Guest post by Joel Arzaga
An altar server’s first duty is to serve at the altar by assisting the priest and the deacon, and by carrying the cross, the candles, the thurible, the bread, the wine, and the water, during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.1
This simple duty is what gets us to jump out of bed on a Sunday morning. We are excited to do these little things during the Mass for Jesus. And we are overjoyed at the thought of being very close to Him, truly present at the altar, waiting for us to approach Him, to minister to Him, and to receive Him.
As altar servers, because our first duty is in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, our first love must also then be the Holy Eucharist.
Love for the Eucharist should be at the heart of our ministry, and should be in the every line of our love story as altar servers. Only by developing a deep love for the Eucharist, by knowing it well, and being firmly devoted to it, will we be able to become good and holy altar servers of Jesus Christ. Love for the Eucharist is the foundation of a fruitful ministry as an Altar Server.
To help us love the Eucharist, we must first strive to know and understand it better. After all, one cannot love what one does not know. And once we get to really know the Eucharist, and the Real Presence of Christ in it, it becomes almost automatic for us to fall in love with it and to place it at the center of our lives.
The Church teaches us that in the Eucharist, Jesus Christ is present in a “unique and incomparable way. He is present in a true, real and substantial way, with his Body and his Blood, with his Soul and his Divinity”.2 Jesus Christ, true God and true man, becomes present for us, hidden in the appearance of bread and wine, every time the Church celebrates the Holy Eucharist.
Saint Josemaria Escriva said: “There he is: King of Kings and Lord of Lords, hidden in the bread. To this extreme has he humbled himself for love of you.”3
As altar servers, we often find ourselves as the ones closest to the Eucharist while serving at Mass. This is indeed a privileged place in the sanctuary which should lead us to thank God, because although what we see is bread and wine, we know that it is Jesus Christ himself, Our Lord and Savior, who is truly present. For He Himself has said: “This is my body which is given for you” and “This cup which is poured out for you is the New Covenant in my blood.”6
What a great blessing, as altar servers, to have been gifted and called to be near Jesus in the Eucharist!
A consequence of our desire to know and to love the Eucharist more should be a constant petition to Our Lord for a stronger belief in his presence in the Eucharist. We should ask Our Lord, in those intimate moments of the consecration, when the priest raises the bread and elevates the chalice: “increase our faith!”7 We must remember this humble prayer especially at times when we fail to see things through the eyes of faith.
We are reminded of a monk in the 8th Century in Lanciano, Italy who entertained doubts about Our Lord’s Real Presence in the Eucharist while celebrating Mass. It is said that after pronouncing the words of consecration, the host miraculously changed into flesh, and the wine into blood.8
This came to be known as the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano, an extraordinary event that is sure to dispel any cloud of disbelief about the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
In 1970, scientific investigations were conducted on the Eucharistic species which led to conclusions that the flesh from that Eucharistic miracle consists of a muscular tissue of the heart, and that the blood-type was AB positive, which matches that which was found in the Shroud of Turin.9
Fast forward to December 25, 2013. According to Bishop Zbigniew Kiernikowski of Legnica Poland, “during the distribution of the Holy Communion, a consecrated Host fell to the floor and then was picked up and placed in a water-filled container (vasculum). Soon after, stains of the red color appeared… In February 2014, a tiny red fragment of the Host was separated and put on a corporal. The Commission ordered to take samples in order to conduct the thorough tests by the relevant research institutes.”10
The results of the investigation were astonishing. It was analyzed that “the fragments of tissue have been found… most similar to the heart muscle with alterations that often appear during the agony. The genetic researches indicate the human origin of the tissue.”11
Just like the Miracle of Lanciano, the Eucharistic miracle in Poland, despite being hundreds of years apart, had the same result: the Eucharist is the very heart of Our Lord, and that it truly is, His body.
These miracles are a source of consolation for us who, although not having seen, believe that it is Our Lord. These serve to bolster our conviction, especially at times when we find our faith lacking and we do not act as if He is really before us when we are serving Him at the altar.
However, with or without these miracles, we will still believe, as St. Thomas Aquinas puts it, “for God the Son has said it — Word of truth that ever shall endure.”12
We have faith that it is Jesus, who is really, truly, and substantially present in the Eucharist, “because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.”13
Therefore, together with St. Peter, we can confidently tell Jesus: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life!”14
This faith, belief, and devotion to Our Lord’s Real Presence in the Eucharist should make all the difference in the way we approach Him and deal with Him, every time we are near Him and are serving Him at the altar.
For if we truly believe that it is Jesus who is present before us in the Eucharist in which serve, how can we fail to stare at Him intently, to listen to Him closely, to give Him our undivided attention, to be at our best conduct, and to be wholehearted in our service?
Let us humbly whisper to Our Lord, especially at times when we fail to act according to our belief in His Real Presence: “I do believe; help my unbelief!”15
St. Jean-Marie Vianney, the patron saint of priests, can help us greatly in this aspect. He is said to have such a strong faith, belief, and devotion to Our Lord’s Real Presence in the Eucharist that an altar server who used to assist him at Mass said: “I found myself most deeply moved of all when, at the moment of consecration or of communion, I would see on his face the indefinable expression of faith, of devotion, of love, and of joy, which seemed to be consuming him.”16
Another parishioner of St. Vianney remarked: “I’ve several times seen him weeping while he was saying Mass… There was such a fire shining in his gaze that you would have said he could see God.”17
St. Jean-Marie Vianney’s faith and love for the Eucharist moved him to tell the thousands of pilgrims who would flock his small parish in France because of his sanctity, that “without the Holy Eucharist, there would be no happiness in this world, and life wouldn’t be bearable… There’s nothing so great, my children, as the Eucharist.”18
What St. Vianney saw, on which he fixed his gaze, moved him to tears, brought profound joy in his heart, and enabled him to achieve such heights of holiness, is the same thing that we see each time we are assisting at the Eucharist: God, hidden in the appearance of bread.
We need not necessarily be moved to tears, but our faith in Our Lord’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, should be able to move anything that keeps us from approaching him, loving him, and serving him, in the best way possible at Mass.
Ultimately, the key is knowing and believing that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ Himself. If we have this, it would be easier for us to generously give ourselves in our service, and commit to excellence and perfection in the way we carry out our ministry.
We can look to the example of the patron saint of altar servers, Saint Tarcisius, to help us see how true devotion to the Eucharist can be lived out. His story is one that is sure to bring inspiration to every altar server and enflame the desire to love and serve the Eucharist in the way that he did.
Saint Tarcisius, who was referred to by Pope St. Damasus as “boy-martyr of the Eucharist”, died after he was mobbed by a group of boys his age because he refused to play with them. At that time, he was carrying with him the Eucharist wrapped in a cloak which he placed near his heart, having been sent to bring it to those in prison.19
Saint Tarcisius was aware that in the Eucharist, Jesus is in the form and appearance of bread. And as bread, He cannot, on His own, protect Himself. Saint Tarciscius knew that Our Lord needed someone who would defend Him and take care of Him. Thus, without hesitation, Saint Tarcisius selflessly gave His life defending and protecting Our Lord in the Eucharist. His love for the Eucharist was so strong that even after he had died, “he was still clutching to his breast a small linen bag containing the Eucharist”.20 Pope Benedict XVI even recounted a beautiful oral tradition about St. Tarcisius claiming that “the Most Blessed Sacrament was not found on St Tarcisius’ body, either in his hands or his clothing. It explains that the consecrated Host which the little Martyr had defended with his life, had become flesh of his flesh thereby forming, together with his body, a single immaculate Host offered to God.”21
Just like Saint Tarcisius, you and I are also called to be selfless in serving Jesus at the altar. We are being relied upon by Christ to protect Him, to defend Him, and to take care of Him in the Eucharist. We are called to love the Eucharist to the point of becoming of one flesh with Our Lord.
Pope Benedict XVI then gives us this beautiful reflection and encouragement inspired by our patron, St. Tarcisius:
“Dear altar servers, St Tarcisius’ testimony and this beautiful tradition teach us the deep love and great veneration that we must have for the Eucharist: it is a precious good, a treasure of incomparable value; it is the Bread of life, it is Jesus himself who becomes our nourishment, support and strength on our daily journey and on the open road that leads to eternal life; the Eucharist is the greatest gift that Jesus bequeathed to us.”22
Indeed, the gift that we have received of being altar servers should be used at the service of that greater gift Our Lord gave us in the Holy Eucharist: His very own body, blood, soul, and divinity; His very Self.
We have to try to love the Eucharist a little bit better with every day that passes, with every visit to the Blessed Sacrament, with every communion we make, and with every service at the altar that we render.
As St. John XXIII said: “I will give myself no rest until I have acquired a great love and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, which will always be the dearest object of my affections and my thoughts, indeed of my whole life…”23
Truly, the whole life of an altar server should consist in loving Jesus in the Eucharist, who says: “I am the living bread that has come down from heaven. If anyone eat of this bread he shall live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”24
You and I wish to live forever with Jesus, and to abide in him for eternity.
That eternity begins today, by filling our lives with love for the Eucharist, who is Jesus Christ present in the here and now.
St. Josemaria Escriva encourages us: “Let’s turn our eyes to the Holy Eucharist, toward Jesus… God has decided to stay in the tabernacle to nourish us, strengthen us, make us divine, and give effectiveness to our works and efforts… Love has been awaiting us for almost two thousand years.”25
There He is, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, eagerly anticipating us, and constantly offering Himself, so that we may have life, and to have it more abundantly.
The Church, recognizing Jesus truly present in the Eucharist, also teaches us that it is the “source and summit of the Christian life.”26
This means that the Celebration of the Eucharist, the Liturgy, is the life of the Church, toward which all her activity is directed, and from which all her power flows.27 The celebration of the Eucharist, simply put, is the most potent, most important, and most significant thing that we do in Church, and should be given the greatest importance and the highest priority. All of our other apostolic and charitable works, great as they may be, simply fail in comparison with the Holy Eucharist.
As St. Jean-Marie Vianney beautifully expresses it: “If you were to put all the good actions in the world against a communion well made, it would be like a grain of dust against a mountain.”28
This primacy given by the Church on the Eucharist should also be reflected in the lives of the faithful, especially for us, altar servers, who are in close contact with Jesus in the Eucharist each time we serve.
Altar servers must strive to also make the Eucharist the “source and summit” of their daily lives. Pope Benedict XVI said, “the Christian faithful need a fuller understanding of the relationship between the Eucharist and their daily lives. Eucharistic spirituality is not just participation in Mass and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. It embraces the whole of life.”29
Our closeness to the Eucharist should affect every aspect of our lives, and should be seen and felt by those around us. This should be expressed through what fills our minds, the way we speak, the way we behave, the way we treat others. Yes, even the way we dress, how we spend our leisure time, the books we read, the shows that we watch. Our closeness to Jesus as an altar server should have an impact on all the little details of our lives. The closer we are to Jesus, the greater our imitation of His life must be.
St. John Paul II reminds us: “Your service cannot be restricted to the inside of a church. It must shine out in your every day life: at school, in the family and in the different social contexts, for those who want to serve Jesus Christ in a church must be his witnesses everywhere.”30
As altar servers, we are called to live out our gift and calling to love and serve the Eucharist wherever we may be. We must strive, with the grace of God, to make our lives an example and a constant reminder of Our Lord’s life-giving love in the Eucharist.
The Eucharist, as the “source and summit” of the lives of altar servers, should also mean that our Sundays must revolve around our participation or service in the Holy Mass. Going to Mass, or serving at Mass on Sundays, should never be a mere afterthought for us. It must be the first priority, and if possible, carefully scheduled at a time when we can best participate, and when our whole family can be with us.
The Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his eucharist is at the heart of the church’s life31, and must also be, for our family life, and our life in our ministry.
Missing Mass on a Sunday should never be an option for an altar server. No sports event, movie, tv show, school activity, or family reunion, should make us skip Mass on a Sunday. We must always be faithful to Our Lord’s command to “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath Day.”32 Not only because it is an obligation, and the wilful disobedience of this command would constitute a mortal sin, but more importantly, because we know and recognize the value and significance of the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist for us and for the Church. We must have such love and devotion to the Sunday Eucharist that we can say, together with the martyrs of Abitene who, in the year 304, were captured for attending Mass which was prohibited at that time: “without Sunday, we cannot live.”33
However, care must be taken that we do not neglect the other obligations that the duty to keep Sunday holy includes.
St. John Paul II, referred to by Pope Francis as the “Pope of the Family”34, tells us that we must commit to “shape the other moments of the day—those outside the liturgical context: family life, social relationships, moments of relaxation—in such a way that the peace and joy of the Risen Lord will emerge in the ordinary events of life. For example, the relaxed gathering of parents and children can be an opportunity not only to listen to one another but also to share a few formative and reflective moments.”35
Sometimes, an altar server spends the whole of Sunday in Church, serving and enjoying the company of his other fellow altar servers, to his heart’s content.
While this kind of availability to the needs of the Church is greatly admirable, an altar server must also make sure that he spends ample time with his family at home.
In the same way that Jesus is present for us in the Eucharist in the breaking of the bread on Sundays, so too, must we strive to be present in the breaking of the bread at home in our family meals. Just as we are nourished with the Eucharist from the Altar of the Lord, we must also find nourishment from our family tables, relishing the company of the persons God has placed closest to us. We must be available to serve in our homes, especially for our parents, just as we make ourselves available to serve at the altar.
1 General Instruction on the Roman Missal, 100
2 Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 282
3 The Way, “Holy Mass”, No. 528, Saint Josemaria Escriva
4 John 21:7
5 Matthew 28:20
7 Luke 17:5
8 The Miracle of Lanciano, Fr. William Saunders, The Arlington Catholic Herald
9 Eucharistic Miracle,Santuario del Miracolo Eucaristico, Frato Minori Conventuali
10Announcement of the Bishop of Legnica On the Eucharistic Miracle in St. Jack Parish in Legnica, April 17, 2016
12 Adoro Te Devote, St. Thomas Aquinas
13 Dei Filius 3: DS 3008
14 John 6:69
15 Mark 9:23
16 Curé D’ Ars: A Biography of St. Jean-Marie Vianney, Francis Trochu
19 The One Year Book of Saints, Rev. Clifford Stevens
20General Audience, St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict XVI, August 4, 2010
23 Journal of a Soul, St. John XXIII
24 John 6: 51-52
25 Christ is Passing By, On the Feast of Corpus Christi, St. Josemaria Escriva
26 Lumen Gentium 11
27 Sacrosanctum Concilium 10
28Curé D’ Ars: A Biography of St. Jean-Marie Vianney, Francis Trochu
29 Sacramentum Caritatis 77
30 General Audience, John Paul II, August 1 2001
31 Catechism of the Catholic Church 2177
32 Exodus 20:8
33 A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today, Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger)
34 Homily of Pope Francis, Holy Mass and Rite of Canonization of Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II, April 27, 2014
35 Dies Domini: On Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy, John Paul II, 1998
Joel Arzaga is a 27-year-old from the Philippines. He recently graduated with a Juris Doctor degree and has been helping out in the formation program of the Liturgy Commission of his home Diocese of Novaliches since 2011. This is an excerpt of a booklet he is writing entitled: Love Story of Altar Servers: 7 Things An Altar Server Must Love.