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Saturday, May 26, 2007
History and Graces received from Altar Serving

For hundreds of years, the usage of altar servers has brought about countless priestly vocations. In the words of the Archbishop of Westminster, Bernard Cardinal Griffen, "To serve at the altar, as to sing in the choir, is next to the priesthood the highest privilege which a human can enjoy. He represents the faithful and takes a most intimate part in the rich treasures of the church's liturgy and ceremonial. Those sacred ceremonies should be carried out with devotion, dignity and attention to detail."


An altar server is a lay assistant to the priest during the Mass or to other members of the clergy in other religious functions including Benediction and Eucharistic Adoration. An altar server is not to be confused with an acolyte. Before the Second Vatican Council, the acolyte was the highest of the minor orders, having duties including the lighting of the altar-candles, carrying the candles in procession, assisting the subdeacon and deacon, and the ministering of water and wine to the priest at Mass. Acolytes wore either the alb or the surplice over a cassock. The order of acolyte was conferred on a seminarian at a minor ordination. After the reforms of the minor orders in 1972, the acolyte survived but became one of two lay ministries (along with that of lector) instead of an order. Today, Indult Catholic societies such as the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest and the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter are still permitted to ordain seminarians to all the minor orders, including the acolytate. Therefore, the acolyte is not to be confused with the altar server even though the altar server can do the already mentioned duties of the acolyte.

In the post-Vatican II Church, an acolyte has all the responsibilities of an altar server except a few additional ones. The acolyte is also permanent extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and can also be entrusted with celebrating Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. He is also the only lay minister who can do the purification of the vessels at Mass. Furthermore, an acolyte is given a priority to lead blessing ceremonies (Book of Blessings, Introduction, n. 18). In the absence of both a priest and deacon, the acolyte has priority to lead Sunday Celebrations (Directions for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, 1988, n. 30).

Traditionally, the role of altar server has always been reserved to males and rightfully so. By having males serve at the altar, a young man is better able to discern the priesthood since he is involved with the Liturgy. Personally, I support the return of an all-male group of altar servers for the entire Catholic Church. Some parishes are even returning to the practice of all-male altar servers. Historically, the role of altar server has always been reserved to males. In the Encyclical Allatae Sunt on July, 26, 1755, Pope Benedict XIV stated in paragraph 29:
Pope Gelasius in his ninth letter (chap. 26) to the bishops of Lucania condemned the evil practice which had been introduced of women serving the priest at the celebration of Mass. Since this abuse had spread to the Greeks, Innocent IV strictly forbade it in his letter to the bishop of Tusculum: "Women should not dare to serve at the altar; they should be altogether refused this ministry." We too have forbidden this practice in the same words in Our oft-repeated constitution Etsi Pastoralis, sect. 6, no. 21."
In 1970 the Vatican condemned female altar serving in Liturgicae instaurationes as well as in 1980's Inaestimabile donum. Not until a circular letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to presidents of episcopal conferences on March 15, 1994, did the Vatican officially allow female altar serving.


To serve at the altar as an altar server is one of the greatest sources of graces. The altar server assists the priest at the Sacred Liturgy; he is privileged to walk into the sanctuary. Remember, the Mass is the Sacrifice of Calvary. It is not a memorial but rather the Mass truly is the Sacrifice of Calvary. For that reason, all altar servers must display the utmost respect and reverence. For example, each and every single time that the server walks past the Tabernacle, he is to genuflect on his right knee to our Lord who is truly present in the Eucharist (GIRM 274).

All altar servers must listen attentively during the Mass and should remain in a state of prayer with their hands in a prayer position. Talking amongst each other is absolutely forbidden. Likewise, all altar servers should wear proper shoes and never flip-flops, sandals, boots, or gym shoes. An altar servers must also learn the proper name to all of the items used during the Liturgy. Such items are listed at the bottom of the webpage of the Altar Server Manual. Altar Servers must ensure that no particle of Our Lord's Body or Blood falls to the ground. With the use of the paten, altar servers perform an extremely important sacred ministry. They must ensure that no particle of the Eucharist is desecrated accidentally at any portion during the Mass. Furthermore, altar servers must know the basic prayers of the Mass at least in the vernacular and perhaps some of them in Latin. The altar server must have a basic understanding of the Catholic Faith and understand the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Traditionally, lay people including altar servers were also forbidden to touch the sacred vessels including the Chalice. If they had to touch the paten they would hold it with a purificator. Likewise, they were only to carry the Chalice by touching the chalice veil covering it. It is a still a pious practice and one that I support.

To all altar servers, please take these suggestions to heart. I strongly suggest you read the words expressed on the article Advice for Altar Servers. Remember, as an altar server, you stand next to the priest who stands at the Cross of Calvary. At the Consecration, you stand near the altar on which the Bread and Wine become Jesus Christ. You should humble yourself and bow your head before the power of God. You are assisting at the Holy of Holies. Display reverence and worship Our God. Undoubtedly, altar servers receive countless blessings from Almighty God from serving devoutly at Mass. Even attending Holy Mass is the source of numerous graces. It is certainly more grace-filled for altar servers.
Prayer before Serving:

Heavenly Father, we ask your blessing upon us, that we may serve at your altar with reverence, attention, and love, in order to draw others to do the same. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Vesting Prayers:

For the Cassock:

Dominus, pars hereditatis meae et calicis mei, tu es qui restitues
hereditatem meam.

O Lord, the portion of my inheritance and my chalice, You are He
who will restore my inheritance.

For the Surplice:

Indue me, Domine, novum hominem, qui secundum Deum creatus est in
iustitia et sanctitate veritatis. Amen.

Invest me, O Lord, as a new man, who was created by God in justice
and the holiness of truth. Amen.

Additional Information:

Advice for Altar Servers
Handbook for Servers by the Archconfraternity of Saint Stephen
How to Serve the Latin Mass by Rev. H.E. Calnan, D.D.
Manual for Altar Servers by CEI Publishing
"Prayer Book for Young Catholics" by Fr. Robert J. Fox


del_button May 27, 2007 at 2:28 AM
Mark said...

*smiles* Good post, Matthew.

Unfortunately for me, I live in children-Server-only land... :(

del_button May 27, 2007 at 10:36 AM
Esther said...

This is an excellent post Matthew!! Mark, you aren't the only one :-(

del_button May 28, 2007 at 12:26 AM
Mark said...

Thanks, Esther. I should apologise, though, for moaning about it. Hardly nice of me...

del_button May 28, 2007 at 9:54 AM
Timmay! said...

Thank you for this excellent post. I was a child Altar-server through my high school years, and just recently started to serve again in my young adult years, both here at the monastery and at a parish that encourages young men to serve.

One thing that jumped out at me is something several people have brought up to me at the parish I serve at... wearing sandals. I currently live and am discerning with a missionary order. Though sandals are not officialy part of the habit, and the order is not formally discalced, many of the Priests and brothers here are out of personal devotion. This is a habit I've slowly picked up over the past couple years, and have fully embraced in my time here. Now that the warm months are here it seems weekly someone will glare at me and ask if my sandals are appropriate for Holy Mass. When I explain why I am wearing the sandals and the long tradition in the Church of orders that are discalced, I get every reaction from, "Oh, that's a good reason," to, "I don't care your reason, I'm telling you it's wrong."

:sighs:: Oh well, in a few months winter will be back. Then we switch back to people telling me I'm nuts to wear sandals in the frigid weather. :-)

del_button June 1, 2007 at 7:18 PM
Frank said...

Great post!
Thanks for the links...while reading them I had a question - are laymen allowed to touch the chalice? I thought it was only priests and deacons.

del_button June 1, 2007 at 7:39 PM
Seminarian Matthew said...

Frank, traditionally laypeople did not touch the Chalice. Therefore, I don't believe that laypeople should touch it. Only consecrated hands should touch the Chalice. St. Thomas Aquinas may have even said something about this.

del_button June 2, 2007 at 7:51 AM
Andy Molnar said...

Really great post. I lead servers in NJ and have built a guide book for them so they can review at home. I'd like to use some of your history so that I can guide them to the fullness of this lay office. Let me know if you allow this...I won't until I see a reply.
In my Parish someone even started a rumor that you couldn't altar serve once you were done with Confirmation. I had to beat that down. Then I said I wanted to serve (I am 43) to assist the kids to the right positions, bowing, etc, and was told by the lead Server that adults couldn't do that. I fixed that by being lead Server this year.
But your work is a blessing to me and as I see in the other posts the same for many others. Frankly, I am very, very excited about the Roman Rite of 1962 being authorized widely, and I know I will certainly attend. I first started going to the 1962 Rite in Wichita, Kansas while traveling on business, and loved it.
Thanks and God Bless. Andy

del_button June 2, 2007 at 8:41 AM
Seminarian Matthew said...

Andy, great comments. Thank you. I am also a huge supporter of the 1962 Rite. I am unable to attend one, though, since I do not live near one. I am planning to start attending one this fall since my seminary is near a Tridentine Mass.

And you may use anything in this post. Please use whatever you would like if it will be used to help others.

del_button June 2, 2007 at 8:57 AM
Anonymous said...

Hi Matthew. Great post. This is just what I wanted to read as my 13yr old son who is an Alter Server has threaten several times to quit but I have managed to persuade him to continue and have tried to explain to him about the many graces & blessings that he receives when alter serving. Perhaps by reading your post it may please God convince him to continue. God Bless and I shall pray for your studies in the seminary. Anna Brisbane, Australia.

del_button June 2, 2007 at 9:26 AM
Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your article. We know have girls on our altar, my 4 sons have given up on serving! Please pray for their vocations.

del_button June 2, 2007 at 3:23 PM
Anonymous said...

Great post, Matthew! God bless you! I am a recent convert to the Catholic faith, and am so glad to be part of the True Church and to partake of the Eucharist. I agree that women should not be priests, for many reasons. However, I wonder why girls should not be altar servers. I am neither liberal nor feminist, but I feel that women are excluded from so many avenues of service in the church. Can you point me to resources that would answer my question and also show what avenues of service are legitimately available to women according to tradition? Thanks.

del_button June 2, 2007 at 4:53 PM
Mark said...


I was given more aesthetic, yet possibly invalid?, reasons: I would be the only adult.

del_button June 2, 2007 at 8:09 PM
Anonymous said...

I am a woman, nearly 50 and have the privilege of serving Holy Mass, sometimes 6 days per week. Why? Young folks don't come to daily Mass, there are no men who serve during the week and many servers don't show up for scheduled times at Sunday Mass. Someone must assist and so I do. I thank God that I am able and appreciate your commentary. I am totally unworthy to serve, and yet, am called. Praise God that you are in seminary and may He pour His Grace upon you as a holy priest.

del_button June 2, 2007 at 9:51 PM
AquinaSavio: said...

Incredible post Matt. :)

del_button June 2, 2007 at 9:54 PM
AquinaSavio: said...

I wish more than anything that I could learn to serve at a TLM.

del_button June 3, 2007 at 2:30 AM
Anonymous said...

To read your comments on altar boys is refreshing to say the least. My parish is fortunate enough to have a grammar school associated with and even so we have 99% altar girls. I wrote the pastor my opinion about this in a very supportive way (I thought). For Easter Sunday we had 12 altar girls! Redemptoris Sacramentum reprobates this. At the same time there are people in the Eucharistic Adoration Chapel beating their brains out praying for vocations. I don't know if this is his choice or the members of the liturgy "ministry" that work for the parish. Our new priests give me hope.

del_button June 3, 2007 at 5:57 AM
sacerdos said...

I am a Priest ordained in 1993. During my first assignment in a parish the permission was given for girls to serve. I was horrified and intended to maintain the status quo (I wa in charge of the servers) Much to my chagrin the pastor and the DRE decided to invite girls to serve. I remember the boys being furious. It was as though something "special" was being taken form them.
I kept the boys as well as the girls in albs. I introduced the cassock and surplice for the high school boys and called them 'masters of ceremonies'. Sometimes a girl would ask if she could ever do that. I would respond that that role was for boys only.
I am currently in a Hispanic parish. The notion of altar "girls" as well as communion in the hand is unthinkable to most. Once in a while someone will go to another parish and ask why we don't have these innovation.
I personally think that allowing girls to serve was an even bigger mistake than communion in the hand. Sometimes when I ,in the past in another more progressive parish, celebrated Mass with 4 out of six female Eucharistic ministers, 2 altar girls, 2 female lectors and a female cantor felt like the 'prom queen' standing at her throne......sad indeed!

del_button June 3, 2007 at 9:59 AM
Cygnus said...

Nice post!

The National Catholic Register had an article some time ago that one major problem with female altar servers is that they were proving to be a distraction for the boys. Anyone surprised?

Sadly, I haven't seen any altar servers, male or female, use a paten in years.

It would be nice if there could be some way to steer young girls toward the religious life as nuns, but I don't see much of that happening. I know some of the more contemplative orders have been doing well, but where are the future teachers, for example? I agree that serving at the altar should be for boys only, but we need to show girls the proper ways in which they can serve also.

del_button June 3, 2007 at 10:22 AM
Anonymous said...

Thank you for your "Yes" to Jesus! I was an Eastern Orthodox Christian who came home to Rome. I am all for Tradition. But there is not enough support from the parents of boys in with regard to serving at the altar. I believe that is because the parents are afraid that it will lead to a call to the priesthood. I too, now serve as asked, reader, Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist, and to the sick, Sacristan, and altar guild. There just are not enough men who are willing to serve. Parents need to foster a desire to serve in their children. Keep up the good work Matthew and as the Orthodox say, and I still do "May the Lord remember your priesthood in His kingdom".

del_button June 3, 2007 at 12:33 PM
Mrs Jackie Parkes MJ said...

Anyone visiting my blog..knows i have 2 super duper sons who serve with great reverence..fortunately we're in a parish with only boys/men. We have 8 daughters & when in another parish refused to let them serve. they all understand the reasons why & are proud of their brothers!

Thanks for all that info..

God bless

del_button June 3, 2007 at 3:21 PM
Anonymous said...

I am sorry you feel called to return the church to the 13th Century. Since you want to go back to the beginning maybe you should look to the New Testament. Christ had a lot to say about the Jews getting too wrapped up in laws and ceremony. At the two Baptisms today the little girls were baptized Priest, Profit and Kings. Seems to me that is consecrated enough to touch holy vessels. We really need priests who can relate to people and are ready to serve those people. Priests caught up in dogma, ritual and ego we have plenty of. I will pray for you.

del_button June 3, 2007 at 5:37 PM
Joe said...

Dear Anonymous,

The Church today should be directly linked to the 13th century Church. If it's not, then this is not the Catholic Church. A true Catholic should accept the Church's tradition. I hope not too many people start equating religious functions to human rights issues or equality of the sexes. These are two completely different things. Sure, prophet, priest, and king... this is "common" for all baptized Christians. But like earthly vessels which are consecrated (or set aside) for special functions, members of the "common' priesthood are set aside to perform special functions. Don't confuse the teaching about our "common" priesthood as a green light to perform functions at religious celebrations. If that's the case, then why don't we all start celebrating our own masses (... common priesthood?)Is this what the Lord intends? I don't think so... read your bible carefully and ask the Church pastors for clarifications.

del_button June 3, 2007 at 6:00 PM
Seminarian Matthew said...

Joe, great response. I was just preparing to sit down and write to anonymous's objections.

Anonymous, the Church of the 13th Century must believe and teach the same thing as today's church. What does "Catholic" mean? It means "universal" - our faith is timeless. Is it wrong for laypeople to touch the Sacred vessels? Yes. We must ensure that both laity and clergy grow holy in their own roles. It is wrong for the laity to interfere with the role of a priest by touching the Chalice. Humility! The chalice should only be touched by consecrated hands since it is in that chalice that the miracle of miracles occurs at Mass - the consecration. I hope you can come to an understanding of this. Clericalization of the laity is a serious thing. It is one reason while the Eastern Orthodox still have not reunited with the Roman Catholic Church.

Thanks, everyone for all of your postive comments. Please use this article in anyway to help spread devotion and reverence at Mass.

del_button July 4, 2007 at 8:49 PM
latinmass1983 said...

AquinaSavio, you can always learn to serve the traditional Order of the Mass by reading some of the books on the Rubrics for the traditional Order of the Mass. Of course, that would be until you can put all you read into practice - until you actually get to serve at one. Either way, just reading about rubrics, rituals and ceremonial will give you a lot of knowledge about the Mass, the Church, Rubrics in general and historical facts about the Mass. It will also give you great love for the Church, Her tradition and Her wisdom in creating rules and laws to govern the way to say and serve Mass.

Matthew, great post! More people actually need to learn the negative consequences of having girls serving at the Altar. They will never be able to become priests, so they will not "learn" much in that sense from the Priest. If they are called to the religious life, they need to learn from nuns, not from priests.

Mark, you can, if you want, "fight" that "children-servers-only excuse. If you are single, well educated in the Faith and ceremonial/rituals, and you have the time and dedication, then you *should* be allowed to serve. In fact, having an adult among many children will create a sense of rank and honor. An adult is able to be more responsible and careful with everything pertaining to the Altar and children will learn very much from that!

del_button April 16, 2010 at 3:34 PM
Anonymous said...

This is outstanding! I wish that every parish's altar servers performed their duties with such reverence and dignity as you describe. I often see quick and awkward bows to an empty altar while placing their backs to our Lord in the tabernacle. This is a practice that I do not support as it is our Lord to whom we should show reverence, not an empty altar. The genuflection also seems to, in many parishes, have been replaced by bowing exclusively. When did this happen?... at the same time we started holding hands during the Pater Noster? I can count many reasons why it would be better for all, including servers, that the Mass be celebrated Ad Orientem - even and especially the Novus Ordo where so much reverence has been lost.

Wonderful post. I will book mark this!

del_button May 17, 2010 at 11:22 AM
Anonymous said...

Thank you Matthew for your excellent post. I gained a lot. I am a 25 yr old mass server at St. Paul's Parish, Oyigbo Rivers in Nigeria (Africa) and currently one the heads of Alter Servers. There's this book we have proposed to write for the benefit of alter servers, so i wished you could permit me extract some of your articles and also tracing the full history of Altar Servers probably from the first man who served Mass. I will be happy if your answers favour me. I'm Justice Okechukwu.

del_button May 17, 2010 at 11:42 AM
Matthew said...

Justice Okechukwu:

Thank you for your comments. You are most welcome to include my words in your book. I only ask that you proper cite my words and include a source in your bibliography.

Thank you!

del_button May 17, 2010 at 11:44 AM
Matthew said...

Also, after the book is published, please do let me know. I'd very much like to read it.

del_button May 11, 2011 at 3:37 PM
Bridget said...

Thank you for this post.
While we have not yet accomplished boy-only altar servering at our parish, the trend is starting to lean that way, which is very exciting!
Many of our young men who serve are discerning the priesthood (including our 3 boys!).
Praise God for this ministry and for the Holy Priesthood!

del_button March 29, 2012 at 5:22 PM
Anonymous said...

I am posting because after I was confirmed, I felt called to become an Altar Server, and yes I am a female. Within 7 years of serving, I have become the Altar Server Coordinator at the age of 22. The retired provincial became a parochial Vicar and has told me on a number of occasions, we have the best altar server program he has seen anywhere. I have 130 Altar Servers for 7 weekend liturgies and weekday liturgies. I have ages 8 to 87 one of the oldest ones I have. Adults and kids serve together quite often. I have had a couple of girls consider vocations for being a nun because of serving. I currently have 2 young men considering a vocation one to be a Franciscan priest and the other to be a Monk. I would be saddened if girls weren't allowed to serve any more.

del_button October 25, 2012 at 6:08 PM
Anonymous said...

I'm a young lady who has been discerning the religious life for sometime now. Had I never been given the opportunity to serve Our Lord, at the Altar at a younger age, my faith--and my respect for the Mass--would be different now.

In the last few months I was called to lead the Altar Server ministry at my parish. Before I took charge, there were unsuccessful attempts to lead the ministry. No one knew what the Altar Server responsibilities entailed, and no one wanted to help with this ministry. I took it upon myself, with the help of Our Lord Jesus Christ and Mother Mary, to guide me in this ministry the right way. Because of my first initial prayer to Jesus Christ and Our Mother Mary, there are new potential servers wanting to join every week. Currently, 2 young men are discerning the priesthood, and one other young lady (besides myself) is discerning the religious life.

At my parish-- next to the priest-- Eucharistic Ministers were often seen as the people who knew the names and descriptions of sanctuary locations, vessels, instruments, and books used. I quickly found out that it was all a sham. I am so proud of my ministry. Sharing my knowledge of years and experiences with these Altar Servers has been a blessing thus far.

On another note...
I do agree that no one should touch any of the sacred vessels used in mass. However, as I've been told by priests and bishops that I've altar served under, it is up to the celebrant's discretion in allowing the server or lay minister in physically touching the vessels. I always ask a visiting priest or bishop, if he allows touching the vessels used in mass. Every priest and bishop is different, and as Altar Servers you have to be adaptable. What most celebrants don't allow is placing the vessels on the Altar. Now that is a huge NO!

del_button January 24, 2013 at 12:01 PM
Anonymous said...

I have been given the grace of being an Altar Server at Mass for Nativity in Media, PA. It
has greatly helped me in my spiritual life.
I am a woman and believe that Jesus gave this to me as a gift to lead a better life. Jude

del_button March 26, 2013 at 9:43 AM
Anonymous said...

I am a Traditional Catholic and attend an SSPX Chapel in Pennsylvania. I altar every other week and altar servers are supposed to be only boys.

del_button March 26, 2013 at 9:44 AM
Anonymous said...

Altar serving is meant for boys because it helps them discern whether they have a religious vocation in the priesthood or not. I am the same person who posted the previous comment.

del_button March 27, 2013 at 3:22 PM
Anonymous said...

Just so everyone knows the SSPX is not heretical, or in schism!

del_button March 15, 2014 at 12:16 PM
Anonymous said...

At our parish we have 132 Altar Servers. The majority of them are girls.If it were not for the eagerness of the young girls to serve in our parish we would not be able to cover all the Masses without over scheduling. Although many of the boys are truly reverent and appreciate the opportunity to serve - the girls have the same level of reverence and appreciation. Although it was for so long a male role - the change has proven to be fruitful as we have 3 young women who were Altar Servers now in Religious Life orders. They have said that being able to serve the Priest in Mass had brought them to a deep appreciation of their faith. I will add that in the past 55 years we have only had 2 male Altar Servers join the priesthood. We pray daily in our parish for vocations and are grateful to all those who serve

del_button July 2, 2016 at 6:47 PM
Frank Brian Ferrer said...

When did altar serving start? Which pope started permitting altar serving?

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