REVIEW: Letters to an Altar Boy (Angelus Press)

The publishing arm of the SSPX has reprinted a 1952 work by Fr. David E. Rosage, Letters to an Altar Boy (reprint 2011).

The thin book begins with a quote from Rev. Thomas O’Donnell, CSC (Director of the Knights of the Altar):

Any lad who read this book is bound to be better and to have a better understanding of the great privilege that is his.

The book is laid out well and there are recent color photos which nevertheless could have been from 1952.

The idea of the book is clear: give boys a sense of the importance of what they are called to do, the honor there is in being able to do it, and then to conform their lives to that as an identity.  It stresses things that boys resonate with: belonging to a group, doing clearly spelled out tasks, doing something important, making sacrifices, being loyal, advancing to new duties, etc.

Along the pages many important issues are addressed, such as being of good character and reliable, tidy, pure in heart, avoiding filthy language.  There are practical points, such as making sure your hands are clean, your shoes are shined.  There is even a short list of the four brushes:  scrub brush, shoe brush, hair brush, tooth brush!

There are practical pointers about what to do with your hands when you serve, making a thanksgiving after Mass, keeping silent, seeing Mary as the mother of altar boys…

I found this book charming. I actually have a touch of envy for boys and men who grew up in the culture that could still produce such a book.  Of course it wasn’t perfect, but it was a bit more connected to what really matters.  And one of the best things about this book is that it acknowledges time and time again that you may not be a perfect boy, but you can always try to be the very best at what you do, and be virtuous and faithful as you grew up, taking those same lessons into manhood and, perhaps, the seminary if that is your calling.

In the last few decades there has been such a horrible war on boys.

Finally, it must be said that this book has nothing to do with altar girls.  No-thing.

Parents.  Have boys?  Go to the other form of Mass?  Are some of them servers?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. JulieC says:

    Oo-rah for altar boys! I have four of my own. #4 Son is the only one who’s had the opportunity to serve the EF Mass, but there is a world of difference between the two cultures and the prevailing attitudes. All I can say is that I wish my three oldest sons had received the benefit of all the training and the depth of spirituality that the youngest son has had serving the old Mass.

  2. ReginaMarie says:

    Sounds like a lovely book! Thankfully we have never experienced altar serverettes (girls) at the Divine Liturgy!

  3. wmeyer says:

    Sounds excellent! I may need to give copies to my pastor, liturgist, and DRE. And others. But few are likely to read it, and even fewer to agree.

  4. momoften says:

    Servers? Yes, many…11 boys. The boys are lucky as there are so many of them they have never had to serve with girls…(hee, hee) We serve at both forms and a monastery. We have had EXCELLENT priests that have been role models..and weirdly enough, they have had influence back towards priests because they prefer to serve in a black cassock and white surplice rather than the ugly white albs (we borrow them for serving in places where they have albs) One priest has decided he also wants a cassock now…hmmm. And yes, 2 daughters, and they don’t serve.

  5. Konichiwa says:

    Would this book also be good for boys who serve at the Novus Ordo? [Yes, for boys, yes. But there would be some disconnects.]

  6. tmjost says:

    I am thankful to be the mother of three (stinky) boys :) All of them serve on the altar most days of the week and at TLM on Sundays. I am so thankful that to them it is a normal way of life. They enjoy serving The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass! We are blessed with great priests at our parish, who encourage vocations, and welcome as many servers as possible. Many visitors to our parish comment on the number of altar boys we have at daily Mass. On a typical Wednesday morning, there are usually at least 6 serving at the altar. On Sunday nights at TLM, we have as many as 14 boys serving as well. God bless +

  7. JulieC says:

    Re: altar girls, it’s been my experience that even though they made a big splash about 10 years ago, like many post-conciliar novelties, they’ve rapidly declined in numbers since then. About 10 years ago, our parish had a thriving Altar Boy Society, numbering 125 boys. Most of them fled for the hills when altar girls were introduced . . . and then the altar girls disappeared one by one.

    Now it’s the senior women set that serve daily Mass here. (Actually I don’t know what bothers me more, the one attractive woman in her fifties who serves in an alb, lipstick and high heels which click resoundingly across the marble floor, or the sweet little old ladies in their sweatpants and sneakers.)

  8. JulieC says:

    P.S. Forgot to mention the hand-sanitizing ceremony the lady servers/EM’s engage in before Holy Communion. Due to the unfortunate hepatitis scare at a local parish here, it is now de rigueur that all EM’s/servers thoroughly and ostentatiously disinfect their hands before helping to distribute Communion. It’s a little disconcerting to see them pass the Purell bottle around while they wait at the altar for Father to give them their ciboria.

  9. NCtrad says:

    This is a great book. I bought it for my son who has just started serving. We bought it at our chapel after Sunday mass and he had finished it by time he went to bed that evening.

  10. inara says:

    We have 5 boys, one of whom currently serves at our OF parish (the others are too young & the oldest is off to college & sadly, questioning his faith…I am just now beginning to see how our tabernacle-less sanctuary may be partially to blame). Our 4 girls will not be serving, but they are learning how to press the altar linens. :o)
    Thanks for the heads up on the book, I think I shall buy one…”The Clothes Make the Man” indeed! My grandfather was a peddler of fine menswear in the U.P. (of Michigan) & I think that was almost carved into his headstone.

  11. Henry Edwards says:

    What altar boy wouldn’t swell with pride as he reads in this book the following words addressed to him:

    “You are so important because you are helping the priest to say Mass, to bring our Lord into the world each morning. You are the priest’s first assistant. In fact, the Church considers you so important that the law of the Church requires a priest to have an altar boy before he may say Mass. A priest must have special reason or permission to say Mass without a server. That’s how important the Church considers you.

    “Whether you realize it or not, you are more important at Mass than your own dear mother, or the Sisters at school, or a princess in a royal castle, or the mother of a bishop, or even the sister of the Holy Father.

    “Why? Well, you see, these good and holy women may answer the prayers of the priest at Mass, but they are never permitted to leave their pews and come into the sanctuary while Mass is being offered. They may not walk up the altar steps during the Mass to change the Missal from the Epistle to the Gospel side of the altar. Neither may they bring the water and wine up to the priest. That privilege is reserved only for altar boys. Yes, you are the only person who may come so close to our Lord during Mass.

    “So, you see, as an altar boy, you are very important, more important than you might think. Our Lord depends on you to help Him come into the world. Isn’t that strange and wonderful? Our Lord, who is the Master of heaven and earth, asks you to help Him come down among men.

    “Each day when you serve Mass, you can look up at the Sacred Host at the Elevation and smile as you say to our Lord: ‘Jesus, I have helped You in my own small way to come into the world this morning. I hope my serving Holy Mass has pleased You. Thank You, Jesus, for giving me this wonderful privilege.'”

  12. Charles E Flynn says:

    A distinguished physicist told me, shortly before he died, that one of the things of which he was most proud was the fact that having already served as an altar boy at one mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, he stayed and served at another mass that same day in a side chapel, so that a visiting priest could offer the mass. With no altar boy, there could be no mass.

  13. samgr says:

    Somewhere in a bottom drawer I have a white sleeveless sweater with a gold Kinghts of the Altar patch from 60-odd years ago. [Very cool. Send a photo.] The KofA concept was just right for pre-teen (and teenage) boys.

  14. my kidz mom says:

    Dear Fr. Z, I hope you will indulge the length of this post. The following treasure is from a book kept in our family for over 100 years:

    The Manual of the Holy Catholic Church
    Second Part
    The True Catholic in The Church of Christ
    © 1906, Catholic Art and Publication Office, Chicago, Illinois

    A Home Study for Altar Boys


    One of the great cares of a priest is his altar boys. He careful in selecting them, spends much of his valuable time in teaching and training them, is full of anxiety and care for them, using all the means in his power to keep them pure and innocent. He cares for them as a gardener cares for his choicest plants; in them he finds great consolation and delight.


    Altar boys are, as a rule, especially blessed. They are beloved by our Blessed Lord, and certainly our Lady has for them a special affection. Their parents look upon them with loving pride, and esteem it a happiness for themselves that their children should be allowed to assist at the altar of God. Their priest loves them, too, takes the greatest interest in their spiritual welfare, and often interests himself in their temporal state as well. They are also greatly respected by others who do not enjoy the privilege that they do. How fortunate, how privileged you are who accompany God’s minister to the very altar steps! You have been chosen to attend on the priest, he does not bid you remain at a distance till his return, but bids you accompany him to the very altar of sacrifice.


    You should be warned of a danger into which altar boys are liable to fall. It is against becoming too much accustomed to approaching so near our divine Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Unless you are on your guard, you will gradually acquire the habit of serving at Mass, assisting at Benediction, genuflecting before the tabernacle and so forth, as a matter of course, without ever thinking why or in whose honor these actions are performed.

    The various objects used in the divine service are indeed precious in the eyes of God as well as in the eyes of man, as they are consecrated specially to Him, and moreover because they are a proof to God of man’s love for Him, since by constructing them from the richest of this world’s productions, man testifies that nothing is too beautiful, nothing too precious to be employed in the service of God. Yet far above the costly altars, tabernacles, sacred vessels or vestments, though they be of gold and silver, studded with diamonds and precious stones, does God prize the souls of those who stand around those altars.

    Think of the honor you are enjoying in the years of your youth and how you are being prepared to face the storm of tribulation when it rages and the wind of adversity when it blows, saying with assurance and confidence: “In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped. I shall not be confounded forever.”


    Who can look upon priest and altar boys kneeling in adoration at the foot of the altar, forming a guard of honor round their Lord; and see the incense, an emblem of prayer, rising from their midst; who can listen to the strains of sweet music floating round the sacred edifice, echoing the praises of Jesus in the Sacrament of His love; who, above all, can see every head bowed down, whilst the priest, amidst the most profound silence, broken only by the sweet sound of a bell, raises the Sacred Host and blesses his pious flock, without being moved even to shedding tears of joy?

  15. My two oldest are learning to serve right now. They and my husband study a video that was produced by Bishop Slattery in Tulsa with the FSSP. They also go to server practice. Their first chance to serve will be on good Friday–it was thought that since they don’t know yet completely how to serve at the Mass that they would do well to serve at Good Friday since it is completely different and would be easier to train them than retrain others. Or something like that. My younger boy is learning along with them and will begin once he completes his first Holy Communion. They are VERY excited!

  16. EXCHIEF says:

    I began serving as an altar boy in 1952 (and served until 1963) I remember more than one illustrated booklet describing the duties and responsibilities (that’s a word we don’t hear too often today) of altar boys. I recall that a potential server had to demonstrate some proficiency and pass some tests before being allowed to serve. I recall also having to know the name of every vestment worn by a Priest and by a Bishop as well as knowing the proper name of every object used (on the altar itself for example) during Mass.

    My point? From that I learned respect, reverence, responsibility, the importance of knowing and doing something well, proper grooming and appearance—in short, things that have helped and stayed with me for the nearly 50 years that have elapsed since. Like riding a bicycle at a young age, some things are never forgotten. When I began serving at our newly scheduled TLM a few months ago it all came back quickly and clearly. I thank God for the opportunity.

  17. skull kid says:

    That’s a lovely quotation Henry. How special it makes the whole endeavour. Compare that to the typical predominantly altar serviettes we have in my parish each Sunday. Boys and girls, none of whom know what they are even meant to be doing from one moment to the next.

  18. ckdexterhaven says:

    Thanks to a persistent priest, two of my sons are altar servers. They came to it late, they’re both teenagers. I’m so happy Father T asked them. I am a proud mom when they serve. And I can’t help but think how close they are to all the angels and saints up there!

  19. Sandra_in_Severn says:

    Both of my uncles and my father were altar boys, one uncle is now a deacon. Both of his sons were altar boys, and one of my cousin’s sons will be starting right after his First Communion next year.

    My brother was not, but that was more because our parish growing up only had those boys in the parish school become altar boys, public school boys need not apply.

    The “Test” that my father and uncles had was a Latin language test, oral AND written exam. I remember reading through my father’s and his brother’s preparation book. By the time my brother and our cousins were of age, there was no more Latin requirement.

    I did notice growing up that there was a great difference between the boys and young men that learned their duties and responsibilities under the pre-Vatican II era and the post Vatican II era.

    At Girl Scout Camp, when we would have a priest from a local parish come out, the girls were asked to “help” The older girls would set-up and “dress” the altar while Father vested. (Linens, candle sticks, crucifix). During the Mass after the presentation of the gifts, two girls would go up and assist up to the “Sanctus;” one girl held the cruet of water, towel and a bowl and the other held the cruet of wine. Once done both girls would go back to the “pews.” Oh, there was one more “task” one girl would hold the Paten for communion (this was before the option of “in the hand.”)
    That was it.

    There were no such thing as “altar girls, or female altar servers” when I was growing up. And I always thought it strange when it started up.

  20. JPEG says:

    Thank you very much for posting this Fr. Z. If I may be so bold as to paraphrase Tertullian who stated that the “blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians” “semen est sanguis Christianorum”

    The service of the Altar boys is the seed of vocations to the holy Priesthood.

  21. Konichiwa says:

    I was an altar boy at one time back in the 90’s, and I wish that I could have had memories as fond as those mentioned here. I was poorly catechized and knew so little about the Mass after years of Catholic education. I cannot recall any training from the priest. This book would’ve been nice to have, and I think it could’ve affected me in a very good way. I plan to give this book to a few individuals who serve at the Novus Ordo. They’d definitely have some questions since they’re unlikely to have experienced the TLM before.

  22. Katherine says:

    My boys almost were not altar servers. At that time, the pastor had a policy of “No Negros.” My husband said he would not allow his sons to serve unless Blacks could as well. While it caused some of the more conservative parishioners to leave the parish, we did get this policy changed when a new (more liberal) pastor was assigned. Thanks be to God!

  23. frleo says:

    I have an original copy of the book which I purchased on ebay a few years ago. It is a great book.

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