A number of weeks ago my attention was drawn to an issue raised at a local Catholic School to which the son of a close friend of mine attends. The situation was as follows. In line with the recommendation that students at this school have to attain a certain number of service hours per School Term, the child in question had obtained their hours of service as an Altar Server in a Catholic Parish. The parents of this child were surprised when their boy was told that only an amount of six hours, maximum, would be allowed for him to credit Altar Serving toward Community Service. I began to ask other students, who are older than this student, whether this was indeed the case at the School in question. To my amazement they replied in the affirmative. Students who served on the altar at their parishes during any academic year were only able to have six of these hours accredited. Their parents, when I asked them, were quietly, but strongly appalled. When I asked the School, as to why they had put such limits on Altar Serving, the reply came back, that there is an expectation for all Catholics to attend the Divine Liturgy/Mass every Sunday, so a student should not be given Service hours for an obligation they must fulfil. I feel this stance by the School warrants a strong reply.
- Lost in Translation (cf. 1 Corinthians 13: 12, RSV)
- The Critical Mass (cf. Luke 24: 32) Part I
- The Critical Mass – Part II (cf. Mark 7:7) Part II
Whereas it is very true that all Catholics are required to attend Mass on the Sabbath; serving as an Altar Server is not an obligation – but a voluntary act of service, a service for God and His Church in order for the smooth running of the Liturgy. The requirement of Altar Serving places the Server, in a position in which they must attend not only Mass/Divine Liturgy, but that they must attend at a specific time, and fulfil a specific capacity. The Altar Server in question, commented to me that what he wished to do, was sit and relax in the pew, for it was much easier for him to do this, then have to concentrate, and be seen by all the parishioners. He indeed is very shy, and self-conscious, but he believes he is doing some good for the Parish he belongs to. The Parish to which he belongs is small – so invariaby he serves as a Server, every week. He can never sit with his family, as he is Serving. Even if he feels ill, he attends, as he feels a strong responsibility to be at the Liturgy. He is valued by his Parish, for the role he performs. Let me also expand. The number of young people who attend Mass, across all Catholic parishes is a fraction of the total number of young people who have been baptised. This has meant that the number of Servers is comparatively low, and the demands placed on them, very high. One consequence is that Altar Servers are now working across a number of Parishes in order for there to be a trained Server on the Altar on any given weekend. If a friend is ill, they will call another friend who is a Server to stand in their place. Thus the high level of obligation these young men feel for the Service they perform in the Church. If an Altar Server does serve, as some do, fifty or more hours every Liturgical year; how can this mean that this Christian Service is deemed not a Christian Service equivalent to other students who run a football boundary for a local football team, or sift through local gardens picking up litter on the weekend? I would like to postulate that the Altar Server conducts a Christian Service vastly more valuable than the boy serving the football team or environment – for their Service is directed solely to the love of God and His Church, and the obligation that we are commanded to fulfil first is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22: 37 – 39, RSV) What lesson do we teach the youth in our Catholic Schools when we tell them that their Service to God as performed in the Church and on the Altar, must be limited? If these students are required by their Catholic Schools to meet certain requirements for Service, and their Altar Serving does not count, then perhaps what we require of these students, who are Altar Servers, is that they use their time more ‘meaningfully’, by leaving their vestments, their Choir robes, their Lecterns, and take up a whitsle to run the boundary.
The number of young people who attend Mass, across all Catholic parishes is a fraction of the total number of young people who have been baptised.
That little value, or at least restricted value is placed on Church Service, is in fact understandable if those in our Schools, who are leaders, do not prioritize a value in their lives of regular Church attendance, and more importantly Service to the Church. If this is indeed the case, let these people live their lives in accordance to their conscience – but do not place such low expectations on the future of the Church, our youth, by rejecting in the very Schools that exist as part of the Mission of the Church the Service to God and His Eucharistic Celebration, among our youth. It is critical that our youth understand what priorities we set, how we value and hold in esteem their contributions to the Church; for as adults we shape the future of the Church, by rewarding or not, how our youth are active in the Parish. If we don’t do this, then inevitably the child will come to understand that Service to the Church and to God through His Church, is less of a Service, then Service to the Community and to neighbour, and this we know is not the Commandment that Christ issued. Our youth should understand that primary Service is to God, then to self, then to neighbour, for as the Book of Exodus teaches: “Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither you go, lest it become a snare in the midst of you … (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God).” (Exodus 34: 12 – 14, RSV)
That little value, or at least restricted value is placed on Church Service, is in fact understandable if those in our Schools, who are leaders, do not prioritize a value in their lives of regular Church attendance, and more importantly Service to the Church.
The teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas was that Service needed to be ordered according to Christ’s two Great Commandments. We owe God far more than we owe ourselves and our neighbour; we owe ourselves more than we owe our neighbour, for we must seek out our personal Salvation, before we can seek to save others; but we owe our neighbour a great responsibility, to ensure that justice be done to them, and that they are not lost. That is why Christ issued the second Commandment that rather than we should love ourselves as we love our neighbour – we should love our neighbour as we love ourselves. If it were neighbour before self – then we would have a situation that indeed, in a secular society, we would be required to keep away from Church Service in order to Serve our neighbour in their secular activities. The paradigm of Christian Service should follow Aquinas’ tenet; thus allowing for Interested Service; a Service of perfected and ordered love; for we are a People of God, and not a People who are aimless in our: altruism, time and love.
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, November 2019