If, in January 2020, you had asked what being an altar server meant to me. I would have said something like this. It means being helpful and gaining a deeper understanding of the Mass. If pushed, I would have added that yes, serving on the altar helps me feel closer to God. But a vital part of my identity? I don’t think so. The cornerstone of my faith? Definitely not. And how would I feel about a lengthy ban on altar serving? Excellent. A lie-in on a Sunday morning for once….

You can probably guess where I’m going with this. It turned out that a ban on being able to serve was less of a beach holiday and more like being abandoned on a desert island. I was bereft. I tried watching Mass online, but more often than not I’d turn away. The livestreams reminded me of my distance from the Church, of what I couldn’t do and what wasn’t available to me. I couldn’t be an altar server anymore. And I couldn’t work out why that mattered to me so much. Who had I even ‘served’ anyway?

The clergy? I’d certainly like to think I’d helped out a Priest or two. My role as an MC (altar server in charge) is to ensure the Mass runs smoothly. This means the Priest can focus on his role without being distracted by (as a couple of completely fictional examples of things that could happen during a Mass) water leaking from the roof, medical emergencies, and cats trespassing on the altar.

The congregation? Well, I’ve not had any complaints and I’ve certainly put the work in. I’ve rung bells and carried candles. I’ve worked megaphones in the park and stopped traffic to direct a procession to the Garden of Gethsemane. I’ve passed on my knowledge of how to serve to a new generation of servers, as it was passed on to me.

So far, so useful. But I could have told you all that in January 2020. None of this explained why being unable to serve was having such an impact on me. What was I missing? Then it hit me. I was an Altar Server. All these years I’d been serving at the altar; ‘an object of awe: by nature it is stone, but it is made holy when it receives the body of Christ.’ (General Instruction of the Roman Missal)

An object of awe. Made holy. Had I been serving God?

I had always known that practically, I was serving the clergy and the congregation by being useful. Now I understood that it wasn’t being useful that mattered. It was the fact that I was placing myself in the service of others.

‘Let us never forget that authentic power is service…that has its radiant culmination on the cross.’

By serving others, I felt just a glimmer of the authentic power Pope Francis describes. By serving others, I created a unique connection with God, mediated through that ultimate act of service – Our Lord’s death upon the cross. It was that connection I had lost when the pandemic hit. Understanding this allowed me to look for other ways to find that connection through service: helping a neighbour in distress, creating a support group with colleagues, saying a virtual rosary with a friend.

What this means, you’ll be pleased to know, is that you don’t have to be an altar server to access the benefits of service. The pandemic has shown more than ever how opportunities surround us. We will all have benefited in some way from the services provided by front-line workers. Many of you will have been inspired to serve in your local community. And, as we recover from this pandemic we all have a chance to renew our commitment to serving others in whatever way we are able to. I know, for example, that there are opportunities right now to serve the Parish community. Although you don’t have to be an altar server, more adult altar servers are desperately needed – the Parish office or clergy can provide further information.

I am thankful for the enforced break the pandemic gave me from serving. Now, I can give you a proper answer to the question of what being a server means to me. It means serving others, and through serving others it means serving God. But I would also go further. I would tell you that being a server is one part of my journey towards a different way of life; a life lived authentically, where power is drawn from service. It is a way of life, a vital part of my identity, and the cornerstone of my faith.

Ruth McConkey