Altar Server Training and Ars Celebrandi after the Pandemic

Note: This article was drafted in spring 2021 and completed and submitted to Homiletic & Pastoral Review in October 2022.

In the June 2022 Apostolic letter Desiderio Desideravi, Pope Francis issues the clarion call for liturgical formation of the Christian faithful.1 Of specific concern is the way that liturgical celebrations have been conditioned in Christian communities by the heightened personalism of ordained ministers.2 I have observed the personalized abuses that Pope Francis lists in Desiderio Desideravi and I am guilty of a few myself. The Holy Father identifies inadequate celebrating styles that “become more evident when our celebrations are transmitted over the air or online, something not always opportune and that needs further reflection.”3

The practice of livestreaming the liturgy around the world highlighted the condition of the art of celebrating the Mass and the need for corrective action. Simply put, changes in the actions of the liturgy due to the pandemic left a lasting effect on the state of liturgical presidency today. There are many lingering personal adaptations brought about by the pandemic that require correction. In my pastoral practice, renewed training of altar servers and assisting ministers was a critical component to correcting the subjective liturgical adaptations made during the pandemic experience.

What Happened to Altar Serving During the Pandemic?

The habitual practice of serving Mass in the parish or at school ended abruptly with the suspension of public Masses and school closures in March of 2020. Stay Home – Save Lives became the national slogan. On the part of priests and deacons, thoughtful care to bridge the divide through the practice of “Livestreaming Mass” or outdoor celebrations became a priority for many. The quarantine experience increased the solitary celebration of the Mass by priests for online streaming with no assisting ministers. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal permits this practice for a just and reasonable cause.4 In many parishes, modifications were made to the sacred furnishings to optimize the audio and visual recording of the celebration of Mass. In many instances, chapels and oratories were modified into quasi-studio spaces with assisting ministers taking on the role of a video production crew.

Although these kinds of adaptations made good online streaming, the sacred movements in the liturgy became subdued. Priests were habituated to this expression of liturgical presidency with all the requisites for the celebration of Mass at an arm’s length away. Altar serving in parishes after reopening for public assembly brought further modifications. The recommended guidelines, protocols, and mandates for public assembly by local ordinaries and civil officials contributed to a maelstrom of adaptations to the liturgy with no universal standard practice. As it stands today, one parish may have reintroduced altar servers into the liturgy at varying degrees, while a neighboring parish may have no assisting ministers at all.

As a pastor of three separate parishes, each with its own group of assisting ministers, I experienced the formidable task of reopening for the celebration of public Mass with the rest of the world. Trust in the Lord was essential. Prior to gathering the assembly for public worship, we prayed litanies against pestilence and offered intentions for the health and welfare of the world. In May of 2020, we implemented the guidelines of our local bishop and the recommendations of the Thomistic Institute Working Group on Infectious Disease Protocols for Sacraments & Pastoral Care for public assembly.5 We made accommodations for physical distancing in the liturgy, exercised presidential prayers from the altar, and made changes to the processional routes to promote physical distancing. Adaptations to the celebration of the liturgy during the pandemic was an exercise of prudence. We reduced the number of altar servers at each Mass to household groups. Behind the scenes, there were temperature checks in the sacristy prior to each celebration and the occasional substitution when a scheduled household was in “quarantine.” By Advent of 2020, with zero incidents of Covid transmission in our assembly or among our assisting ministers, we reinstituted altar servers at all of our parish celebrations of Mass and began instructing and training our servers without any pandemic adaptations.

What Did We Learn in our Parishes?

Altar serving and liturgical presidency is an acquired habit. Presiding and assisting at the liturgy entails habits of acting that are acquired by constant repetition, which are equally lost by disuse or contrary acts.6 The disuse of altar servers for a period of time had an impact on even the most experienced members of our parishes. It was necessary to practice the processions and movements with our servers before the celebration of the liturgy. As the presider, I have implemented the use of a white board in the sacristy to make illustrations to help the youth visualize the movements in the liturgy. It may seem out of place, but these practical measures provide helpful guidance to our altar servers.

The pandemic experience requires humbling self-examination for the presider. The repetition of liturgical actions for livestream recordings had an impact on my own liturgical presidency. With the reintroduction of altar servers, it was necessary to study the general instruction of the Roman missal and reacquaint myself with the sacred actions and movements within the sanctuary of each parish. The pandemic has been an occasion to foster deeper respect for the liturgical books and appreciation for the richness of signs and movements in the liturgy. In seeking to recapture the art of celebrating the liturgy, I was guided by Pope Benedict XVI in the apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis. The Holy Father says:

“Equally important for a correct ars celebrandi is an attentiveness to the various kinds of language that the liturgy employs: words and music, gestures and silence, movement, the liturgical colors of the vestments. By its very nature the liturgy operates on different levels of communication which enable it to engage the whole human person. The simplicity of its gestures and the sobriety of its orderly sequence of signs communicate and inspire more than any contrived and inappropriate additions. Attentiveness and fidelity to the specific structure of the rite express both a recognition of the nature of Eucharist as a gift and, on the part of the minister, a docile openness to receiving this ineffable gift.”7

In our parishes, the adaptations to the liturgy during the pandemic were an occasion to appreciate the value of universal liturgical norms. The reintroduction and training of altar servers became an opportunity to recapture the meaning of gestures and movements that are intrinsic to the sense of the sacred. Commitment to personal formation in the art of celebrating has fostered a deeper understanding of the dynamism that unfolds through the liturgy in our members. Through prayer and attentiveness to the action of the Holy Spirit, we were able to curtail the invasion of the cultural elements from the pandemic response that were taken on without proper discernment.8

After one year’s time, our parish altar serving is in better condition than before the pandemic. Our celebration of the liturgy now conforms to the general instructions of the Roman missal with no pandemic adaptations to date. There is a renewed enthusiasm among our altar servers. New recruits have joyfully joined our ranks. There is an increased reverence and gratitude for the Holy Eucharist and attention to detail in the sanctuary. We pray that this enthusiasm will bear fruit in vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. Attentiveness and fidelity to the liturgical norms and the gradual transition away from pandemic adaptations resulted in personal conversion in the hearts of all our members. The pastor also experienced personal conversion through this trying endeavor.

There is a parament below our altar, on which the words of Psalm 43 are inscribed; “Introibo Ad Altare Dei” — I will go to the Altar of God. During those solitary celebrations at the height of the pandemic, I would somberly pray the response: “To God, who gives joy to my youth.” Dedication, training, and practice of the liturgy with our altar servers has heightened active participation by all of our members. Formation and training of our assisting ministers has been central to overcoming the conditioning of the liturgical celebration from pandemic protocols. We are grateful for a return to the liturgical norms and safe public celebration of the sacraments. The smiles and comradery among our parish altar servers is evidence of the grace working within our communities. God has returned joy to our youth. The cumbersome adaptations made during the pandemic were a springboard to a renewal in the liturgical life of our parish.

  1. Pope Francis, Desiderio Desideravi (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2022), Hereafter abbreviated as DD.
  2. DD, 54.
  3. DD, 54.
  4. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, General instruction of the Roman missal. (Washington, D.C.: USCCB Publishing, 2003), p. 77 (254).
  5. Guidelines on Sacraments and Pastoral Care, Thomistic Institute: Working Group on Infectious Disease Protocols for Sacraments & Pastoral Care, updated July 24, 2020.
  6. John. A. Hardon S.J., Definition of “Habit,” Modern Catholic Dictionary, (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1980), 2001.
  7. Benedict XVI, Post-synodal apostolic exhortation – sacramentum caritatis. (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2007),
  8. DD, 49.
Fr. Timothy Smith About Fr. Timothy Smith

Fr. Timothy J. Smith is a priest of the Diocese of Sioux Falls. He is the former pastor of Holy Cross, Saint Thomas the Apostle, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help parishes. He is currently a full-time JCL candidate at the Saint Paul University Faculty of Canon Law in Ottawa Canada.

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