Altar Servers

The Ministry of Altar Server

If you are an altar server, you have one of the most amazing ministries there is. At Mass you are closest to all the action and get a view that most of us will never have.

I’m quite jealous! As a young girl in the 1970’s I really wanted to be server, but at that time it was just boys. I accepted it gracefully. Since 1983, the role of girls and women has been recognised.[1]

The role is a complex one, incorporating many jobs and skills. And as we will, see, it really shouldn’t be seen as something to keep children occupied in church!  But to start, let’s go back to the early days of the church.


Tarcisius was a teenager and a devout Christian.  The threat of being captured by Roman soldiers and being tortured or killed, didn’t stop him meeting in secret to celebrate the Eucharist with his fellow Christians. They used the underground burial spaces (catacombs) to meet and celebrate the sacraments. Candles on the altar  (very often a tomb which many altar tables still resemble) provided light, which we still do today.

On one particular occasion, when the persecution was particularly bad, communion needed to be taken to those members of the community who were in prison. Tarcisius volunteered. The bishop was reluctant to let such a young person take such a risk, but Tarcisius insisted.

He was given the Eucharist wrapped up in a piece of clean linen, which he put in a pouch and hung round his neck.

In spite of being so young, he was recognised as Christian by an angry mob who wanted to know what he was carrying and why he was being so secretive. They attacked him viciously, but no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t pry the Eucharist from his hands.

Tarcisius died from his injuries and later his body was carried back to the catacombs to be buried. The bishop took from him the linen package containing the Body of Christ that he had been clinging to throughout his torture. Tarcisius was loyal to the end!

By the 5th Century, the role of assisting at Mass became part of the ordained ministry.

Tarcisius, whose remains are now in the church of  San Silvestro in Capite, Rome, is the patron saint of Altar Servers and is a great hero for every young Christian.


But it is a wonderful way to encourage young people to offer their time and skills and nurture their faith. (The rule generally is that having made their First Holy Communion, they may become servers.)  However we should be encouraging young people in all areas of lay ministry. Their vitality and enthusiasm would bring life to Welcoming, Proclaiming the Word, Singing and distributing Communion (especially to the sick and housebound!). I’m talking about teenagers, not younger children. Let’s encourage older servers that can be role models for the younger. Practically speaking, it can be difficult for a priest to control a sanctuary full of 8-10 year olds! Teenage and adult servers should be the norm, training and encouraging those who are younger.  


Never underestimate young people! They are sponges for knowledge and can do far more than we  think they can. Servers shouldn’t be made to feel nervous because they don’t know what to do. They need to be instructed and ‘walked through’ their role before their first mass.  This will foster an appreciation and understanding that they deserve and of course they will carry out their duties so much better. With younger people, do make training fun and relaxed. Given them the opportunity to express anxieties and ask questions and take them seriously even if you think they seem trivial.
I have included some  training references at the end of this article, because there are so many things to consider, but here’s a start;
Know what the following are called and their function.
Chalice, ciborium, cruets, credence table, purificator, corporal.
Sacristy, Sacrarium
Thurible, boat, incense, processional cross.
Altar, ambo, tabernacle, presider’s chair, sanctuary lamp, paschal candle.
Cassock, alb, stole, chasuble.
Lectionary, missal.
Practise the various postures and gestures.
Walking, sitting, bowing, genuflecting, making the sign of the cross.

How to receive communion.
What to do with your hands at all times.
Practise the various roles
How to safely light and extinguish candles
Carrying the cross.

Being an acolyte.
Being a thurifer. Lots of practical experience needed here. Know how to deal with charcoal, open the thurible, swing safely, and how many swings to do.


As the name suggests, this is a ministry of service. We are serving God and each other. At Mass, it involves practical jobs helping the ministers and the faithful. Ultimately it should express our love for God and should therefore be done properly. Why wouldn’t  it? No excuses! Nothing will be perfect because we are human, but we can strive.  Have clear expectations of attendance, dress and behaviour. They can cope with big words, explanations and attention to detail and indeed thrive on it.


Don’t take things for granted. We all like to be thanked and encouraged. Again, it’s human nature. Consider enrolling servers in to the Guild of St Stephen.


Here’s an instant checklist.
      1. Sit still.
2. Wear smart shoes (not high or noisy heels, or trainers) and a well  fitting cassock.
3. Do everything slowly.
4. Look and listen to what is going on.
5. Join your hands.
6. Join in the responses.
7. Join in the singing.
8. Say your prayers.


  1. Know what you are doing and Know why you are doing it!
  2. Practise, practise, practise! Carrying the cross, candles, cruets, ringing the bell or gong, genuflecting, carrying and swinging the thurible, walking in procession. Everything! No one should ask you to do something if you haven’t practised it several times first.
  3. Know your role. If you’re not sure, don’t be afraid to ask. Again, you should only do things you have been trained for.
  4. Turn up early, be helpful and polite. Your role begins way before Mass, especially on big occasions. You need to get robed and help get things ready, and not 3 minutes before Mass is due to start. Remember, you should not be a distraction.

The same goes for after Mass. Leave a few minutes before clearing things away.

  1. Say a prayer. Don’t forget God in all this! You will say a prayer in the sacristy before and after Mass. But take time to speak to God., sharing your 
  2. Be part of a team. You are a part of the worshipping community and part of a serving  It’s a great way to make new friends. As well as training and serving, the team should go for meals, days out or to the cinema.
  3. Be humble. You are not the centre of attention. Everything you do is for God, and God will love you for it. So undertake your role in quiet and humble way, not drawing attention to yourself in any way. 
  4. Be committed and a good example. Once you are trained and on a rota, people will rely on you to attend and perform a role. You will learn lots of life skills.

BE SAFE!It is most important to stress that ALL those involved in the training and pastoral care of young people MUST follow the principles of good practice as laid out by the local diocese.  All Church personnel (including clergy, religious, staff and volunteers) have a responsibility to safeguard  children through promoting their welfare, health and development in a safe and caring environment that  supports their best interests and prevents abuse.


Guide for Servers. The Liturgical Ministry Series.
Corrina Laughlin, Robert D. Shadduck, Paul Turner, D Todd Williamson.     LTP 2012
Serve the Lord with Gladness. A Manual for Servers.  David Philippart.   LTP 1998

[1] 1983 Code of Canon Law; all lay people can exercise various liturgical roles.

Redemptionis Sacramentum 121

Written by Maria Hall for Intercom Magazine

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