On the Benefits of the Altar Girl
Marian Donahue, Class of 2013, English
September 7, 2012
Filed under Quill
After years of being met with uncomfortable silences, or worse, disapproving eye-rolls, I have almost completely stopped referencing in polite conversation the years I spent as an altar server in my local church. I signed up in the fourth grade with many of my classmates, boys and girls, and did not meet any resistance to my position until after I had grown up.
I have seen this issue crop up from time to time as a source of debate and even, unfortunately, hostility. It is not my aim in this article to antagonize or insult anyone else’s personal views on the subject of altar girls. I only hope to supply something that I have found missing when I look at other conversations: a personal account of serving from someone who has benefitted from being on the altar.
The first lesson I learned about altar serving is the importance of showing up. If our name was on the schedule, then it was our responsibility to make sure we were present and ready. Things were allowed to go wrong in the Mass, the wrong book was put out or the candles wouldn’t light, but the important part was that we were there to help fix those errors. Of course we made plenty of mistakes ourselves, it is expected of any collection of ten year olds, but we learned and eventually we could last an entire mass without a hiccup.
This most basic lesson, the value of our presence and participation in the Mass, was invaluable as a growing member of the church. I started to attend church, not because of the influence of my parents, but because I had my own obligation to be there. I no longer owed it to anyone else to attend and stay focused in Mass. It was my decision to volunteer. When I learned new things it was my personal bond to the Mass that deepened.
I was given a glimpse at something that had always interested me, a view of the structure of Mass up close. When sitting a pew, I could never really see what was happening on the altar due to my diminutive stature and my attentions inevitably wandered. All that changed when I was sitting with the others servers at the left hand of the priest. I could see and understand more of this celebration than I had ever been allowed access to before.
On the altar, I could see what books readings were coming from and it is where I heard Latin spoken for the first time. At this point it stopped just being a responsibility, and started to genuinely interest me. I cared more about my religion classes in school because the lesson we learned were not dealing with some detached belief system, but something I belonged to and believed in. It became real to me, something I practiced every week. I wanted to understand better.
I do not pretend that as a ten year old I experienced some great religious conversion. There was not a dramatic change in me at all, it was gradual. Serving on the altar gave me habits and interests over time that has grown up with me. They never really went away. I received a great deal from my experiences as an altar server, and I hope that other children, boys and girls, will participate in the same important and rewarding program I did.