Sunday, June 17, 2007

Altar Boy Program - Post 3: Headed by the Pastor

Practice session for Easter Season headed by Fr. Perrone
Photo by Jeff Williams - 2007.

I'm continuing with my discussion of why I believe the altar boy program at Assumption Grotto enjoys such good participation. I posted it yesterday, and have modified the date to 6/17/2007 to bump it back to the top of the blog again. Do note that comment moderation is turned on.

Here is our list again with links to the first and second posts.

  1. All Male Program.

  2. Masculinity of Discipline and Precision Required

  3. Headed by the Pastor

  4. Liturgically traditional parish with orthodoxy in doctrine

  5. Strong Catholic identity within the family

  6. Large homeschooling population

I've already established how and why Assumption Grotto can have an all male program in my first post. I spoke about the masculinity of it all in my second post. Now, in this third segment of the series, I want to bring to light that in this program, men are leading men.

3. Program Headed by Pastor

At the very top of this program is Grotto's pastor, Fr. Eduard Perrone. While lay men who are seasoned veteran servers of the altar assist the pastor in directing the boys, we all know who heads the program. It is not a lay led program, and it involves more than what is seen.

The seasoned veterans make sure it runs smoothly and handle all those details that may not be so well known to the less experienced, such as on special feast days.

In the photo above along with Fr. Perrone and some of the newer altar boys, is one of those adults who ordinarily works as a master of ceremonies at Saturday evening liturgies, at Masses during Holy Week, and at the 7:00 pm outdoor mass on August 15. He dresses in altar server attire - cassock and surplice, and can sometimes be seen giving the young men subtle cues. He also directs traffic in a subtle, but dignified manner during big processions where several hundred people are involved. A good MC can make it all run smooth and not draw any more attention to himself than is needed by those to whom he gives cues.

Practice session for Easter Season headed by Fr. Perrone
Photo by Jeff Williams - 2007.


I've witnessed several things about the development of altar boys at Grotto since May 2005 when I first came to Grotto.

  1. Tools and Actions

  2. Behavioral

  3. Spiritual

Photos of the bells used during Elevation and Benediction.
Taken during Christmas season 2006

A. Tools and Actions

Long before any Mass begins, altar boys are there at church preparing everything that is needed, from layout out of vestments to setting out all that will be needed during the liturgy. All of this "know-how" takes training in what to put out, and when. They learn terms like "thurible" or "censor" and "corporal"

This task is done with utmost care for the fact that they do so in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle directly in the center of the wall altar in the sanctuary. Which leads us into the next point.

Torchbearers processing in at the beginning of the 7:00pm outdoor Mass on August 15, 2006.
Photo by Jeff Williams.

B. Behavioral Development

This is somewhat redundant to my last post, but bears a revisit.

Behavior among altar boys during holy Mass is striking when one first encounters it because of what it lacks: A casual, lax attitude. It goes to the self-discipline I talked about in my previous post. Their work is also done in complete silence with visible reverence. Granted, this is also the kind of behavior in most parishioners at Grotto. The culture itself embraces total silence in Church and full attention on God, not each other. But, boy do we ever socialize outside of the Mass the way I've never experienced in any parish before. That's another subject.

The strut of the boys is one that is not proud, but humble. Their hands are clasped in prayer even when they walk - palm on palm, finger-tip on finger-tip, held at about a 30 degree angle. As I've mentioned before when they walk, they walk slowly. Their heads are not bobbing about, looking up at the ceiling or at friends in the pews. Each time they pass the Tabernacle, They pause, then they genuflect unless they are carrying something. Instead, they make a profound bow facing Our Lord. When they have something in hand, the free hand is always covering their heart - yet another sign of reverence and respect for that which they do and for Whom it is done.

When we look at an eight-year old boy outside of Mass - a pure bundle of unreserved energy, it is truly amazing to see him control that energy by himself through self-discipline serving on the altar. The boys mature more quickly in my humble opinion through all that they learn in serving. The youngest boys are the torchbearers and watching them first learn all of the behaviors needed as such, is one to make anyone proud of their efforts and accomplishments. I've seen a desire to do it right and do it good, with full focus on what they are doing. It is, after all, a rite of passage. This is what the young, new boys do.

There is a natural progression for the young men. They learn simple things and simple motions first, then as they mature, they get more responsibility and move from the simple to the more complex, like knowing what to do on special feast days or when a bishop or cardinal comes. Some will go on to train others. Their behavior exhibits the fullness of teamwork.

Altar boys bowing during the Credo at " incarnatus est..." -
Photo by Jeff Williams, August 15, 2006 at the 7:00pm outdoor Mass.

C. Spiritual Development

Behavior goes to more than how they appear on the altar. It's an interior thing, as well. While no boy is perfect, priests take the time to teach them to lead virtuous and God-pleasing lives. These things will take them far down the road in being good husbands and fathers, as well as good priests and religious, for those that are called.

There is a spiritual side to being an altar boy at Grotto. It's not simply about the precision, the mechanics and discipline of the job. These things they can get on a ball field.

Altar boys have regular retreats through the parish. Sometimes it will be onsite, other times offsite with other activities. Many of these retreats are silent retreats, or at least have periods of silence built in, which once again goes to building self-discipline. However, it involves something far deeper.

Holy silence is where we not only talk to God, it is where we can finally listen to Him. If our minds are always cluttered with talk, then how can we hear the Lord's gentle admonishments and lessons? How can he order charity in our hearts if we cannot learn to be silent for a time so that we may hear His voice above all others, including our own? This is what the priests help to teach the boys.

Our priests also teach the boys to live according to the Gospel through solid understanding of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and they encourage frequent confession. It is good that priests of our parish encourage everyone, not only altar boys, to go frequently, even in the absence of serious sin, to build virtue.

Eucharistic adoration is encouraged, as is Marian devotion - things that when I was growing up in the 70's and 80's were discouraged if only by their lack of emphasis.

The spiritual dimension of the altar boy program is what can enable a young man to hear if God is calling him to the priesthood. Should he sense that call, Father is not some distant figure on the altar, but a priest in the sacristy with whom he can confide and talk with on such matters. As an altar boy, he witnesses first-hand, the seriousness and reverence with which Father vests for Mass. He witnesses the stoic manner in which Father deals with tremendous heat in an unairconditioned church wearing full vestments, including amice fully covering any sign of street clothes at the neck, all the while building stamina himself as he too dons the cassock and surplice. The lesson is simple and one unheard of in many of today's Catholic parishes: Offer it up! He witnesses the work of the priest in ways that are unseen to the average faithful. He sees Father's devoutness. He sees Father's humanity. Being close to a holy priest is what can lead a young man to aspire, if he is called, to the priesthood.
All of this, is perhaps why we see in parishes like Assumption Grotto, vocation rates that are higher than the average diocesan parish. Vocations are flourishing in parishes where there are all-male programs and where orthodoxy in docrine, prayerlife, and family life are the rule. It is mind-boggling why any diocese would not encourage more of the same in other parishes if they want more vocations.

Altar boys in the background raising candles as they sing, "Ave, Ave, Ave Maria!" before the big Marian procession on August 15, 2006

One thing that struck me profoundly happened following the 9:30am Mass one Sunday. I happened to be in the sacristy when the boys returned following Mass and all lined up as so silently you could hear a pin drop and with an appearance of anticipation for something still unknown to me at the moment. I wondered what was going on when the priest, taking up the rear, came in and all of the boys dropped down to one knee and the priest gave them a blessing. Then, all worked relatively silently putting away the tools and vestments. It's a simple thing, but how many priests do this today? In how many sacristies are there altar servers working silently with hardly a peep after Mass, putting everything back in its place?

Behavior Outside of Mass: Boys Becoming Men

From a spiritual standpoint, the altar boys do much outside of the Mass, as well. They are often doing work behind the scenes, helping out when there are various things going on from clothing drives to various other social events, and ordinary labor around the parish. While these things may not all be arranged as part of the altar boy program, it goes to what they learn in not turning a blind eye to those things that need to be done. Many of them run to the work when they see it, as opposed to running the other way. My experience with many of them is that they want to be helpful. I've been on the receiving end of "ad hoc" help many times when one or more of them saw the need. I've witnessed the same as they help others. One could argue that it is more a function of good home life and parenting. I won't argue with that at all because I believe that is the case. But I also believe it has something to do with their development as altar boys too. I see boys developing into men - mature men, much sooner in my parish than I ever experienced before coming to Assumption Grotto Parish in Detroit.

Deo Gratias!