In photo above, Martin Wong with altar servers, left to right, Isabella-Marie P. Eulie, Tyler Parkpakorn and Nathaniel Garcia, before the altar inside St. John Vianney Church in Rancho Cordova.
In February 2022, when parishes throughout the Diocese of Sacramento got word from Bishop Jaime Soto that altar servers could return to the liturgy with some restrictions after the COVID-19 pandemic, many parishes found themselves rebuilding the typically youth-centered altar server ministry from the ground up.
“It became a formation opportunity,” says Martin Wong, chair of the pastoral council at St. John Vianney Parish in Rancho Cordova, who stepped up to lead and coordinate the remake of the parish’s altar server ministry about a year and a half ago.
“From the beginning of the end of COVID-19, we already felt that there was a great need,” says Martin, who is 29. In addition to the chance to form faithful hearts in children, the other side of the opportunity presented itself.
“Children were yearning – in many ways dying – for an opportunity to be seen and heard by parents, friends and teachers,” Martin stresses, suggesting that the impact of isolation and limited interactivity took its toll on kids too. A revitalized altar server ministry could function to re-engage children, immersing them into the Mass, and “into the deepness of Christ’s love and mercy,” he adds. Further, as it fosters a renewed fulfillment found in Christ, serving at the table of the Lord held in it the potential to reverse anxiety and loneliness, erase any resistance and transform little hearts into big hearts of service.
From zero to 35
Today, the parish values its solid base of 35 altar servers and acknowledges an important recruitment approach rooted in personal invitations and a “come and see” vocational mindset. Martin also expresses gratitude for “a church with a school,” because half of the altar servers hail from the school, a ready pool of youth from which to draw.
Martin shares, “I don’t think there’s a single child that wasn’t personally asked,” describing the steps taken to greet families at Masses and events as recruitment efforts got started. The inevitable question of “Have you thought about being an altar server?” he admits, was met with many hesitant responses initially.
“Getting into the habit of reassuring these kids” became a tandem aspect of every invitation, Martin explains. Encouragement, support and assurance that they “will not be alone when they’re serving” became the soothing anecdote that convinced many children to give it a try and participate in a training session.
“Using the language of discernment” also helped children to “come” to training and “see” what the ministry entails while also helping them to understand their personal roles in meeting the needs of the Church; in answering a calling.
“I break it up into three pieces,” Martin says of his training presentation designed to help children and their families understand the full scope of the commitment.
First, he describes altar service as “a job.” Servers commit to serve the priest in Mass at least once a month, carrying out certain functions such as setting up the altar, procession, ringing bells and other liturgical actions.
Second, Martin explains altar service as “ministry” to the congregation. “The congregation is watching us when we stand, when we sit and when we kneel and they’re taking cues from us,” he continues, reminding prospective altar servers that their posture and prayerful presence become “a bridge between parishioners and God.”
Lastly, training emphasizes altar service as a “vocation,” and part of the continuous calling of God to serve his will. Martin empathizes with how children “have 1,000 reasons why” they believe they cannot commit to altar service as he lists off “they’re busy; they have sports; they’re tired.” At that point, the language of vocation and the built-in element of discernment take over.
“We focus on the one reason why they should,” Martin states honestly, “because they’re called.”
The commitment is for one school year and when July rolls around, altar servers discern whether they are called to continue, or whether they are called elsewhere.
“There’s beauty in that because they have entered into that ‘yes,’” and they learn that serving God and always listening for their vocational calling in life embody the true gifts of ministry, Martin notes.
Pulling back the veil
After laying out the three aspects of altar serving – the job, the ministry and the vocation – for those who commit, Martin reinforces that “something special, something invisible” occurs during Mass as they help pull back the veil, ring the bells and herald the coming of the Holy Spirit.
“In the beginning, they don’t understand,” Martin says of their first impressions of the job, but as they grow, they begin to recognize their part as “custodians of the Eucharist.”
“We start to talk about how the bells are a witness of what is invisible, which is the bells of heaven ringing in joy and triumph,” Martin conveys as one example of accompanying these youth to and through “a greater story and a greater, heavenly, holy reality.”
“Many children come with a basic understanding of the Eucharist from faith formation but when they see it up close and personal, it becomes very real,” Martin says, especially when communicating with words to help translate meaning.
Phrases like, “we’re going to set the table,” or “we’re going to bring up the food,” and “then we wash our hands” help relate the liturgy to the family meal according to Martin, who believes “this allows them to see the flow and rhythm of the Mass.”
As a natural extension of the family meal terminology, Martin integrates the altar server ministry into other aspects of parish life, too, beyond the liturgical priority. They serve at Christmas dinner and Lenten soup dinners to “connect the dots and gain perspective” regarding the community coming together for family meals.
“There’s a change that happens as people serve,” Martin shares, having witnessed how exposure to the Eucharist leads to a submission or “a moment that clicks where a server realizes the beauty of submitting to the will of God.” He describes a “purification of desires” and flowing graces as children “leave behind their anxiety and worry for the singular purpose of serving the Eucharist.”
There, serving at the table of the Lord, these children step into an awareness that “it’s not them serving but Christ serving through them,” Martin conveys with a true sense of joy in their transformation.
Martin journeys with the children in their vocational commitment, often serving Mass by their side. As they minister to the congregation and pull back the veil of the Mass, Martin takes seriously his part to help youth pull back the veil of their own hearts to see God’s will for them.
“Planting those seeds, reminding them and asking the question, ‘Where is God calling you in the body of Christ?’,” he questions gently as a spiritual director of sorts for each child and relays, “we are spiritual directors for these youth.”
Looking for ways to revitalize your altar server ministry?
Martin Wong, altar server coordinator at St. John Vianney Parish, offers these tips for renewing altar server ministries.
1. Don’t allow children to discern “yes” or “no” without fully knowing what they’re discerning. Invite them to a training without the pressure of commitment. Martin adds: “Once they put on the alb, it changes their perspective and their imagination about what is possible for them, and what they’re called for.”
2. Meet children where they are. Collaborate with formation teachers and bring initial training sessions to their classrooms.
3. Extend intentional invitations to children who may seem to be on the cusp of disengagement. Walk with them to bring them back and immerse them in the mystery of the Mass.
4. Be involved and accompany youth, celebrating life events and monitoring any hint of burnout. Volunteering can lead to a vulnerable spot where people become overwhelmed. Mentor children as complete human beings.
5. Be intentional in guiding them to grow and connect with other sacraments in their opportunities to serve. For example, sibling baptisms, first Communion, confirmation, RCIA rites, funerals and special celebrations.
6. Adopt the vocational language of discernment, and accept a child’s beautiful choice to discern whether God may be calling them elsewhere. Then, also follow up and ask, “Where are you called? Where do you see yourself fitting into this parish family?” Work hard as spiritual directors to not accept disengagement and divestment from the parish family.