QUAERITUR: How old can an altar “boy” be?

From a reader:

Is there an upper age limit to serve as an altar “boy” at a TLM? I am a 35 year old father who converted at about age 30.  I’m encouraging my six year old son to consider becoming an altar boy and I find myself wishing that I had had the chance to be an altar boy when I was his age.

The Mass we attend has quite a few young dads and I wonder if we could put together an “emeritus” crew of altar servers? I wouldn’t want to be in the regular rotation (our altar boys to a fantastic job) but I think it might be fun to serve occasionally and would really make a lasting impression on our children as to the importance of our Catholic faith.

An 80 year old Cardinal once served Mass for me.

There is no upper age limit.  So long as a man can do the job decently, he can serve.

While I’m at it, the introduction of father and son serving teams can be a useful in easing altar girls out of the sanctuary.  I saw this done in a parish and it was very effective.

I think it is a very good idea to get men involved in serving, especially if they are younger and thinking of a vocation to the priesthood.

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  1. Supertradmum says:

    In my previous NO parish and in my parent’s NO parish, the only people to attend daily Mass are over 60, and then some. Older men in their seventies serve regularly. I think it is very nice and comforting to see older men on the altar. It is a rather humbling position as well as an honorable one.

  2. Young Canadian RC Male says:

    In aggregment with Fr. Z. It is sad though that at many regular parishes for the most part you are “expected” to quit serving after high school.

    As for the TLM, if anyone needs proof that you can be old and grey and still serve, just watch the livestream of TLM masses from Christ the King parish in Sarasota, Florida for the weekday masses. http://www.livemass.net/ The servers almost all the time are seniors there. Youth usually serve the weekend/Sunday mass that is broadcasted.

  3. 3D says:

    There is no upper age limit, but, in keeping with the traditions of the Roman Rite, married men should not approach the altar.

    You’ll find this basic rule still observed by many oratories operated by the traditional priestly orders. I think this concept fell by the wayside with the introduction of married deacons into the Roman Rite. Remember that servers are there only as substitutes for clergy, and clergy were never married during the reign of the Traditional Form of Mass.

  4. Supertradmum says:

    All the altar servers who are men in our parish are married. This is even true at the EF, where a married man in his late twenties serves and teaches the altar boys. I do not think this rule has been enforced for a long time, as I remember my dad and other married men serving at early morning Mass pre-Vatican II.

  5. JaneC says:

    At our previous parish, because of the demographics of the area (expensive apartments=only old couples who’ve lived there forever, or young singles), we had only one child altar server. All the rest were adults. At almost every parish I’ve been in, including the current one which has a school attached, the servers for daily Mass (if any) are adults. If there is a funeral, though, the school sends a couple of eighth-grade boys over to serve. On Sundays, there will often be one adult supervising the kids, especially if there is to be incense involved–apparently they don’t trust the children not to play with fire.

  6. EXCHIEF says:

    I serve at our weekly Sunday TLM and I’m 65. It was interesting to serve the TLM again after a 47 year absence. The Latin was no problem at all since I had served for a dozen years in the 50’s and early 60’s. It’s like learning to ride a bicycle as a kid–you never forget.

    The other TLM servers at our parish are a 50 ish man and his teenage son.

  7. In Sydney, Australia we have a regular missa cantata (solemn Mass when we can wrangle more clerics) which is served exclusively by single men in their 20s. It has been very successful in cultivating religious vocations, about half the servers are in various stages of application to religious institutes or the archdiocesan seminary. The Mass is served also by a mixed (men and women) schola cantorum from the choir loft, of a similar age range. The faithful who attend don’t quite fill the church, but there are always more in the pews than in the sanctuary and loft.

    For comparison, the ordinary form Mass at my home parish is served by poorly trained boys and girls in brown “albs” who all stop at about early high school age (in Australia, that’s 12-14). There hasn’t been a vocation since the diocese was erected in 1986.

    I think in the case of the reader’s letter it may be an idea to have a regular Mass served by the older men, apart from your rotation. Perhaps not a Sunday Mass, but another regular devotion – first Saturdays? That sort of thing.

  8. James Joseph says:

    I think it is super-cool (edifying) when a priest takes on the role of altar man-child.

  9. Fr. Basil says:

    I know several Orthodox parishes who have father-son teams act as altar servers.

    I think it’s a great idea.

  10. The Egyptian says:

    JaneC said
    On Sundays, there will often be one adult supervising the kids, especially if there is to be incense involved–apparently they don’t trust the children not to play with fire.

    when I was quite young and serving mass one of the highschoolers goofed with the incense burner and the coal fell out on the sanctuary carpet, he panicked and picked it up with his handkerchief and put in his pocket so father would not see, the rest is history
    He is also the one that got caught swinging it over his head in a loop de loop, when Father found out he was canned,
    his dad did the caning later

  11. Malateste says:

    OK, I’m confused. The big argument that gets dragged out all the time for not allowing little girls to serve the altar is that altar-serving can be useful at drawing young boys into the priesthood, I assume by making them feel like special “pre-priests,” and that having girl servers discourages involvement by boys, thus harming vocations. Not especially convincing to my mind, since it relies on the assumption that something as powerful as a divine vocation nonetheless can be easily disrupted by kiddie squeamishness, but there it is.

    But endorsing adult, married male altar servers destabilizes even that argument, because having your 45-year-old dad and his friends serve clearly disrupts the association between altar serving and pre-clergical discernment, as well as removing the much-discussed “cool factor” of altar serving. Serving side-by-side with a bunch of adult, married men may still be a special manly bonding experience for some, but it’s definitely not going to be a funnel into vocational discernment or a recruiting process for the priesthood.

    Which really makes it seem as though all the urgent interest in “easing girls out of the sanctuary” is less about supporting vocations and more about preserving masculine cache by keeping those icky, icky females in their place.

    Fr. Z, you’re killing me here. I honestly think of myself as a pretty traditional person, but I think reading this blog is actually making me less conservative. [Hey! You have options!]

  12. kat says:

    My sons are 9 and 12; when the older started serving at 9 years old, his dad got to serve with him on Saturday mornings. They have continued this whenever scheduled; and when my younger son began serving last year he got scheduled with his father occasionally too. My husband will serve on Saturday or Sunday mornings, often with one of them.

  13. Flambeaux says:

    Having grown, married men assist the priest in serving at the altar is an excellent witness for the younger boys and having the option of father-son teams (especially thurifer and boat boy) can avoid a lot of problems.

    I’ve seen this used to excellent effect in several Anglican Use parishes and expect it will be a common feature in the Ordinariate parishes, Deo gratias, up to and including the use of “straw” Subdeacons/Clerks.

    I hope it will see more use in the EF parishes as they emerge from the ghetto, but far too many people seem to have silly ideas like “married men shouldn’t approach the altar” leftover from poor catechesis about the nature of clerical celibacy and other cultural baggage that seems particular to Ireland and the United States.

  14. Vox clamantis in deserto says:


    a precondition for a priestly vocation is to be a man and to be aware of being a man. In a way, it’s exactly as you wrote, “preserving masculine cache”. Boys need it, even regardless of priestly vocations. That is a way of building their masculinity. Only when they are aware of being men, their vocational discernment can start.

    Don’t you from time to time prefer women’s company? Don’t mothers and daughters talk on “purely feminine” matters and dedicate time to “typically feminine” activities? Girls need a “feminine cache”.

    One of problems of the modern society is losing the awareness of being men and women. A confusion of equality and identity. Men and women are (in a sense) equal, but not identical.

    And btw I, a married man, technically still can become a priest, although it is highly unprobable. A company of altar servers is (well, often is not…should be) a company of “technically-possible-to-become-priests” people . A company of men separated from all the others, for the time of the Holy Mass. A model of a priest’s life – a priest, even a married priest, is separated from all the others, and not only for the time of the Holy Mass. He is separated from all the others to sacrifice himself to God and to bring the Sacrifice to God.

  15. Supertradmum says:

    Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, was a Man. He chose men to be Apostles, and as God, could not make a “cultural mistake”. That is the bottom line of argument for male servers and male priests.

  16. Traductora says:

    I love the painting! Few people would probably identify that as being by Pablo Picasso, but it is. And furthermore, he was just a very young teenager when he painted it. Pretty impressive. He did a lot of truly beautiful paintings with a religious or church themes at that age. And then something happened…

  17. marthawrites says:

    When my husband, now age 73, served the TLM each Sunday and some weekdays with our newly trained Capuchin friar for a couple of years, he did so because he could easily relearn what he had done as a youthful altar boy and only one other man , slightly older, could also assist. The pastor would not allow boys from the grade school to be recruited. After two years of that service, my husband was able to train two home-schooled brothers, ages 12 and 16, who now serve six days /week. My husband stopped serving because he thought his age would contribute to the notion that the TLM was a liturgy for old people who wanted to go back to the past. He did, however, serve as MC again on Christmas morning, because our 44-year-old son was a candle bearer, and the privilege of father and son on the altar together was something he could not resist.

  18. introibo says:

    It is a great privilege to serve holy Mass, and any boy or man who is willing to do so is to be commended. That being said, it is a bit irking at some TLM’s when there are young and adolescent boys in the pews but the Mass is being served by old(er) men. The undesirable message is thus proclaimed: This is the older generation’s Mass, not the younger generation’s.

  19. You’d be hard pressed to get rid of altar girls here in Ireland. They are so firmly established and the politically correct sensitivities mean that to challenge the status quo would, in my opinion, provoke an un-Godly RAGE. There is nothing worse than a feminist spurned!

  20. Liz says:

    We just came home from a very beautiful, low mass in which our little daughter received her First Holy Communion. It was so lovely. Anyway, my 11-year old son served with our dear friend who is in his 50’s. He is also my daughter’s godfather. It was just perfect. My husband never served in the EF. I think it would be really neat for him to learn how. I think the father-son teams would be really nice. So, I think it would be nice for this dad and his son learn together.

  21. tsunamimommy says:

    Wow, my heart is heavy after reading some of these comments. Is introibo then saying that when the younger generation serve Mass it is their Mass and not the older generation’s? I wasn’t aware that Mass belonged to specific generations. I always thought I was taught that Mass is for ALL of us, regardless of age and sex for that matter.
    And, yes, Supertradmum, Jesus was indeed a Man; a Perfect Man. And yes the Apostles likewise were men. Considering the fact that women were held as basically less than 2nd class citizens at that time it is no wonder that they were all but excluded from all things religious. I like to think that the God I believe in and pray to daily accepts my prayers and supplications as freely and easily as he does those from men.
    As for girls serving at Mass, dear me, that’s what we’ve done for generations is serve men. Sorry, that was cattty and I didn’t mean it to be. It’s just, I remember a Parish from years past, a Mission, that had few who were willing to serve at Mass and Father gladly accepted the girls if they asked.
    Have a wonderful life and smile, God loves all of us regardless of who we are–His Love in indeed Unconditional. I will remeber this Blog when I pray the Rosary tonight.

  22. liberanos says:

    My 10-year old serves the EF with adults. Unfortunately, our beloved (retired) priest prefers adults to serve in order to avoid the possibility of scandal, so his opportunities to serve are limited to High Mass (boat boy) or occasions when there aren’t enough men available.

  23. Ismael says:

    In my old parish altar boys were usually kids from 8 to 15. I was in Italy then and there was an abbundance of young boys going to Church, so rarey someone older needed to be an altar boy.

    In my current parish they use altar boys (and girls) of every age. Some of them are over 50. I am in Holland now, in the north (ie the protestant side) so there is not a huge community.
    On sunday usually young people serve mass, but in the masses during the week and on saturday evening (in English for foreigners) often older people serve mass, since kids are usually at school.

  24. FrFenton says:

    3D: The Solomn Promise made to live perfect and perpetual continence was not associated with minor orders. It was not made until Subdiaconate. During the time in which the Extraordinary Form was “reigning” as you say, there were, in fact even married Priests — who were, of course to live perfect and perpetual continence. It wasn’t until into the 2nd millenium that celibacy was required of all clerics. Even in Canon Law today, celibacy is considered something that logically follows from continence.
    So, prior to that point, a man in minor orders, like an Acolyte, could have been married, and would not even have made a promise of perfect and perpetual continence.

  25. Ah, nostalgia! If you get more of a buzz out of serving at the altar, when you are an older married man, why aren’t you getting a greater buzz out of being and serving as a husband or father? Encouraging your boys to serve is good, but spend time with your daughters too. We had a flock of married men, falling over themselves, to participate in the TLM once it was offered at our parish. Yes, it’s nice to get your man out of the house every now and then, but not so he can relive his youth, while ignoring his adulthood. We not only want to encourage vocations to the priesthood, we also want to encourage and mirror happy adults who find fulfilment in their married life, their work in the world, and SPENDING SPARE TIME WITH THEIR FAMILIES. If our young only see grown men hankering after a time without women and kids, ‘playing priest’, and trying to be young again, we are sending the wrong message. If you have the opportunity to serve Mass, even though there are other younger and more single men to do it, but you have not prayed Compline or the Rosary with your family that day, who are you kidding? The Church may not have helped you value your lay role, but it does not exist to make you feel young again. Grow up.

  26. digdigby says:

    Poet Jean Follain in his memoirs of Normandy before WWI remembers a boy incensing his own father who is also serving and the father simultaneously bowing to his own son and glaring furiously at him – because the boy is sucking on a violet pastille. Bowing and glaring, sort of mixed messages there.

  27. dominic1955 says:

    The thing to remember about this issue is that it used to be only tonsured clerics would perform serving roles in the sanctuary. As this became more and more difficult or impossible, laymen/boys were deputized for those roles. Thus, there is no thing as an altar “boy” so to say-clerics could be fairly young but not necessarily.

    Of course, fast forward 1,500 yrs. or so and that connection has pretty much been lost. As such, this is probably why so many people do not even think twice about girl altar servers-they have absolutely no idea that a server is (or, if you want to get technical, was) standing in to do the job of a proper cleric-who, of course, must be male. Now its just something cute for the kiddies to do.

    Back in the day, often times they had to “try out” for the position. If you couldn’t kneel and genuflect decently without fidgeting or couldn’t say the parts right etc., good luck next time. I think this was much more in keeping with the dignity of the Mass and the sanctuary. Such dignity is not preserved by making it some sort of school play or showcase for special cases to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy.

  28. lucy says:

    We have a very small traditional community at our parish (which is a regular parish with both forms of Mass offered). Since there are fewer boys and young men to begin with, it has been left to the older gentlemen in the community to serve. My own husband serves as the head man and teaches all new boys and young men coming in. If and when we have our own parish, the lay folks will be happy to step aside and let the priest direct who does what. Since we have no one priest as our very own, we have to do the work, so to speak, to keep our Mass going. It has been wonderful for my three boys to watch their dad take this leading role in teaching them and others. I look forward to one day having my husband back in the pew with me.

    Tsunamimommy – I think that folks get the wrong idea about what men and women’s roles are. God did, indeed, make us all to love Him and He us. We each have our own roles in the Church. Men and boys are to lead. The priest leads us in worship of the Almighty. The young men and boys help the priest, and hopefully one day hear a call to the priesthood themselves. Women and girls have their own role. That of taking care of the altar linens, keep things neat, providing refreshment after Mass, etc. We all have beautiful roles and should embrace them. I think that too many of us have spent years buying into the lie of women’s liberation. In fact, it turned into enslavement. Women HAVE to work now. Too many of us bought into that lie. I am happy to have convinced my husband that we didn’t need my extra income and we live nicely, but simply, on his salary. It has changed our lives and our marriage all for good. Girls do not belong in the sanctuary. God provided a framework that we all should embrace, because He knows what’s best for our salvation.

  29. EXCHIEF says:

    As I posted earlier I serve at our TLM and I am a “senior citizen”. Please understand that in our parish, and I imagine this is the case in others, we are actively “recruiting” younger boys and men to serve and are assisting with their training. The goal is to have young men still possible candidates for the priesthood serving at Mass. Believe me I hope and pray for younger replacements every time my creaky knees protest when I genuflect while serving or when I find it difficult to go from kneeling to standing with anything that half resembles gracefulness.

    On the other hand I can only try to explain the joy I have experienced in being able to once again serve the Mass of my youth. Not for the nostalgia but for the sheer closeness to the Lord that I feel and the sheer reverence that is so inherent in the TLM vs the NO.

  30. Gaz says:

    I started at 7 and I’m still at it at 41.

  31. homeschoolofthree says:

    My husband(47) regularly serves daily Mass. He also serves on Sundays if the boys are unable to or we are short. My sons, (21 and 17) routinely serve daily and Sunday Masses. Father does prefer the boys serve, since serving is a natural setting for a boy to ponder a vocation, and obviously my husband knows his. I do love to see them serve together though, it is awesome that the men in my life can serve this way!

  32. maynardus says:

    I completely agree that the boys should be favored over older men, but I will note as others have that it has been a great privilege to have served with two (soon to be three) of my sons. I only serve when necessary, but I’m only 47 so I can reasonably hope that I’ll eventually have the opportunity to serve with all five of them (probably not at the same time!) But I can really see firsthand how the affinity with the altar and the priests leads young men to consider their vocations…

  33. introibo says:

    Tsunamimommy, of course the Mass is for all generations. Here’s what I was was saying. Speaking from my own experience, when one goes to a typical parish Sunday (New) Mass attended by various age groups, it is served by teens and pre-teens. When one goes to a Sunday TLM (especially one who is new to it) amd sees it being served by older men, it sends out the message I indicated. And I don’t like the idea of sending out the message that the Old Mass is “the old folks’ Mass” because I believe the young people need and in varying degrees want the TLM. Please God the TLM will continue to be handed down by today’s children. As for the rosary, let’s keep praying it!

    Lucy, right on!

  34. jflare says:

    Must admit I’m rather stunned by all these hints of “generational” Masses. I started serving Mass in about 5th grade or so for 12:00 Mass on Sunday (obviously with numerous adults attending). Two or three years AFTER that, I hit my teens and I was supposed to be enticed by “teen activities” sponsored by the Church or school. I never could figure out why that wasn’t incredibly patronizing!

    For what it’s worth, after attending Mass at my current parish for over a year, I attended the server training that our pastor offered to our altar servers. I did so because..our altar servers do a LOT more than I ever learned! Must have been the era when I was a kid, but seriously, I hadn’t ever seen a censur (spelling?) before age 33 or so.

    In all truth, I keep thinking I’d like to rework my current work schedule; I’d like to learn more about serving Mass in the Extraordinary Form one of these days.
    BTW, bring on the kids AND my fellow adults too!

    We can all learn something, can’t we?

  35. aquinasdad says:

    I am in my early 40’s and serve on the altar at our FSSP parish along with 3 of my 4 sons (the 4th will be joining the rest of us in a few months when he is old enough). We have plenty of young men to serve on the altar but the older men are there as mentors and examples; the TLM can be intimidating and we help the boys and young men grow into the various parts of the Rite on the altar. While an 8 year old serving as gatekeeper will probably be OK a 12 year old needs some assistance being 1st Acolyte for a while! Indeed, just being an example of how a man can still quietly for extended periods is important.
    Also, the camaraderie and energy of the sacristy reminds me of nothing so much as my old platoon area in the Army – men preparing to serve a higher, more important cause in a selfless manner with young men being mentored by older men – many of us fathers were interested in the priesthood in our youth and, through discernment, became husbands and fathers. This means that these boys and young men can talk to us in the sacristy about their own discernment. Very important!

  36. Martin_B says:

    “3D” mentioned something that traditionally married men shouldn’t approach the altar.

    I disagree!
    Altar Servers aren’t clerics and therefor their maritial status is of no concern.

    Just look at one of the most traditional minded parishes in cologne, the “Kupfergasse” (see http://www.kupfergasse.de). It’s one of the very few, that uses only male servers and it often has not only two, but three generations serving together at the altar.

  37. Well, this shouldn’t be a consideration, but in today’s world it is —

    If you have various men serving Mass along with the boys, it’s a chaperoned and witnessed situation for everybody. Father, the boys, the men, everybody. People just get up to less trouble when they’re in an all-ages situation. (And yeah, there’s always a lot of would-be pyros among altarboys, just like Boy Scouts.)

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