There was much excitement and enthusiasm in the streets of Rome yesterday. One could perceive an obvious shift of the type of pilgrims flooding the streets and the metros. They were young people, ranging from ages 13 to 23, moving together in organized, large groups. They broke into song on the metro, which was really very beautiful for the other commuters, at least many of them. They have been in Rome for the 12th International Pilgrimage for Altar Boys and Girls and obviously have been ecstatic prior to and following their special encounter with the Holy Father yesterday, despite the blazing sun beating upon them in St. Peter’s Square! More than 60,000 altar servers from 18 countries and islands are here. The largest group of at least 50,000 are from Germany, but many European countries, the United States, Russia, and the Ukraine, are among the many countries represented by this enthusiastic group.
Below is an interview with Bishop Dr Ladislav Nemet SVD (Zrenjanin/Serbia), President of Coetus Internationalis Ministrantium (CIM), the international pilgrimage for altar boys and girls, done by Zenit’s Deborah Castellano Lubov, proud of having been an ‘altar girl’ herself for almost ten years…
Why has this encounter been so important?
The real purpose is to bring together our altar boys and girls in Europe and fortunately elsewhere, now that we even have boys and girls outside of Europe, including from the United States for the first time, Caribbean Islands … Antigua … St. Vincent. We think it is important to give the feeling to our young boys and girls that they are not alone. There are thousands and thousands of young boys and girls from countries all over the world who like to perform this service for the Lord. There are three points: the sense of community; the deepening of their faith commitment, because there is a certain commitment to serve at the altar; and to meet the Pope and experience the center of the Catholic Church.
What does it mean to be an altar server in 2018? What goes into deciding to be an altar server and how does being an altar server nowadays compare to years ago?
Surely there is a different motivation why a boy or girl becomes an altar server. Sometimes it was a family tradition, perhaps the father or mother was one. Maybe schoolmates and peers will encourage them and invite them to participate to see what it is about. It is very important that a part of this desire to be an altar boy and girl is to have the right approach and a proper sense of spiritual values. You have to undergo a certain preparation, to know how to behave, what are the different actions, language, signs used in the Liturgy, the meaning, so that only once you are prepared, you can be fully at the service of the Lord.
I can imagine that for young people it is nice to have this community experience, an aesthetic experience as well, being in the vestments, properly and respectfully attired also shouldn’t be underestimated. After the Holy Mass, there is always the possibility to be together and enjoy activities that are outside of the Church, further reinforcing your sense of community.
How is being an altar server important in the faith formation, of young people?
Every age has its own way of approaching God and approaching life, from a religious, spiritual perspective. Altar boys and girls, by the altar, feel the sense of being in the Church, and the Liturgy. Today it is less common that many are altar servers; maybe in a whole class there is a small handful, three or four…at least in Europe….. It is always very difficult to make a commitment to be there for when it is your turn to serve, you have to go to Church. Especially on Sunday, they don’t want to get up. [The Bishop chuckles…]
It teaches you to be faithful to be your commitment. It teaches you to see the Liturgy in that moment. So it is it is a beautiful thing if the Liturgy is well done. I would say it is a theater, if you will. Not a theater obviously, but some elements and rules that make you recognize, from some points of view, some similar beautiful aspects.
Could you tell us about the altar servers here from the US?
The US participation is a very interesting thing. More than a year ago, there was a Vietnamese parish from the States, and while surfing on the internet, they found our website. They right away inquired whether their coming to Rome for the encounter was possible. So we gave them the possibility, originally for two boys and two girls to participate, We asked for a letter signed by their parish priest so we would verify it was serious inquiry. They started the process and they sent us a couple of films of their parish life and their different forms of Liturgy, how they celebrate. It is very interesting that now there are 90 altar servers from that parish, of Vietnamese heritage. Very often they celebrate different Liturgies with dances and singing. They danced for the Pope briefly, as they do in the States, they did in the Square.
In the past, those who joined the seminary often were altar servers… How can being an altar server be a way of helping with vocations?
It was generally always the first step of priestly vocations. I think that the age of discerning whether one is called to be a priest or religious was somehow earlier in the past; maybe by ages 10, 11, 12, one started to have a certain idea. Today, it is normally not before age 18, when one has this discernment. Being an altar boy or girl provides a valuable opportunity to become closer to God, and with a better sense of your life, you decide on your vocation. Whatever that vocation may be…
I am not so sure personally that it is whether [being an altar server] in some way makes it easier to find your way to the religious life, or to a priestly vocation. The general atmosphere in our society is rather not too positive toward seeing religious vocations as a way to spend your life.
In Germany, we see so many altar servers. Everything is very organized… there is so much participation. Obviously this stems from something. What would you say that it stems from?
I am happy to say that in Germany, because I go there regularly, this is the most effective pastoral work with the young I have observed. It is incredible how it developed. This art, this way of pastoral work, is flourishing even now and even getting ecumenically stronger. Because more and more Evangelical and Lutheran children and young people serve together with their Catholic friends.
Thanks so much, Your Excellency.
Thank you very much. God Bless.