THE JOY OF ALTAR SERVING

This is article is dedicated to the Holy Priesthood of Rev. John A. Palko, 1927-2020.
Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.
May his memory be eternal.

My son is ten and started his ministry as an altar server in the fall of 2022.  He asked me when he could start serving just as soon as he received first holy communion, so I was relieved to know that finally he could start…two years is a long time to wait for a little boy!  I attended his first and second training, and then I was able to take him to a daily Mass for practice.  I have to say, seeing JP serve Mass brings me a certain joy that is hard to describe.  Even though he may still seem a little clumsy around the altar or seem too small to even bear the processional crucifix, he knows where he is and why he does it: to serve Jesus Christ at His sacred altar.

I have fond memories of being taught how to be an altar server when I was young.  I always enjoyed the banter in the sacristy with the priests, sacristans, and other servers.  I remember the incredible anxiety I had the first few times I lit the candles by myself before Mass, especially the dreaded Paschal candle towering several feet above me.  My favorite nostalgic moment was learning the awesomeness that exists when you move up to the thurible and use centripetal force to sustain charcoal combustion…not always the smartest thing to do, but it was certainly fun! 

Regardless of the fun I had, I remember a long period of time, every Saturday for at least 2 years, where I served the 5 PM Mass at Sacred Heart Church in McKeesport for Father John Palko, may he rest in peace.  Father Palko was already retired but in residence while I was in middle school, so he was certainly a seasoned preacher.  His homilies were always engaging and very straightforward, taking on topics that I haven’t heard about at church since I was 12.  What always resonated with me was his incredible, consistent, and unmistakably identifiable reverence for the Eucharist.  He made sure the altar servers came to Mass properly dressed, that we sat up straight, that we knelt before our God in the tabernacle and at the altar.  He was intense, but his intensity was a powerful witness that this was no symbol or sign: this was an encounter with the Living God.  

Service at the foot of the altar is an incredible privilege. To be so close to the consecration is one thing, but to have unique roles in the preparation of the altar, assist in the washing of his hands, hearing just a bit of the quiet prayers of the priest, ringing the Sanctus bells, and assisting in the purification of the sacred vessels, puts the altar server right in the middle of it all.  While a priest most certainly can and will celebrate Mass without a server, the beauty that exists in the work of the server is such that it can help the congregation fall even more deeply in love with Jesus.  If the altar server is reverent and prayerful, then the altar server is already witnessing true devotion.  Young people striving for holiness continue to change the world, and this is no different.

Given all the opportunities to be so close to Jesus that altar servers get to have, it is no surprise that altar serving is typically a part of most priestly vocation stories.  Those personal interactions I had with so many priests when I was younger let me confidently discern my vocation.  It wasn’t some lofty ideal or something my family didn’t want me to pursue; knowing the men who were living their lives as an “Alter Christus” made the priesthood look like a real and viable option for my life.  What they taught me was that priests are real people too, and while they lead us in prayer, we’re praying together.  While it’s a personal journey to eternity, we’re all taking the same journey on different paths.  Happy and holy priests showed me that the discernment of a vocation is wrought with joys, pains, doubts, and triumphs, and so is everyone’s life’s journey.  We all want the joy that God promises us, and we all find it with the help of others.  I don’t know if I ever would have been able to establish the foundation of my spiritual life had I never been an altar server.    

Serving Mass for Fr. Palko made a lasting impact on my recognition of the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  Serving Mass in general allowed me to explore the faith through a lens of respect and piety, coupled with humility and joy.  I’m so grateful JP is continuing to grow as an altar server. My prayer for him, and every other altar server in our Church, is that they fall in love with Jesus more and more every time they serve at His altar.  I hope they experience the joy and love He has personally in store for them, and I hope they are distracted by the awesome presence of our Lord…just don’t forget to ring the Sanctus bells.

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At the National Eucharistic Congress, Decided Excellence Catholic Media - with the help of Bishop William Waltersheid - will be presenting "Beautiful Revelation: The Eucharistic Timeline". Throughout human history, God has left repeated proof of His presence in the Eucharist and that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our Salvation. God has given us the wisdom. Have you taken the time to understand? Read this spiritual journey through time to examine critical moments that God uses to reveal the truth of the Body of Christ.

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