MCNEILLIE: Altar Serving - The Vocations ‘Farm System’

September 26, 2023

Daniel Cardinal DiNardo greets a group of altar servers at a recent Mass. (Photo by James Ramos/Herald)

Altar serving has a critical role to play in vocations to the priesthood. For decades, studies have shown that around 70% of priests were once altar servers. It’s the one pre-seminary activity that they have most in common.

The “Farm System” in baseball refers to a series of levels that players progress through. As they improve, they rise to higher and higher levels (A, A Advanced, AA, etc.), and eventually, some “graduate” to play on the major league team itself. This system changed Major League Baseball, and it helped teams like the Astros win year after year. A “strong” farm system, full of recruited talent and top draft picks, makes for a “strong” team since the most talented and driven players rise to the top.

This is a great analogy for what altar serving can be for the priesthood. In the past, altar servers rose through the ranks, gradually taking on more responsibility and tasks in the Mass. Servers were integral to the Liturgy, working alongside the priest and, in some cases, saying prayers (dialogues) with the priest that even the congregation didn’t do. Moreover, servers dressed like the priest, wearing the familiar clerical cassock and surplice. It would not have been difficult for a boy in this system to see the priesthood as the “major league” level of altar serving.

And while the farm system in baseball helps the most talented and driven individuals rise to the top, altar serving may have helped those men who were the most engaged in the Liturgy to rise to the top. Boys who loved the Mass loved altar serving, and they learned the Mass in a way that made them great servers.

As a former altar server, I became familiar with the Mass at an early age. I remember having to learn all the names of liturgical items, like “cruet,” “thurible” and “aspergillum.” While I didn’t develop a love for the Mass until college, serving as a young boy made returning to altar serving as a young man easy. After a conversion of heart in college, I began serving again. This time, I could easily see how serving put me closer to the altar. I could see how altar serving put me closer to the priesthood. And I began to see how priesthood could be a fulfillment of my desires and love for the Mass.

As your vocations director, I think about the potential altar serving has in helping young men draw closer to the Liturgy. As they continue to get more involved, we pray that many of them will hear that call from the Lord to love the Mass so much that they, with a small sacrifice, will enter into Christ’s priestly sacrifice in a complete and total way.

In some way, altar serving still seems to be doing that today since most newly ordained priests were once altar servers. However, given the lower number of ordained priests in recent decades, I also pray that the connection between altar serving and vocations to the priesthood — the “farm system of altar serving” — isn’t lost amidst all the other parish concerns. 

Father Richard McNeillie is the director of the Office of Vocations.