The Altar Boy

Altar servers are a big help.  They contribute greatly to the art of the liturgy while at the same time discerning a possible call to holy orders.  When boys learn from a young age the prayers, ceremonies, rites and rubrics of the public worship of the Church, they develop an early love for the Mystical Body of Christ.  Altar boys are indispensable in their role and can learn a great deal from this mentoring process.      

Meanwhile, the rich wealth of liturgical signs and symbols makes an important impression on the formation of the young server, confirming him in the Faith.  The liturgy is constantly teaching.  "In human life, signs and symbols occupy an important place.  As a being at once body and spirit, man expresses and perceives spiritual realities through physical signs and symbols.  As a social being, man needs signs and symbols to communicate with others, through language, gestures, and actions.  The same holds true for his relationship with God" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1146).

Boys serve by a privilege which custom has sanctioned and the Church tacitly approves.  Liturgical etiquette prescribes they should, in the Latin Church, most commonly and fittingly be vested in the Roman cassock with surplice.  This is because, since altar boys take the place of acolytes in minor orders - who wear proper clerical dress - altar boys dress similarly.  Interestingly, there never was a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites prescribing the exact dress of altar boys.    

In the conferring of Orders, the giving of the surplice with the right to wear it in religious functions is found in the conferring of tonsure, the step by which a person ceases to be a layman and becomes an ecclesiastic.  The bishop recites this prayer, adapted from St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians (iv. 24): "May the Lord clothe thee with the new man, who according to God is created in justice and in the holiness of truth."    

Many emotions go through the mind of an altar boy that are key to his religious formation.  This brings to mind the liturgical experience of St. Augustine:  "How I wept, deeply moved by your hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church!  What emotion I experienced in them!  Those sounds flowed into my ears, distilling the truth in my heart.  A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face - tears that did me good" (cf. Confessions of St. Augustine).     

I can remember well that impressionable day in November 1988 when I as a nine-year-old first donned the Roman cassock and surplice in the high vaulted ceiling of the sacristy of the Church of the Assumption in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota.  The church was built in the 1870s.  It was a proud moment.

That day my dad brought me to the sacristy to meet the priest and get vested.  I was elated with the grown-up honor.  His words I can still hear today: "Your grandfather served Mass at this altar and so did I.  Now you will do the same.  I am very proud of you.  Now get suited up.  These cassocks are probably the same ones worn by grandpa when he was your age."  Indeed, they were.  I will never forget the moment as I put on the surplice for the first time, I noticed there was a blessed medal stitched on the inside collar.  It was of Our Lady.    

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