How I Met My Ministry: The Early Years

Kids, this is a story that we’ll tell for the next few weeks. It’s a story of how I met my ministry. Having no children of my own and taking a cue from my favorite TV show (How I Met Your Mother), I’ll begin to tell the story of how I got involved in ministry to begin with. It’ll be filled with many humorous tales as well as a bunch of serious ones.

In some ways it started when I was about 9 years old and I became an altar boy. Back then only boys served on the altar and you had to be in at least 4th grade. Our parish deacon has created a group called The Knights of the Altar Society. We served mass, did some service projects, played at the parish school gym on Saturday afternoons and took trips to Six Flags together. It was a fun time.

That first mass was an interesting time. I was tiny compared to the two guys who were training me. Henry DiLello and Dominic Finouli were both high schoolers. They were nice guys and they took me under their wing as a little brother, especially Dominic, who was simply a nice guy. They taught me the various roles at the altar. One server was “book” and another was “bell.” Sometimes a third server would be “cross” and at a high mass a fourth server was “thurifer” which meant that he’d handle the incense.

It was a Wednesday morning mass. They found me an alb and had me write my name in it. It was a plain white alb with a hood. We tied it with a cincture and then a cross went around my neck and was tucked underneath the alb’s hood. The older guys wore black cassocks and a white surplice. The cassock had a space for the white tab that a priest would wear but ours were just worn sans tab.

I was simply going to observe at this mass itself, but I would also handle some pre-mass and post-mass duties. Henry lit the taper in the long gold holder that we used to light the candles. The candles were bigger than me so it wasn’t easy to light them. The harder I tried the longer the flame became. Henry had left me alone to light the candles but then, when he saw the foot-long flame on the taper he ran to me and had me snuff out the flame! We re-lit and Henry watched me, lest I burn the church down. I learned when to get the book for the priest, when the chalice was needed and when we’d get the water and wine from the credence table. Everything was done together with Henry and Dom moving as a sharply trained drill team.

I watched carefully, learned all the responses and prayed that I’d be up to the task. It seemed like a serious matter to be on the altar. I don’t think I feel any differently even today. We kept our hands in prayer position and they were on our knees while seated. We also had to wear shoes and nice clothes, even if we took our shirts off before putting our alb on.

I can still remember our prayers before and after mass.

Server’s Prayer before Mass
Open my mouth, O Lord,
To Bless your holy name
Clear my mind of all evil
And Distracting thoughts

Ignite my understanding
Inflame my will
That I may serve eagerly at
your Holy Altar

O Mary, mother of Christ,
The High Priest
Obtain for me the most important grace:
Of Knowing my vocation in life.

Grant me a true spirit of faith
And humble obedience
That I may ever behold the priest
as a representative of God
And willingly follow him in the way and truth and the life of Christ Amen.

Server’s Prayer After Mass
O Lord Jesus Christ
Eternal High Priest
I thank you for the privilege
of serving at the Holy Altar of your sacrifice.

Now as I put aside the garments of that service
I ask that I may at all times think of you.
May I ever seek you and find you,
may I always follow you.

Ever ready in your service
May I always come to do your will
In all things
And by your grace
persevere unto the end. Amen

I’ve had the same conversation with people over the years about girls serving at the altar, which I think is a great idea. The Diocese of Phoenix decided today that unfortunately, they would no longer be granting women and girls the privilege of being altar servers. We didn’t have girls or young women serving in my day and I think that was a big loss. I know what my experience was with the guys and how valuable it was, but I don’t think it would have been any less an experience if girls were around. Perhaps some would not have come to our recreation activities on Saturday as we played football, hockey and other sports all afternoon and put tables up for bingo when we finished. At times some sisters of our buddies would travel on group outings with us and it didn’t disrupt things a bit other than the usual puppy dog crushes that some one of us would have on our friend’s sister and her yelling that someone punched her in the arm (a young boy’s usual way of showing a girl affection).

Regardless, of the obvious sexism at play, some have offered the thought that young men won’t be altar servers if they see girls on the altar. My response to that is that they might be right about that. But they also should note the responsibility we all have to tell them that this isn’t a good reason to NOT be an altar server. Secondly, it’s up to that person who does the inviting to ministry to invite equal numbers of boys and girls, as well as, men and women who are lectors and eucharistic ministers. In fact, I’m pretty sure that whoever has the responsibility for liturgical ministers often gets it wrong, opting for a preference over one gender (male or female) over another.

I know what my experience as an altar server was. From a practical standpoint, I know it kept me off the streets and probably saved me from a lot of dangerous activity in my neighborhood. But mostly, it was an opportunity to engage with mass, to develop a love of the mass. It made the priests I served with more human and approachable and certainly, it gave me a love of the church and of ministry. I still love serving at the altar as a lector or eucharistic minister. But it all started with Deacon Al Impallomeni and Dominic and Henry. Their dedication to the altar was amazing and it gave me an opportunity to see others who were prayerful people.

In short, I think it saved my life and it continues to do so each and every week, when Christ gives himself to us so that we might have life eternal.

So kids, It’s a serious matter, I hope servers, male and female, remember that and appreciate their role as much as I do. Up next, How I Met My Ministry in College.

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1 Comment

  1. Oh Mike… Mike… Wow, what beautiful thing to wake up to in my reader. Wow,I loved reading this.

    FWIW – in Phoenix, female altar servers will apparently not be allowed to serve at the Cathedral. Now that is a subtle distinction, isn’t it? It bothers me as much, if not more than no females at all. I mean – is the Cathedral “better” so therefore are the female servers in other Phoenix parishes taking those spots down a peg or two? Anyway, you see the whole thing start to roll into an ugly snowball. (Probably a poor analogy for a place with a climate like Phoenix’s!) And don’t get me started about the whole thing about having male servers only as a way of vocation formation. Seriously? Really? *sigh*

    In any event, as someone who has vivid memories of her early/mid 60’s church childhood, including serious altar server envy, I appreciate your POV.

    Looking forward to what follows. Peace to you my friend! And thanks for your light shining brightly in the world.

    Like

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