass every Monday of the month. Apparently, the Monday morning Mass is one of their most challenging spots to fill.
During the dress rehearsal, the cassock that fit me best didn’t really fit well at all, and it had seen better days. Last week, I decided to buy my own cassock. As it turns out, cassocks have their own sizing chart, which bears no resemblance to any garment sizing chart I’ve ever seen before. Apparently, I’m a size 17. Well, not exactly a size 17, as I’ll describe later.
When Monday morning arrived this week, I was determined to get to the church with plenty of time to spare. Usually, if I’m planning to attend a 6:30 am Mass, it’s sufficient to leave my house by 5:50, putting me at the church around 6:20 in typical morning traffic. However, I’ve also left at 5:50 and missed the entire Mass because of crashes on the freeway. This time I wasn’t taking any chances. I left the house at 5:20, putting me in the church parking lot way too early at around 5:55. I sat in the car for about ten minutes, long enough to be sure the priest was in the confessional and that anyone gathered in the church had already begun their daily Rosary.
As I approached the altar, I realized I’d never learned how to unlatch the gate on the communion rail. I made an obnoxious amount of noise before realizing it was already unlatched; I just needed to push it open. After Mass I also learned the side door to the sacristy had been unlocked, so I could have avoided the gate altogether. However, crossing the altar did give me an opportunity to have a look around and see what was ready and not ready.
I slipped back into the sacristy, donned my cassock and a surplice, recited my altar server prayers, and checked my watch. It was still only 6:10. When I arrived, I had noticed the wine and holy water cruets were not in the nook, so I took them out of the refrigerator and placed them where they belonged. Now it was 6:15. I started pacing nervously back and forth in the sacristy.
Around 6:20, I could hear the folks in the church had wrapped up the Rosary, so I lit the altar candles — just two for a Low Mass — and turned on the altar lights. Then I returned to pacing, except now I was getting sick to my stomach.
At 6:25, right on schedule, Father finished hearing confessions and came back to the sacristy. He looked at me, and I looked at him. We both smiled, and I said, “I’m going to go ahead and apologize right now.”
Father quizzed me a bit to make sure I was ready, which had the effect of relaxing me somewhat because I answered correctly. He said his prayers, and I completely botched my response — I would also later botch the response when we returned to the sacristy. With a little holy water on our fingers, I rang the bell at the sacristy door to start Mass, and there was no going back.
As I’ve shared my training experience with family and friends, a few people have asked me just how much Latin an altar server needs to memorize. Well, the Mass starts with prayers at the foot of the altar. The priest who trained me called this the “Big Mountain” because once you’re over it, everything else seems easy. Just as an illustration, here are those prayers, with the priest’s verses in italics and the altar server’s responses in bold:
If it looks like there’s a lot of bold above, keep in mind a priest has to memorize his own verses and also the altar server’s responses. He also needs to know what both mean, which the altar server does not. It’s perfectly doable. It just takes time.
Anyway, I got through the prayers with only a few minor hesitations, but by now my nerves were stretched thin and I was starting to sweat profusely. From there until the offertory, the responses are just a few simple words at a time, and the movements are straightforward. But then it was time to prepare the altar.
I walked to the nook, where I was supposed to take one cruet in each hand — wine on the right, and holy water on the left — holding them from underneath so that the priest can take them by the handle. In my practice sessions, the cruets were always empty, and sometimes they were imaginary.
Remember the refrigerator I mentioned several paragraphs back? Well, the only thing sweatier than my hands were the glass cruets, which had formed a thick layer of condensation. It was awkward and noisy getting those two full, slippery cruets onto my hands, which aren’t exactly the size of baseball mitts. Somehow, though, I managed to do it. Then I took the first step up the altar and tripped on the hem of my cassock. For a split second, my mind saw wine, holy water, and glass flying across the altar. Fortunately, that’s not what actually happened.
I tripped over my cassock two more times during Mass, always when I had both hands full. As I’m writing this, a tailor is taking more than two inches off the hem. It seems I’m not a perfect size 17 after all.
The rest of the Mass went relatively well, other than the fact that being sweaty made me sweat even more. I had done a one-mile fun run two days earlier, and somehow I sweat less then than I did on the altar. And it wasn’t about having an audience, as one of my colleagues had suggested. Until distribution of communion, I hadn’t taken my eyes off the priest or the altar. So, as far as I knew, the only ones in the church were me, Father, and Our Lord. I think maybe it was that last one who was making me so nervous.
Back in the sacristy after Mass, I kneeled for the blessing, and then Father and I reviewed what I had gotten wrong. I had missed a visual cue at one point, and I had been a little timid when pouring the wine and water during the ablutions. Overall, though, he gave me the impression I’d done pretty well for a first-timer. As of today he still hasn’t fired me.
As I went to change out of my cassock and surplice, a fellow parishioner, an older gentleman, popped back into the sacristy to shake my hand and thank me. That was pretty sweet of him. Later in the morning, another parishioner, one who is an altar server himself, sent me a text to ask how everything went my first time. That was thoughtful of him. He said he too sweat through a shirt the first time he served alone.
That last bit reminded me I had approached this whole thing out of order. Remember those young boys who didn’t like learning Latin with Mr. Gilman? They were already altar servers! They mostly just hold candles at the High Mass while they observe and learn from the older boys. It’s not until much later that they’ll recite the responses themselves or serve solo.
Reflecting back, what struck me the most about my first time serving at the altar was the level of intimacy, if I can strip that word of any romantic connotations. I attend Mass quite regularly, usually more than once a week. Although I receive communion regularly as well, there is a certain distance — at least a physical distance, if not necessarily a spiritual one — between me in the pew and the mystery that unfolds at the altar. That distance was quite dramatically reduced when serving at the altar. During the consecration, the altar server kneels perhaps not two feet from the priest, close enough to lift the chasuble, his outer garment. And the altar at our church is not particularly big, so even when the altar server is not at the priest’s side, he’s not far away. I’m grateful to the priests at our parish for providing me the training and the opportunity to serve in this way, and to God for giving me the ability.