Altar Serving and the Ordination Class of 2017


Every year Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) conducts a survey of ordinands for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This year 590 ordinands to the priesthood were sent the survey; of these, 444 (or 75 percent) responded.

While this annual survey once again provides us a fascinating glimpse into the make up of this year’s class -such as parents religious affiliation, number of siblings, educational background, and ethnic make-up- it is interesting to see those common factors which contributed to these men’s discernment.

As I have chronicled in past years, altar serving is a common experience shared by the majority of our ordained. The class of 2017 is no exception.

CARA’s surveys shows that 77 percent of diocesan ordinands listed Altar Serving as a parish ministry in which they had participated. Compare that to Lector (51 percent), Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion (42 percent), and Youth Minister (34 percent), and we quickly realize just how integral altar serving is to the discernment process for young men. Recall what Rome said in 1994 (emphasis mine):

The Holy See wishes to recall that it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue.

As I have written about previously (here, here, and here), the realization of the very real and very consistent correlation between altar boys and the priesthood has caused an increasing number of parishes to return to male only servers at Mass. The traditional practice has usually resulted in an increase in male participation, rather than the decrease in servers often anticipated by some.

To be clear, no one is suggesting that this is the only factor in a young man’s discernment process. It may not even be the primary factor. The CARA survey also reveals that 80 percent of diocesan ordinands come from homes where both parents are Catholic, and 76 percent were encouraged in their vocation by a priest.

However, a quick review of the CARA data since 2010 shows the importance of serving for vocational discernment. From a “low” of 67 percent of ordained priests having served as altar boys (2013), to a high of 80 percent (2014), every survey year shows the commonality of altar serving in the development of our ordained priests.

Understanding all of this, let us continue to support the traditional practice of boys serving at the altar. While some today complain of a lack of interest among young men to serve, this has never been a problem for traditional parishes. The photo at the top of this post is standard fare for those parishes who embrace male only servers, traditional liturgies, and the ministerial priesthood.

Check out the rest of this year’s survey at the USCCB website. And please keep this year’s class of 590 men in your prayers.

(Photo credit: Angela Shea)

Posted on May 15, 2017, in liturgy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. I know a guy who is a year younger than me (50s) who is now a bishop in the Mid-West USA. We attended the same parish as children and teenagers.
    He never:
    — was a Mass Server,
    — was a lector,
    — was a Eucharistic minister,
    — never attended Catholic school even though we had a grade 1 – 6 Catholic school in town,
    — volunteered to do anything in the parish.

    Due to his lack of participation in parish activities, I was not even aware that he was going to the seminary until the pastor announced it.

    The only thing that he had going for him was that his dad was wealthy and could pay 100% of his college seminary.

    I am aware through a deceased pastor from another parish that he recommended many young men for the seminary over dozens of years but they came from poor families. All of them were rejected as economic refugees looking for a cushy “do-nothing job” according to the deceased priest relating what the vocation director told him.

    I think now a days, bishops just look to see if the prospective seminarian can pay for his education. If the seminarian can pay, he has a vocation. If the seminarian can’t pay, he does not have a vocation.

    Pretty simple but it does not follow the story line of Simon Magnus in the New Testament Acts 8:9–24.

    Moral of this post: Our “country club” bishops look out for their country club buddies.

    Also, you have to be uber liberal to fit in to most diocese or seminarian so that cuts out most traditional seminarians who won’t get past square one in the typical diocese.

    • I don’t think this bishop ever attended CCD / religious education, at least I never saw him during the years I attended CCD / religious education for public school students in grades 1 – 12.

    • Are you a product of the American university system?

      • Yes, I attended state operated institutions of higher education.

        The point of my post is there is no normative system for the discernment / promotion of vocations. It all seems to be a glorified, back-room-deal, in-the-shadows college fraternity initiation system which is never revealed to the public. The bishops and vocation directors constantly complain about a lack of vocations but we only have their word for that. How many young men are rejected because they don’t fit the bishops / vocation directors vision of liberal / communist / pro-illegal immigrant / pro-law-breaking agenda? Many bishops have put the breaks on male vocations to the priesthood as a means of the bishops showing solidarity with their favorite cause: women in ministry.
        Archbishop Hunthausen of Seattle admitted that he cancelled the permanent diaconate because he felt it discriminated against women. This same ideology on his part caused an almost complete collapse of vocations to the priesthood. How many other bishops are just like Hunthausen but are less well known?

        The only other vocation to the priesthood from my hometown in the last 60 years was a vocation to the priesthood in the 1980s by the son of a high level city official. The father of this seminarian was making over $100K back in those days and also was able to pay his sons way through the seminary.

        In other words, the only two vocations to the priesthood from my hometown were from the top 1% of income earners = “country club” Catholics. In other words, the diocese is not interested in vocations from low or middle income families.

  2. My own parish switched back to male-only altar servers under the previous pastor. In the few years since that switch, we’ve had 3 vocations: 1 priest, 2 religious. Our average-size parish has THE largest contingent of attendees at the annual diocesan dinner for altar servers: at least twice as many servers as the next largest parish-group of altar server-attendees.

  3. I know guys-now priests-who went to Catholic Schools and they say, yes they were altar boys, but the things that had the greatest Roman Catholic effect on them were: 1) great teaching sisters in elementary school; 2) an ingrained, loving dedication to Jesus; 3) Catholic Morality; 4) their parents’ insistence on observing everything Catholic.

  4. raymondfrice

    You had better let the girls who are serving as altar servers know that they may not rise as far as they may hope. The glass ceiling for Catholic women in the Catholic Church is about 2 inches above the pew heigth.

    • Lovely anti-Catholicism and (apparent) lack of understanding regarding the sacramental priesthood. In the Catholic faith it doesn’t get any better than the Blessed Mother. Authentic, orthodox, women & young girls continue to look to her, not the priesthood, as their vocational model for either consecrated life or marriage.

    • Better idea: eliminate women entirely from the sanctuary, i.e. no female:
      –altar boys,
      –Eucharistic ministers.

      I think women are great as:
      –commentators, announcers, etc.,
      –musicians (except for the “Propers” of the Mass which must be male only according to Pope St. Pius X),
      –laundress for sacristy items,
      –grounds-keepers, flower-arrangers, etc.

  5. raymondfrice

    Pray do tell me about the article of faith that says the priest must physically model the body of Christ but does not have to model Christ’s psychology or His sexual orientation.

    • Are you new at this whole Catholic thing Ray, or just blinded by disobedience…which is a common affliction of course.

      Are you disputing the premise that priests must be men? Do we really need to still have that conversation?

  6. I can understand your thought process here. But I am curious, how do you suggest we inspire girls to become engaged in the church and the sacrament of Mass. It seems to me that being allowed to be an alter server helps strengthen young girls faith as well. Wouldn’t this be a great way to encourage young girls to continue their faith into adulthood? Do we not need faithful young women,too? Who is going to birth and raise our future generations?

    • Girls can become nuns, sisters, etc. but even they don’t want to do that. Everybody wants to be and look like men.

      Why are you not complaining about boys / men not being allowed to becoming nuns, sisters, etc.?

      “Radical egalitarianism” is one of the tools of communism / socialism to tear down established institutions such as the Church. For communism / socialism to triumph it must destroy or take-over its opponents.

      Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has been infected by radical egalitarianism as a result of communist / socialist infiltration. Pope St. John XXIII said communism was okay in his 1963 encyclical “Pacem in Terris” where he said it was okay to work with the “good” parts of communism / socialism (i.e. humanitarianism, charity, redistributive economics, etc., see Pacem in Terris, paragraphs 158 – 159, partial quote: “Catholics who, in order to achieve some external good, collaborate with unbelievers or with those who through error lack the fullness of faith in Christ, may possibly provide the occasion or even the incentive for their conversion to the truth.”). Most USA and European hierarchs are totally consumed by the errors of communism / socialism as proposed by Pacem In Terris with the result of the total collapse of the Catholic Church in the West. Catholic communism / socialism = “Liberation Theology” = death of the Catholic Church.

  7. piercedbysorrow

    I do not see any stats listed in this article which speaks against having female altar servers. The stats do not present finding which even take female altar servers into account. The information presented in this article does not state if the men being ordained were altar servers at a parish which allowed females to altar serve.
    If God is calling a young man to serve as an altar server and eventually to become a preist, will the presence of a female server along side of him prevent him from serving? This is the question I have after reading this.

  8. There is a logically fallacy here. The research indicates that 77% of priests were altar servers. It does not claim that these future priests did not also have young ladies serving with them. Yes, if a young man has a potential vocation, encourage him as best fits the individual circumstance, which likely includes altar service. But this study does not present any evidence of a benefit of excluding others.

    I will speak of my own parish — our pastor’s immediate prior ministry was vocations director for his religious order. He was one of the most successful in the country. He does encourage young men with a potential vocation to serve but does not exclude young men who are unlikely to seek the priesthood nor does he exclude those who will not be priests — young ladies and two boys in the parish with Downs Syndrome.

    In the 1950s, it was much different in this parish. The pastor at that time saw altar serves as something exclusively for potential priests and therefore only accepted those from on a college prep track and not those from the vocational (Tech) high school. The practical result was that given the “tracking” practiced at the time we had no African American servers. I don’t think this was an accident.

    • Did this study include religious order priests or just diocesan? I’d be curious to know if there was any statistically significant difference between the two.

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