QUAERITUR: age for starting to train altar boys

An e-mail came with a question.

It came without a subject in the subject line and I usually just delete them, but I opened this one.

What is the "rule of thumb" ,age wise, for boys to start to train for the Latin Mass?
Any help/suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

I think that the age of First Holy Communion might not be too early to start thinking about learning and speaking the Latin responses.

What about those of you involved with training altar boys?

Folks?  Want to chime in?

FacebookEmailPinterestGoogle GmailShare/Bookmark

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to QUAERITUR: age for starting to train altar boys

  1. FrCharles says:

    When I have gone recruiting in our classrooms, I mention three requirements or “haves” for those who aspire to altar service:

    The candidate must have:
    1. received first Holy Communion (this must be mentioned specifically and emphatically to weed out the well-meaning but confused Pentecostal children.)
    2. a desire to love and serve God.
    3. a proper pair of shoes.

    On the question of age, I’ve found that a lot depends on the nature of the particular corps of altar servers. If it is strong and devout, and the older and more experienced servers are willing to mentor and look after younger ones, then they can certainly begin as young as typical first Holy Communion age (3rd grade in our parish). In this sort of scenario, much observing and learning of good fundamental habits can occur before a server is called upon for more specific duties. If on the other hand, the corps of servers is undisciplined or is spread thin–as sometimes happens in parishes that are aging and lack young families–you don’t want to set up some poor little kid to be trying to serve and carry things, bewildered and all by himself because nobody else showed up.

  2. plaf26 says:

    Back in the ’50′s we started altar boy training in the sixth grade with learning the Latin responses first. Of course we already knew some of them because we usually had what were called “dialogue Masses” (people responding in Latin) in those days. I think by kindergarten everybody knew “Et cum spiritu tuo.” In my current parish, we start training altar boys in fourth grade, though not with Latin. Yet.

  3. Brian Day says:

    Using my own experience from 1965, the Catholic school I attended started to recruit boys at the end of the fourth grade (9/10 years old). Serving at Holy Mass started in the fifth grade.

  4. wchoag says:

    Although there has been a long custom of boys serving at the altar and this has functioned as a promoter of vocations, as one responsible for the training of servers in the EF I would tend to say the best age to start serving is about age 15/16. The finest servers are usually aged 20-35.

  5. drea916 says:

    In our parish there seems to be ranking system. I’ve seen little guys as young as six, but the only thing they do is come out at communion carrying candles (does that qualify as altar serving???) As they learn to do more they move up the ranks, but they start pretty young.

  6. My experience was similar to Brian’s, and I grew up about the same time. Most programs of which I am aware start boys at the fifth grade. Where I grew up, the fifth grade year was probationary. Boys in that class didn’t serve Mass, but did Friday night Rosary and Benediction. The pastor would announce the mysteries of the rosary, and the boys themselves would lead the Paters and Aves.

    It’s possible for boys younger than that to serve, but it’s unusual. I know of places where the boys actually teach each other how to serve, including the Latin responses.

  7. introibo says:

    My son turned 10 in July, and he has been serving the EF for about a year. My husband, who has also served EF Masses, taught him all the responses, motions, etc. He can serve the entire Mass by himself.

  8. maynardus says:

    We’ve always started them after they’ve made their First Holy Communion, the few exceptions have been a couple of the boys a year younger whose older brothers were already serving, provided they were sufficiently mature. We mainly have Sung Masses, so there are lots of roles for boys to learn and master in turn, like ‘drea916′ we start the younger ones carrying candles, as torchbearers, etc.

  9. momoften says:

    Three different experiences here as a mom of many servers….when they serve at the monastery,(the sisters require) they MUST know how to sit still and have a presence of the altar. Usually by 9 or 10. When we go down to Detroit and serve there-they have boys as young as 4 or 5 go in procession( with older boys) as candle holders, and sit with older boys/men only if they can sit still and behave. The older they are they are worked into different positions. In the EF of Mass we had 7 year olds, mostly as boat bearers and other small tasks…they had to learn the latin prayers-as they learned the postures, movements of servers they were allowed positions of more importance. The MOST important thing is the young boy should have know how to act on the altar- I like to call it having a presence of being on the altar…acting reverently, moving reverently, and paying attention. You CAN tell boys who have it and don’t. The ones who don’t –don’t belong up there , until they get it…not all boys are ready at the same age remember.

  10. I started serving in the altar when I was around ten or eleven years old at the Orthodox parish that I used to attend until I converted. It seems to me that that age is probably the correct one. Different boys, however, will mature at different ages and so it depends as much on them as it does on the policies of the parish.

    At my old sede parish, most boys start serving around ten or eleven and then continue through high school. There are also grown men who also serve.

  11. ray from mn says:

    The parish of St. Agnes in St. Paul, Minn., Home of the fabulous 10:00 Sunday Mass with the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale and musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra is concerned about economics too.

    Rather than forcing parents to purchase nice black oxfords for their young altar boys, the parish keeps a goodly supply of black socks on hand in all sizes.

    As often as not, the altar boys at St. Agnes are “totally besocked!”

    I must admit, the first time I observed this, my Mass attendance might have invalid or illicit or something. I spent most of the time trying to get a better glimpse of the altar boys, attempting to determine whether or not they were wearing shoes.

    Fortunately, they kneel a lot at St. Agnes and it was relatively easy to determine.

  12. Mike Morrow says:

    Gosh, most here seem to be expecting considerable (and IMHO unnecessary) seniority for an altar server.

    In my pre-Vatican II parish and parochial school (late 1950s to early 1960s), third grade (9 years old) was usually the start of server training. That included especially immediately the learning of the Latin responses and beginning serving Mass. We had no “phase-in” period. I had served many many a Mass by the time I was 14. By the previously mentioned age 16 (tenth or eleventh grade!), typically a server’s “career” was about over in my parish as the servers’ interests turned to other things and younger folks entered the pipeline from the parochial school.

    IMO, waiting until 16 would definitely be a departure from pre-Vatican II tradition.

  13. The Digital MC says:

    My brother and I started serving the Traditional Latin Mass at 12 and 14 years old. We have just this year been joined by our little 9 year-old brother.

    I think that the way altar boys act on the altar and around the sacristy can strongly affect the way the people themselves act in the pews. Reverence is pretty much contagious.

  14. Ef-lover says:

    for our local EF mass altar boy training begins at age 7 , if the child wants to serve. If he is ready, will begin serving sometime after first communion. in the past one or two kids begain their training before turning the age of 7.

  15. Antiquarian says:

    I’m afraid I an’t give advice on current policies, but I well remember the training regimen I went through.

    For my parish, back in the early 60s, the progression was clearly codified. In fourth grade one could begin by being a torchbearer at the weekly Solemn High Mass (this was a cathedral parish). You also began to learn the Latin responses. In fifth grade you received training in serving low mass, and if you passed muster might get paired with an older boy to serve on weekday mornings. You also might gain the honor of being “Second Master” (of ceremonies, I realize now, but no one ever finished the title back then!) and led the torchbearers around at High Mass. You were entrusted with a clicker, like the nuns had, to cue the posture changes. By sixth grade any boy who had a desire to was able to serve alone or with a partner. By seventh grade you might be up to serving at High Mass, when you were called an “acolyte”– and that generally meant you were reliable enough to serve at weddings and funerals. Altar boys were routinely called out of class to assist at parish funerals, but you needed to be a good student with excellent self-control. (Weddings were highly desired because occasionally you would get tipped!)

    Eighth graders might be trusted to carry the cross in the High mass processions, and very,very mature boys might serve as thurifer, but that was almost unheard of. There might also be a “boat boy” to carry the incense. And if a bishop was present, there would be mitre and crosier bearers with humeral veils.

    When I started, the acolytes helped the deacon and subdeacon vest for High Mass. That practice faded, and the change to English responses in the 1965 Missal was praised by the younger boys and protested by the older ones, who had already learned their Latin.

    We had an active participation in “The Knights of The Altar,” an organization that published the magazine Catholic Boy, which we were given, and their were ranks with pins you earned– apprentice, page, squire, knight, knight commander, grand knight (eighth graders only)and knight of honor (a title you received on graduating). No one ever, in my memory, continued to serve once leaving the parish school after eighth grade, but, of course, there were new servers coming up behind them.

    (I hope this wasn’t a rabbit hole.)

  16. Trad Tom says:

    My personal experience was much the same as Mike Morrow’s: third grade was when the training began. Throughout the year some of us pulled ahead of others, and by mid-year Steve D.,Tim T., and Trad Tom were ready! We all served regularly until we were juniors in high school; our senior year was the year we began “phasing out.” I can still say at least 90% of the Latin responses — and am proud of that. I need to find an EF parish/mass where old men can serve!

  17. My own preference would be the sooner the better. Third grade sounds about right as they have made their First Holy Communion.

  18. ejcmartin says:

    My son is seven and has just begun to learn the Mass. Unfortunately we do not have a “corps” of servers in our small city. In fact my son is learning from two men who served pre-Vatican II. I am very thankful for the help and generosity in showing my son how to serve.

  19. EXCHIEF says:

    In the early 50′s at the age of 6 and just after receiving First Holy Communion I became an altar boy. Remained one until I was mid way through college. For most of my “career” as a server Mass was celebrated in Latin. Had no problem learning it at 6 and have no problem remembering the responses today (some 57 years later) when the (rare) opportunity to attend a Mass celebrated in Latin presents itself.

  20. edmontonn18 says:

    Referring to the extra-ordinary form: Around the time of first communion, if only to get the lad used to vesting, moving about and most importantly being able to sit still. Personally, I’d start young lads off serving at a Solemn High Mass or Missa Cantata, if one has the luxury of doing so. If serving with a partner at Low Mass then probably a little bit older, once the Latin responses can be memorised, or read competently from a prompt card.

    Although I’m not a fan of using a ‘boat boy’ when acting as thurifer (and the rubrics assume that the thurifer will carry the boat himself), this is a really good role for kids to begin with: most of the time he’s side-by-side with someone to supervise him, and he can get used to holding something and handing it over in a proper manner.

    The only thing that one has to watch out for with young servers are their almost universal pyromania. I haven’t seen one go up in smoke yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

  21. frere wilfrid says:

    My youngest server is two and a half. His mother made him a special cassock.

    Some people think he is more of a mascot than a server.

    He only goes to the EF. His name is Henry.

  22. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    I recommend First Communion as the time frame around which we begin training the boys. Three of my five boys (ages almost 13, 10 and 8) happily and knowledgeably serve the Extraordinary Form, both High and Low. Their little brothers (5 and almost 3) “play Mass” at home, sometimes joined by older brothers.

    On a related point (and I hope this doesn’t get me banned) we should pray for all altar boys, that they will be able to hear God’s call to the priesthood if He calls them; we should also pray for those girls who – for whatever reason – serve Mass with the permission and encouragement of their parents and pastors, so that they may find their proper vocation.

  23. ggiumarra says:

    I am not sure I can add anything to the discussion here regarding the “when” question, but maybe I can help give a partial answer as to “how” to start and “who” can do the training. The “who” is Father Z himself! Several years ago we had the pleasure of having Father Z at our parish here in Bakersfield, California. Since we already had a regular indult Tridentine Mass there, he was kind enough to put together an instruction book and with accompanying cassette tape (“LATIN RESPONSES for the TRIDENTINE MASS: how to pronounce them & help to memorize them”) to help some of the younger boys learn how to serve in the traditional ordo. Both of my older sons were able to take advantage of this.

    I had long thought of putting his written and audio instructions on line, but it was until after the Holy Father’s Motu Proprio on the traditional mass that I got my act together and, after getting Father Z.’s permission, actually got it done (with some help from Dr. David Moore, who did the audio conversion).

    You can find it at introibo.org.

  24. As far as actually beginning training, I here in Japan they start after First Communion.

    As far as learning Latin I can not stress enough that the younger the better. I have begun teaching my son Latin and he already has a lot of stuff down. Of course since he is only 1 his pronunciation is way off, but every one year old has bad pronunciation even in their native language. That is normal.

    Sometime after age 10; some linguist say 15 and others say about 12; the brain of a child changes and they can no longer learn a language well enough to be native speaker level anymore. They will always have an incomplete acquisition of some aspect of the language. Latin is the medium of conversation between my wife (she’s Japanese and can’t speak English) and I so I’m hoping my son will get to be native speaker level.

    We don’t actually have Latin Mass here on Kyushu island but as a non Japanese person people expect me to use the book and do the responses in another language. Believe it or not, but I often get asked by our priest to do the Alter Boy’s job even though I am over 30. So there I am standing in the sanctuary in white off to the side. The priest says “the Lord be with you” in Japanese and every responds “Mata shisai to tomo ni” but I get to say “et cum spiritu tuo”. When I am not acting as a server I sit with my wife and son and I teach him the Latin responses. It never even occurs to me to teach him the English ones. Now that I think of it, I probably would need the book to know what exactly the English responses were these days.