Altar servers find ways to deepen faith
You're part of an ancient and holy rite.
Now, try and relax.
Phew, that's a lot to ask of a fourth- or fifth-grader. But if you go to a service at a Roman Catholic church, you'll see young altar servers filling their roles with competence.
Local young people said the experience of serving has helped deepen their faith and provided them with a tangible way to serve their parishes.
Hailey White, 10, put it best.
"It's something I can do for my parish because my parish does so much for my school," said White, a fifth-grade student at St. Mary's School in Janesville. "It does help my faith because I have to pay attention so much more."
For active Catholics, servers such as Hailey become part of the woodwork. They're supposed to help with the small but important details of the Mass such as lighting candles, holding the book that contains the prayers, helping with the water and wine, placing items in the appropriate places on the altar and being part of the procession in and out of the church.
It's not a uniquely Roman Catholic phenomenon. The Episcopal Church of the United States, the Church of England and many of the Eastern Orthodox churches use altar servers.
The servers provide the practical assistance needed to perform the Mass and, at the same time, connect young people with the traditions of their faith.
Teaching the moves, learning to serve
It's one thing to show children how to be servers, it's another thing to get them to understand the meaning behind the movements.
Servers come to training with different levels of emotional and spiritual maturity, noted the Rev. Steve Umhoefer of St. Mary's Church, Janesville.
And quite honestly, he isn't looking for saints. For the basics of the job, priests need someone who can pay attention, follow the cues and not panic.
"I feel like there's sort of a middle ground somewhere," Umhoefer said. "I want them to believe in the sacredness of what they're doing, but I want them to relax."
The Rev. John Auby of St. William Church, agreed, adding that when servers start, they might not understand the importance of their roles—or the service itself. .
"Basically, I try to help them understand the significance of the Mass," Auby said. "They're there to assist me with the Mass, the prayer of the people."
But he also wants them to be comfortable in their roles and not feel like they can't or won't make mistakes.
It's about service, not perfection, he said.
"I want them to experience the joy of serving the church," Auby said. "As they grow into adulthood, they'll know the value of giving back to the church."
Learning the moves, finding the spirit
Local servers were frank about their motives for becoming servers.
"At first, it was just something to do besides sitting in the Mass," said Gabe Szerlong, 14, of Milton.
Peter Cooney, 13, of Janesville confessed he signed up because "my brother was up there and I thought it would be kinda cool."
But as time went on, they realized that serving helped them connect with the church family and intensified their faith.
Take Szerlong—he loves to serve and takes a quiet pride in his role.
"I enjoy serving, especially with Father Steve (Umhoefer) and Deacon Steve (Hayes), too," Szerlong said. "I'm learning a lot more about my religion, and it has deepened my faith a lot."
Szerlong is working on a Boy Scout religious award, "Ad Altare dei," which means "to the altar of God." It's designed to deepen his faith.
He's also excited about an upcoming Latin Mass server training.
Eric Cooney, 16, served as a role model for his younger brother, Peter. Now, the elder Cooney acts as a substitute server.
"I enjoy giving back to my church," Cooney said.
When he's old enough, he'd like to become a Eucharistic minister—the person who helps distribute communion.
"I'd just like to volunteer as much as I can," the elder Cooney said.