Knights of the Altar

Changing boys for the better.
by Matthew Brock, LC | Source: Catholic.net

The phrase “mists of time” is associated in my boyhood memories with real moisture. When I was nine years old, my family moved to Washington state where we lived in a small housing development on the rain-drenched Issaquah Plateau, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains about eighteen miles from Seattle. Some of my best memories of those years center on Mercer Island, a foot-shaped, pine-covered island in a large lake that forms an eastern border to the city of Seattle. It was there that my family went to daily Mass, and it was there that I joined an altar boys club, run by a frail but tough and kind elderly nun.

Sr. Marion Gorki ran the only all-boy altar server program in the archdiocese of Seattle, and it was immensely popular with about fifty to sixty boys from the fourth to eighth grades in the parish school and beyond. Beside the weekly rotations of Mass serving, the training sessions and motivational talks, she understood that we needed fun and games, so the good nun organized an annual altar boys’ picnic and water war. I still have vivid memories of a group of us creeping through the damp undergrowth of Island Crest Park – a maze of trails through thick temperate rain forest – the moss and pine needles wet underfoot, SuperSoakers at the ready, bravely attacking another group of fourth-graders, or fleeing in terror from the huge and fearsome seventh and eighth-graders. I might never have been an altar boy if it hadn’t been for those days of fun and games and boyish camaraderie on wet and misty Mercer Island.

Coincidentally, the next time I became actively involved with altar boys was in another moist locale – Dublin, Ireland. From 2005 to 2007, I lived and worked in close proximity to Dublin Oak Academy, an all-boys Catholic school for about 100 students from Latin America, France, and Spain, who come to Ireland for full immersion in English. Although not working directly with the students, I was able to observe closely the programs through which the teachers and deans imparted formation, learning, and love for the faith, and the interaction among the students themselves. One program in particular caught my attention for its effectiveness. It was called Knights of the Altar, and had been founded there at the academy in 2004 by a zealous Irish priest in his late forties, Fr Michael Duffy.

 Knights of the Altar was the most successful program in the school, bar none. It was designed to help the boys internalize the Catholic formation they were receiving by enabling them to actively participate in the liturgy as altar servers and develop a personal prayer life that would help them form life-long habits.

The success of this program was stunning. When the boys joined the program, they all exhibited a certain degree of the contumacy common to that age-group, and getting them to keep discipline or do anything spiritual for any other reason than because they were forced to seemed impossible. Yet that is exactly what happened. The boys became sincerely motivated to do their duty solely to please Christ, and as a result, they did what they were supposed to with extraordinary cheerfulness and zeal. This had a yeast-like effect on the rest of the school. Knights of the Altar single-handedly changed Dublin Oak Academy from a good school to an excellent one.

 The program’s structure sparked its success. Boys at that age hunger to be heroes, and the set-up catered to that. Those interested in the program had to study for and pass a test to win the rank of Herald. Heralds proudly donned the uniform of a white alb and gold cincture and could serve ordinary Masses and participate in the simpler roles of solemnity Masses and special liturgical celebrations. Those who showed sufficient interest and aplomb in serving were invited to study for the next stage: Squire. Squires were privileged to drape a deep green or red amice over the Herald uniform. 

Then the race to become a knight begins. Only twelve of the approximately sixty boys who join the program actually make it to knighthood every year, so the competition is intense. If they thought the exams for Herald and Squire were hard – the boys have to memorize the responses to the Mass in both English and Latin – the one to become a Knight is grueling. An aspirant must show fluid command of the ins and outs of sacristy lore, be able to serve as Master of Ceremonies for the often complicated Feastday and Solemnity Masses, and also be a role model for the other boys, with no disciplinary problems whatsoever. Many of the boys who became Knights were not angels when they started, but their desire to become Knights motivated them to change their behavior completely.

Most observers would have thought it virtually impossible to get the boys interested in liturgical matters, let alone study the details. Yet the boys love this program. It taps into the natural fascination of mystery and ritual, and gives them a concrete and constructive way to channel their innate desire for greatness.

The most exciting event, though, is the Knighthood investiture ceremony. After a long pizza party, the boys have a sleep-over in the school building, which, conveniently, is an old castle. Before going to bed, those about to become Knights spend half an hour in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, just like the knights of old. The next morning they wake up early and process out, candles glimmering in the early morning mist, to the ruins of a 7th century chapel on the school grounds. There the priest solemnly presents them with the red cassock and white surplices of a Knight of the Altar, knights them with a cross in a simple but heart-stirring ceremony, and invites them to pronounce a special prayer written for the occasion. For many boys, reaching that moment is like a dream come true.

 For those of us involved in the often arduous task of youth ministry, the success of the Knights of the Altar program gives food for thought. The goal of all youth ministry is to make Christ the center of young people’s lives, such that they freely and maturely decide to follow his will and live his commands. That goal can only be achieved if the young people are attracted to a program. If the program is too puerile, you lose them. If too lovey-dovey and saccharine, you embarrass them. If too intellectual and “grown-up”, you bore them. For a program to be successful it has to hit just the right balance.

 Knights of the Altar manifestly hit that balance in three ways: understanding the boys’ need for acceptance by a group, healthily promoting their desire to be heroes, and catering to their love of competition and challenges.

I

 Peers. Respect. Acceptance. 12-14 year olds have an almost universal proclivity to find strength in numbers, to look to their companions for support and approval, and to show little or no capacity for independent thinking.  If something will bring them acceptance by their group of friends, they do it. If not, they reject it. They define themselves by their group of friends and by the acceptance they feel within that group.

All groups, though, form around one or two charismatic individuals who define what behavior is “cool”, and therefore what behavior will find acceptance within a group.

For lack of a better word, “cool” refers to whatever brings adolescents the peer-acceptance they seek. It can mean the qualities in a person which earn him the respect of his peers, or the qualities in an activity or a possession which will earn that respect. For example, a kid is cool when he is popular (funny, daring, athletic, rebellious, etc) and other kids imitate him; a thing (like wearing certain types of clothes, owning something special, belonging to a certain group, listening to certain music) is cool when doing (or wearing, etc) that thing earns a kid the respect of his peers.

The leaders who decide what is “cool” are generally of two kinds. One kind seems to attract a group of boys to him because of his perceived “experience.” Another kind does the same because of his self-assuredness.

 First, “coolness-by-experience.” Since an adolescent’s world is so closed, so hemmed in by adult restrictions, those viewed as cool kids are often the ones who have more independence from adult authority and therefore more access to the experiences that to other boys are still forbidden fruit. Since these same boys also tend to be less respectful to adult authority, and tend to denigrate those still under that authority, they create a climate of rebelliousness and disrespect toward adults.

These kids and their followers, however, are inherently insecure. Three things result. The first is that they find security and acceptance by bragging about “experiences.”

Second, the leader in this group feels the need to constantly reinforce his position of predominance. He does this either by openly voicing rebellion against and disdain for adult authority (which leads their followers to increase their good standing with the cool kid by aping those attitudes), or by continuously pushing the boundary of things he dares to do further and further into forbidden territory. This also leads his followers to imitation.

Third, all the boys’ constant fear of not being accepted by the others leads them to outdo each other in staying away from (and therefore openly rejecting) kids not considered cool by their group, which nine times out of ten will lead to bullying.

Any school teacher will recognize the above description. Since “experiences” tend to become more and more morally dubious as the boys grow older, the negative influence of a group like this can be devastating.

Next, however, are those boys who are “cool” because of their self-assuredness. There are few common ingredients for their self-confidence other than the crucial one that they always feel supported by their parents. Often times these boys will be good athletes. Other times they will be smarter than average, or will simply have an innate ability to make friends through kindness. They differ from the “experience” leaders in several important ways.

First, their self-assuredness precludes any desire to form a group of admirers. They are content with being themselves. They can form a group around them at will, however, and when a group does form, often it is simply because they are fun people to be around, and enjoy accepting others the way they are.

Second, since they are not afraid of losing their position of leadership, they do not as often attempt to mark their territory at the expense of adult authority.

Finally, their group, if and when it forms, is generally open to any type of kid, without the fear-driven apartheid practiced by the other type of leader.

Obviously, forming a group of kids around a leader like this is crucial for the success of any youth program. Knights of the Altar was able to recruit the positive leaders in the school, and so it thrived.

II

Knights of the Altar promotes the boys’ desires to be heroes. This is a universal phenomenon: boys want to be heroes, or better said, they have heroes they want to be like. Cue in the lack of discrepant judgment mentioned above, and it is easy to see why so many young people can make heroes of rotten role models like some rock stars and professional athletes. By instructing young people about what true heroism consists in – living the virtues – and presenting them with examples or archetypes of people who do that – Jesus Christ, saints, knights – a youth program can turn the child’s desire for heroism into a positive, healthy force. Knights of the Altar presents the archetype of knighthood as a model of virtuous living. Since this appealed to the boys’ sense of adventure and hero-worship, the program prospered.

III

Knights of the Altar caters to the boys’ love of competition and challenge. Boys, and indeed males of all ages, define their sense of self-worth by their ability to overcome challenges. The program presented the boys with difficult tasks like moving to the next stage of Squire or Knight, while at the same time proffering encouragement and reward (an exciting investiture ceremony, serving more complicated Masses). It was thus able to keep the boys’ interest and commitment.

Knights of the Altar is changing boys for the better, but what about the girls? And how deep is the change? Deep enough to open their hearts to a possible priestly vocation?

I have seven sisters, and so I am, ouch! fully sympathetic to the, ouch! female lobby regarding this issue. Nevertheless, it would be helpful to review the conditions Pope John Paul II prescribed when, on March 15, 1994, he allowed the practice of girls serving Mass. They are as follows:
1) Female altar servers are not mandated, but permitted, and neither individual priests nor entire dioceses can be obliged to allow girls to serve at the altar.
2) Groups of altar boys are to be preferred, and support is to be given to such groups.
3) The reasons for allowing girls to serve should be explained to the faithful.
4) There is no right, on the part of anyone, not even ordained ministers, to serve the liturgy (or read, distribute communion, etc). The Church decides who may exercise that privilege.

So, girls can serve, but it’s preferable that boys do, and priests and bishops should promote altar boy groups. The best way to allow all of the above to happen would be to have separate programs for boys and girls.

The year after I left Seattle, Sr. Marian retired as the head of the altar boy program. Almost immediately, the new person in charge allowed girls to join. Within a year, only a handful of the sixty-odd boys remained in the program. From anecdotal evidence I have gathered in the half dozen states I have lived in, as well as from Mexico, Italy, and Ireland, this seems to be a universal occurrence. Where altar girls are allowed, they dominate.

There seem to be two reasons for this: first, the importance to 12-14 year old boys of “the group”; and second, their fear of teasing.

As has been mentioned, boys at this age only find security in their group. They are beginning to find girls attractive, but they relate to girls “as a group”; they do not pair off and start engaging the girls individually until later. Being forcibly separated from that group and having to deal with girls one-on-one is not an appealing experience for boys this age, and yet that is exactly what they are being asked to do if they have to serve Mass with a girl.

Add to that the fear of the teasing that he at least imagines he will receive from “the guys” if they see him up there on the altar with a girl, and it is rare to find a normal boy brave enough to endure the pressure. Isn’t the only other time you see a boy and a girl on the altar during a wedding? Rag. Rag. Rag. Tease. Tease. Tease. Immature? Yes, but that is exactly what 12-14 year olds are – not yet fully developed.

The only solution, if we want boys to be altar servers, is to develop separate programs for boys and girls. Not only will the boys breathe a sigh of relief, but you will get better participation out of both sexes. Boys and girls, gasp, are different. For one, the main attractions to altar serving for boys - the mystery and ritual, the competition, the challenges, the heroism – holds little truck with girls. A fascinating and authoritative look at the subject is Why Gender Matters by Dr. Leonard Sax, MD, PhD. (Random House, 2006.) Separate programs for each would benefit both sides.

Obviously, having an all-boy program would make promoting the vocation to the priesthood a lot easier. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make everyone happy. Some people, often parents or relatives, seem to think that joining an altar boy group is “dooming” a boy to become a priest. That is not true.

First of all, those who would most likely be responsible for promoting the priesthood among the altar boys (priests and seminarians), are the first to recognize that the vocation is a very individual gift from God, and cannot be chosen as if it were a career option. Second, the fact remains that God does call – everyone! All people have a vocation, literally a calling, to something. For nine out of ten of the boys in an altar boy program, that calling will be to fulfillment as a Christian husband and father. For a few, it will be a call to the priesthood. The advantage of an altar boy program that is focused on the service of Christ and that teaches boys to place importance on God’s plan for their lives is that it will help them all follow their vocation, whatever that may be. And that is the goal of Christianity: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Knights of the Altar is a thoroughly successful program in Dublin Oak Academy and in the parishes to which alumni of the academy have transplanted it. It has tremendous potential to revitalize the participation of young men in the things of God in dioceses and parishes around the world. If you are in a position to implement such a program or know someone who is, it is worth giving it a try.



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