BY ERWIN CABUCOS
In the busy schedule of our children’s weekends these days, altar serving has had to compete against the attractiveness of sports and cultural activities available in their repertoire of choices.
There are swimming, soccer and taekwondo on Saturdays that promise the benefits of physical health, teamwork and general wellbeing. There’s rugby, dancing and tutoring on Sundays that sell outcomes such as physical strength, social skills and improvement in subject results.
What about altar serving, what has it got to offer? Why should parents consider it worthwhile for their children to engage in?
When I told my friends that I would enter the seminary many years ago, their first reaction was: what does that give you? How much money would you earn from it?
At my university campus, housemates asked me: ‘Why go to church when you can come with us to footy?’ In my religion classes, students asked me: ‘Sir, what has religion got to do with my job prospects when I finish school?’ I got that last question answered pretty quick and smart, but this idea of questioning spiritual things in the standards of materialism and pleasure-seeking benchmarks is quite odd.
How do you measure the benefits of things spiritual or transcendental? How do you completely define or gauge the experience of peace, tranquillity, love, justice, piety, respect, harmony, etc.
Anyhow, since we have the question at hand, why don’t we try to look into the practical benefits of altar serving in a child today?
First, the skills of being aware and in sync with the flow of the event is put into practice. Mass is a liturgical celebration of words and actions that symbolise and represent meanings within the Catholic teachings and tradition. Altar servers, where they are expected to be doing or still, to be saying prayers or being quiet, to be singing or listening, are applied. When to do and when not to do an action tests one’s attention while being patient and adherence while being in control. Movements such as the procession at the start, the handing of water and wine to the priest, the ringing of bells at consecration and other actions demand awareness of the process and cooperation within a team environment.
Second, the enjoyment of being able to dress-up, select suitable vessels and prepare appropriate colours of vestments as well as decorating the church for the meanings and theme of the liturgy involve tactile and aesthetic skills.
In many of activities similar to these, children are challenged in the skills of recalling meanings, selecting from options, matching consistent items, looking for balance and order, adhering to expectation, prioritising for what’s more relevant and observing for roles and responsibility, not to mention the fun that may be brought by being able to wear outfits of religious and community significance.
Third, the involvement of parents, teachers, friends, and community members in the liturgy provide a deeper sense of belonging, identity and perhaps security for the child. In most sporting activity, parents are reduced to mere spectators while at Mass or other church liturgical celebrations, the whole family members are all participants. It becomes more satisfying for the child.
Fourth, the stimulation of the senses of hearing, seeing, smelling, touching and tasting in the public celebration of the liturgy shows the versatility of the activities. Examples of those instances include: hearing the beautiful choral ensemble of the choir, smelling the perfumes of the incense, touching the bible and the Eucharistic vessels and tasting small amount of bread and wine filled with meaning and graces. The psychological or experiential appeal of the activities may prove to be wholesome and engaging for the teenager.
Fifth, children’s sense of occasion and awareness of growth or cycle in the seasons are deepened. Christmas, Lent, Palm Sunday, Easter, Feast of Christ the King and other significant events in the church calendar do help kids understand elements of permanence, change, consistency and dynamism. Changes in season reflect the different times, mood, prayer and events in life. Narratives associated in those seasons add meaning into those realities. Altar serving in sacrament-based liturgies such as baptism, wedding or first communion can introduce children into a sense of growth, community, relationship, family, roles, identities, love, courage, hope and faith.
Furthermore, other liturgies such as funeral or anointing of the sick may bring more profound experiences for altar servers that an ordinary classroom or sports field simply provides. These experiences, including the homily of the priest can give the child rich soil for personal reflection towards more mature inspiration, memories and illumination for what is happiness and meaning of life.
Catholic parents and other adults who have children under their care know that altar serving for children offers far more wholesome benefits than simply being at the altar and suspicion that one day their will become priests or nuns. If it turns out that way, then maybe it is meant to be, but the sense of faith, love and other spiritual things that is experienced in a liturgy far extends children’s understanding of life in general.
Erwin Cabucos is a migrant from the Philippines, an ethnic radio broadcaster and a teacher of English, History and Study of Religion at Assisi Catholic College, Upper Coomera, Qld
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