Catholic Tradition of Altar Servers Survives Recent Church Scandals

By Lois K. Solomon
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
January 17, 2007,0,2031942.story?coll=sfla-news-palm

Boynton Beach -- As they wait for the procession to begin, they try to remember their many responsibilities.

Walk with the proper gait: not too fast, not too slow. When the priest bows, you bow. Otherwise, stay still!

"As soon as you move, everyone has their eyes on you instead of the lector or the priest," the Rev. Sam Zebron told his charges, ages ranging from 10 to 13.

A dozen altar servers were practicing for Mass recently at St. Mark Catholic Church in Boynton Beach. Although the students attend St. Mark Catholic School and have been serving for months or even years, Zebron called for an extra rehearsal so they could brush up on their skills.

Altar servers, known as "altar boys" until 1994, when the Vatican yielded to social pressures and said girls could serve too, assist the priests at Mass. They carry the cross in the opening and ending processional, hold the Mass Book so the priest's hands are free, give water to the priest so he can wash his hands and present him with the wine.

The institution originated in medieval times as a way to recruit priests, who often began their training in high school or younger ages. Although servers today are usually grade-school and middle-school students, they don't have to be, but it's become a tradition at most American churches. Adult servers are usually found during weekday Masses, when children are in school.

The vulnerable age of most altar servers, combined with the church's pedophilia scandals, has caused some Catholic parents to hesitate about whether to allow their children to serve. Recently, former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley said a priest molested him when he was an altar boy in Lake Worth in the 1960s. Several men have accused priests in the Archdiocese of Miami of molesting them when they were altar boys in the 1980s.

In recent years, many rules were created to protect children in the church, such as criminal checks on volunteers and staff members. The church has become a "safer place for kids than anywhere in the country," said the Rev. Tom Reese of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

"No priest wants to be in a situation alone with an altar server anymore," Reese said.

Donna Bigerton's son, Nicholas, 12, has been an altar server at St. Mark's for three years. She followed the national pedophilia scandals and wondered if similar events could happen locally.

"I was concerned and a little shocked," she said. "I have all the trust in the world in our priests, although I'm sure other people thought that, too."

Bigerton thinks the altar-server program has helped her son mature. Although he'd often prefer to hang out with friends during the weekend, she said he knows he made a commitment to serve at Mass.

"He knows it's his first priority," she said. "He feels like he's involved with something that's helping the church."

Samantha Forget, 11, likes the responsibility, but it scares her at the same time. She has made mistakes on the altar, including placing the cross the wrong way, but she said she learns from each misstep.

"I like to be in front of people," she said.

It's not easy to sit still for so long and to worry that you'll make a mistake, said Giana Halle, 10.

"It's really hot up there and it's hard to keep quiet."

Learning to stay still and concentrate develops an inner discipline that helps the students mature in their faith, said Kathleen Capp, who coordinates the ministry for the church.

"That level of participation allows them to understand the liturgy truly and deeply," Capp said. "We teach the liturgy and the Last Supper to all the kids, but the kids that serve, they appreciate it more than other children their age. It's a tremendous experience for them to be right up there in the middle of it all."

Lois Solomon can be reached at or 561-243-6536.


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