The Vocation Dearth

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An advantage of aging is that from the pinnacle of my antiquity I can look out upon the passing scene with some basis for comparison: namely, the world of my youth. The view is pretty dismal, including my view of the Church.

At Mass this morning I noted that there were no servers. It didn’t seem to make any difference: servers today seem mostly to stand — or sit — around. One of their principal functions appears to be holding the Sacramentary from which the priest reads the propers of the Mass: a function that can be — and is — done perfectly well by furniture.

What a contrast! I am not going to tell you how, as a boy, I walked for miles through waist-deep snow, bare-footed, to get to Church. That would be a gross exaggeration. OK, a downright lie. But I am not exaggerating in the least when I point out that in my boyhood, serving at Mass was a much more arduous task than it is today.

For one thing, there was the Latin. Sister, who taught us boys to serve (and it seems that nearly all of us wanted to do it), drilled us in the responses until we had them perfect. Yes, there was a card with the prayers printed upon it lying on the bottom step of the altar, where we knelt, but we could not have read the unfamiliar words fluently without coaching. Eventually, of course, we came to know them by rote. Even today, I’ll never forget: "Priest: Introibo ad altare Dei. Me: Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meum."

But before that, we had to vest ourselves. (There were usually two servers.) That meant a black cassock, and white surplice. No designer costumes of red, or long white robes with rope-like belts. And no sneakers! And we made sure the cruets for water and wine were filled.

The first server out of the sanctuary rang the bell. (Remember that?) When at the foot of the altar, he also took the priest’s biretta (remember that?) and placed it on the bottom step, where he could easily reach it to return to the priest at the end of Mass, holding it properly so that the priest could take it and put it on without fiddling to get it correctly aligned.

At the end of the epistle, a server took the book, brought it to the bottom of the altar, genuflected, and then placed it to the left of the tabernacle so that the priest could read the Gospel. When on the right side, the book was to be aligned with its bottom edge parallel to the altar, but on the Gospel side, it was to be turned so that the priest, standing in front of the tabernacle, could see it easily.

When the priest signaled, we would get the water and wine, and the dish for the lavabo. Servers today also fetch the water and wine, but in our parish, at least, they often seem uncertain about this, with much whispering between celebrant and server. We weren’t allowed to serve until Sister was sure we had the routine down pat.

As communion time approached, we would go to the altar rail (remember that?) and bring up the communion cloth over the rail, so that communicants could place their hands under the cloth and form a sort of table to catch the Host, should it fall. Then, during distribution of Communion, we would accompany the priest along the altar rail with the paten (remember that?).

After communion we again fetched water and wine for the priest to cleanse his finger and the sacred vessels. After the prayers at the foot of the altar (remember those?) we would make sure the priest’s chasuble was held away from his feet, lest he catch his foot in the hem of the garment as he stood up. That was generally unnecessary, but we did it anyway.

It mattered not at all who celebrated Mass, because it was always the same. We were never caught by surprise. No priest ever ad-libbed any part of the Mass. And we served at other tasks, as well. Benediction, Forty Hours (remember that?) and Corpus Christi processions (remember those?) also demanded our service, and we were expected to know what to do, and do it.

We were assigned our serving tasks, and were expected to be there. I recall getting up before dawn to serve the 6 AM Mass in winter, when getting out of bed in the dark was against my every instinct! If weather permitted, I rode my bike to Church; if not, my Dad took me in the car. It was a privilege to serve Mass, and we realized it. I cannot recall a time when I attended a Mass without at least one server. Today, as this morning exemplified, there may or may not be servers; the priest can probably say Mass more efficiently without them.

I don’t think any boy who served Mass in the "good old days" failed to consider, at least briefly, a vocation to the priesthood. The priest was a manly, important, and serious individual, who could bring God down from Heaven at his command! The seminaries were full.

Today, serving Mass is, apparently, pretty insignificant. Boys and girls do it, and very little is demanded from them — or obtained. The seminaries are nearly empty. Am I suggesting there is some cause/effect relationship? Of course! There are undoubtedly many reasons for a decline in vocations, and the insignificant role assigned to serving at Mass may be a very small one, but I am sure it plays a role. Serving at Mass was seen as an important role in an important activity. And it was seen as somewhat exclusive, being open only to boys, and then only to boys willing to learn the Latin and the ritual.

Those were the days! Gone forever!

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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