Serra Club honors Bishop Sheltz, altar servers with Mass

September 28, 2021

Altar servers process through the sanctuary at Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church in Houston. A Nov. 13 Mass will honor both retired Auxiliary Bishop George A. Sheltz and the hundreds of altar servers at parishes across the Archdiocese. Seminarians have often said their discernment efforts were impacted by their choice to serve the Church as an altar server at their parish. (Herald file photo)

HOUSTON — At 75, retired Auxiliary Bishop George A. Sheltz still recalls winning the Altar Server of the Year award as a boy.
“Being an altar server gives you participation in the Liturgy, and you are actively involved, not just a spectator,” Bishop Sheltz said.
When altar servers perform their duties well during Mass while processing in with the crucifix, bringing up the book to the celebrating priest or ringing the altar bell during consecration, parishioners rarely notice them except for their proud parents. But if they yawn or scratch in the middle of a prayer, it appears everyone sees that.
Bishop Sheltz, who gave his mandatory resignation to Pope Francis this past June, said he remembers receiving the Altar Boy of the Year award in his childhood when he served at Annunciation Catholic Church in downtown Houston.
His vocation may have been a case of being pre-ordained in more ways than one coming from a family who followed their vocations. His uncle Monsignor Anton Frank was the first native Houstonian ordained for the diocese in 1933 and became pastor at Annunciation. Bishop’s father, George Sheltz Sr., was ordained a permanent deacon and his brother Anton also became a priest.
By fifth grade, Bishop Sheltz said he recalled dressing as a server to help his deacon father with benedictions and novenas at Annunciation. Then through eighth grade, he continued to assist his uncle with Masses as well.
“I remember when I won the Altar Boy of the Year award, the Serra Club brought the written tests to prove that I legitimately won and there was no favoritism,” he said and chuckled.
Now the Serra Club has named its annual Mass for altar servers as the Bishop George Sheltz Archdiocesan Altar Server Appreciation Mass, which is scheduled this year for Nov. 13 at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.
“I’m very humbled they did that. The Serra Club continues to encourage young men and women to go into vocations. Hopefully, by becoming altar servers, they consider going to the seminary and into religious life,” Bishop Sheltz said.
Committee co-chairs organizing the Mass, Serra US Executive board member Candice Tyrrell and Larry Massey, president of the Scanlan Foundation, said their main goal is to encourage young people to consider vocations.
“Serra’s mission is to foster and promote vocations to the priesthood and consecrated religious life. Catholic priests in the U.S. have seen a drastic decline in numbers since 1965 from nearly 60,000 to about 37,000 currently,” Tyrrell explained.
“That’s why these altar server appreciations are very important because the majority of priests were altar servers in their youth, and we desperately need more priests,” she said.
Massey agreed, saying Scanlan Foundation’s strategic mission is “building a culture of vocations to the priesthood, religious life, and holy families. That is why we are so excited to help Serra with this Mass.”
They both work closely with Father Richard McNeillie, Archdiocesan director of Vocations, who travels from the Houston chancery to area college campuses and seminaries across the state to encourage and guide students.
Meanwhile, the number of Catholics in the U.S. has increased from 48 million in 1965 to more than 70 million, not counting the 30 million or so lapsed Catholics. An annual ordination report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) reflects those who responded among the 600 men being ordained in the U.S. The survey shows they are from a variety of backgrounds who responded to God’s call to serve His people — 67% Caucasian; 16% Hispanic; 10% Asian; 6% African/African American.
Across the country, the average age of ordination this year is 34, although the respondents were an average of 16 years old when they first considered a call to the priesthood. About 40% of all respondents attended a Catholic school for at least some of their education. Overall, 73% served as altar servers before entering the seminary. Half served as readers and 40% as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.
Father Tom Ponzini, pastor at Prince of Peace Catholic Church, said, “As a youngster, it was a thrill for me to serve at Mass right next to the priest. In some way, I felt closer to God. Without realizing it at the time, serving as an altar server was one of the many experiences that helped me to eventually respond to God’s calling to the priesthood.”
“Our altar servers at Prince of Peace Catholic Community have just recently returned to serving at Mass after about a year and a half absence due to the pandemic,” he said. “It is so great to have them back!”
Father Ponzini added, “I believe that altar servers greatly enhance the celebration of Holy Mass. Through their reverence, their attentiveness and their presence, altar servers help lead the assembly in more fully praising and worshipping our Lord.”
Interviews with older altar servers from across the area included a young man seriously considering a vocation and visiting seminaries; another engaged to be married but wanting to continue serving God; and a young lady finishing up high school and starting college classes.
Ben Mueller has served at St. Thomas More, his family parish, for 10 years. Now 19 years old, he is working as an intern at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Sugar Land with the youth ministry so Mueller also is an altar server there. Both his older brothers served and were role models for him to become an altar server, he said.
“One brother went to the seminary. He ended up leaving and getting married. But he is now a director of evangelization in Florida,” Mueller said.
His great-uncle was also a role model as a priest in San Antonio as well as his parents, who are very devout with praying Rosaries and holy hours in Adoration, he said.
“The closer you get to the altar, the closer the Sacred shapes you,” Mueller said. “When I’m kneeling at the consecration with the thurible in hand and incense rising, it’s almost surreal as heaven and earth meet.”
But he is also realistic in seeing how many young people slip from the Church after receiving their Sacrament of Confirmation.
“I work with youth and see the rebellious spirit. You can’t change their hearts. Only God can change their hearts,” Mueller said.
“Parents can offer their pain to the Virgin Mary, who watched her own child die for us,” he said.
His serious discernment has taken him to St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston for retreats as well as visiting the Marian Friars Minor Franciscans for a week in their Kentucky monastery.
“They welcomed me to stay as long as I wanted,” Mueller said.
Carlos Morales took the more traditional route of altar servers, becoming one when he was eight years old after making his First Communion and serving until he was 12 years old.
“I took a break. But when I was 19 years old, I attended a Spanish retreat [where] I had a deep encounter with God,” he said. “It’s not just about going to Mass. It’s to serve and give our lives to God.”
As a University of Houston-Downtown student at the time, he began regularly serving during the weekday 12:10 p.m. Masses at the Co-Cathedral downtown. He also met his now-fiancée at the retreat, and they plan to marry in 2022.
He continues to be an altar server, and as a lector when needed, at the Co-Cathedral.
“The encounter encourages you to ask God to speak to you clearly in a way you understand. I had a vision of serving, preaching and saving souls. It was so clear and beautiful that I have no other choice but to serve God,” Morales said.
Callie Patterson, a 17-year-old high school senior also attending college courses at the College of the Mainland, has been an altar server since she was eight years old at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Hitchcock.
“I wanted to take my faith further and be up close during the transubstantiation of turning bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ,” Patterson said.
Although younger than most students directly involved, she was still pierced by the grief of the small town in 2018 when a lone shooter killed 10 people and wounded 13 at Santa Fe High School.
“Some of the wounded were my friends, and I know it crushed dreams,” she said. “But it didn’t make me question my faith. God was who we leaned on, praying together and reading Bible verses together.”
While considering a religious life, Patterson said she wants to experience motherhood. She said some in the conservative town also may not have fully accepted girls as altar servers. Pope John Paul II, now a saint, authorized female altar servers in 1994.
“I asked a friend of mine if she wanted to become an altar server, and she said that her family believes only boys should be altar servers,” Patterson said. “I just want to serve God however I can.”
All three altar servers interviewed said they plan to attend the Nov. 13 Mass at the Co-Cathedral, where organizers are asking pastors to invite those who have served for five years or more. Tyrrell and Massey and their committee are hoping for several hundred to attend and will award certificates and gifts.
Those interested in attending should contact their pastors about joining the event before the Oct. 13 deadline. †