Altar server training manual for st. Joseph’s catholic church last revised January 23, 2016 introduction

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Last revised January 23, 2016


You have been given a divine privilege above all earthly honors in being permitted within the sanctuary to serve at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, at which the Church gives to God, officially and in the name of all, the worship that is due to Him alone.

In earlier times, only ordained acolytes, that is, clerics in the fourth minor order conferred upon candidates to the priesthood, were permitted to serve at Mass. Today, when the number of clerics in minor orders is smaller, custom has tolerated specially-selected laymen to substitute in these duties.

As an altar server, you should reflect the same attitude as the priest in celebrating Holy Mass.  Specifically, you should perform your liturgical duties "digne, attente, devote," that is worthily, attentively, and devoutly, in body, mind, and heart. Your sacred duties require of you the greatest reverence in the sanctuary, the deepest attention to your duties, and the most zealous preparation of all your liturgical actions.

You should always conduct yourselves worthily in your position, a position to which even the angels of heaven cannot aspire. If you serve with care and devotion, you will edify the congregation, who look to you as an example for the proper disposition of assisting at Mass. If, however, you perform your duties with haste, carelessness, and inattention, you will degrade "the most beautiful thing this side of heaven," the worship of Almighty God in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

In and around the church, in the sacristy, and especially around the altar, you should show by your demeanor the holiness of the duties that you are performing. Even your exterior cleanliness should be a mark of your interior purity of heart. You should, of course, avoid any levity, irreverence, and idle talk in the presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Before Mass, when you are waiting for the procession to the altar, you should be preparing your mind and heart for the sacred duties upon which you are about to enter. At the altar your movements should be stately and dignified, not hasty or affected.

Devout altar servers have been the cause of conversions to the faith. On the other hand, careless servers have been the cause of the failure of souls to come to the faith. It is said that the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was kept from the Faith by the irreverence he witnessed of altar servers near the presence of Our Lord in the Tabernacle.

The French poet, Paul Claudel, on the other hand, was won back to the Church when he observed the reverence of those at the altar in Notre Dame Cathedral. "It was the most profound and grandiose poetry, enhanced by the most august gestures ever confided to human beings. I could not sufficiently satiate myself with the spectacle of the Mass."

May you at all times conduct yourself worthily, attentively, and devoutly, and by your actions and example at the altar bring glory to God and many souls to the one true Church.
Excerpt from TRADITIO Traditional Roman Catholic Internet Site. Copyright 1997-2002 CSM.  Reproduced with permission.

Parents, your commitment and cooperation is necessary for the success of this program. You will need to take responsibility for bringing your children to Mass early, attending training sessions, and that they are dressed appropriately for Mass. Your children will probably need your help in memorizing their prayers and preparing for Mas. They will need to learn to act reverently and prayerfully inside the church and during Mass, and they will learn this from watching you. Remember that your children will be in plain sight of hundreds of worshippers at Mass and that everything that they do (or don’t do) can be seen by everyone. How your children behave (or misbehave) will help or hinder the dignity of the Mass and the prayers of worshippers.

To be accepted into the guild as an altar server, one must

  • Have a PERSONAL desire to serve (not just the parent’s desire)

  • Be at least 3rd grade (8 years old)

  • Have been baptized and received First Communion

  • Be able to understand and perform their duties in a reverent and dignified manner

  • Commit to attend training sessions and showing up 15 minutes early to serve

  • Attend Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation

  • Have a personal devotional life (daily prayer, Scripture reading, etc.)

  • Strive to live a holy and faithful life in accordance with the laws of the Church


How we dress for an occasion is indicative of how much importance we attach to it. This is why we dress up for weddings, graduations, job interviews, etc. The Mass is infinitely more important than any other event or ceremony that we will ever participate in, because we are literally going to see God Himself. As altar servers, you will be only a few feet away from the altar on which Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, is made present under the appearance of bread and wine. It is therefore extremely important that servers dress appropriately for Mass.

Yes, you will be wearing liturgical vestments over your clothing, but you will still be inside a church; and before and after Mass you will still be in the presence of God in the Sanctuary. Furthermore, you will probably not serve at every Mass you attend, so it is good to form the habit of dressing in a dignified manner for Mass.

The dress code for altar servers at St. Joseph’s is:

  • Black dress shoes and black socks (white is permissible for girls) and are to be worn; if slacks are not black, fold them up so that they do not show under your alb or cassock.

  • Shoes must be closed toe. No sneakers, sandals, flip flops, heels, or platform shoes. If you do not have black shoes, they can be purchased at Goodwill for around $6. Also there will be a few extra pairs in the sacristy for you to borrow if needed.

  • No shorts or jeans.

  • Do not wear shirts with writing, logos, stripes, plaid design, or that are excessively decorative as it will show through the alb. Try to wear solid colors.

  • Shirt collars should not be visible through the alb. If necessary you can fold your collar inward.

  • Long hair should be tied back in a ponytail or bun so that it does not get in the way.

  • Albs should reach to the ankles, at the top of the shoes.

Altar servers who are not dressed appropriately may be asked to not serve that day.


Four altar servers are scheduled for each Sunday Mass; at least 3 are needed to perform their duties well. You are expected to show up for the Mass for which you will be serving. Approximately 2 weeks before a new schedule is written, you will be asked to submit your preferred Mass time(s) and any scheduling conflicts. Respond to this email as soon as possible. Check the serving schedule as soon as it is released. If you are unable to be at a Mass for which you are scheduled, use the altar server email list to arrange for a substitute (preferably of equal or higher rank) as soon as possible. Servers who repeatedly skip their obligations will have their serving privileges revoked.

Servers are expected to receive Communion at the Masses they serve. Thus is it essential that servers go to Confession regularly (recommended at least once a month and as soon as possible if a mortal sin has been committed).
You are required to observe the one hour Eucharistic fast prior receiving Holy Communion. Only water and medicine are allowed within this one hour period (this means no snacks, coffee, tea, soda, juice, mints, gum, etc.). Because as an altar server you are expected to receive Communion, if you have not observed this fast please do not serve.
Servers should have memorized, or be in the process of memorizing, the prayers and responses of the Mass. They should also memorize the altar server and vesting prayers posted in the sacristy.

In order to support the spiritual formation of our altar servers outside of the Mass, the parish has provided a small library of books which servers may check out to read. Some of the books are required reading for servers seeking promotion to higher ranks, while others are only recommended. Refer to the form on the bulletin board for current titles and check-out procedures.


We will be introducing a ranking system for our altar servers. This will enable us to better train our servers and allow them to better fulfill the necessary duties of serving at the altar. There will be four ranks:


Initial rank for those who are learning to serve for the first time. Apprentices will attend beginner training sessions and learn the basic postures and duties of altar servers. They will begin to learn the prayers and the order of the Mass; learn to properly vest themselves; and learn the terminology for sacred vessels and liturgical vestments.

Requirements: Fulfill entrance requirements for the server’s guild; responsible for learning the Apprentice skills and prayers listed on the Skills and Prayers charts; and faithfully come to Mass early and serving when scheduled.

Skilled servers will have more experience and be able to serve at most roles in the Mass with minimal supervision from Master and Elite servers. They are familiar with the basic order and theology of the Mass and have a track record of faithful service.

Requirements: Must have mastered the Apprentice skills and prayers listed on the Skills and Prayers charts; fulfill all reading requirements; and a demonstrated record of faithfully showing up on time and serving when scheduled.

Master servers are familiar with the order, prayers, rubrics, and theology of the Mass. They will ensure that the vessels are properly prepared before Mass, candles are lit and doused, and lead other servers in prayer before and after Mass.

Requirements: Must have memorized and mastered the prayers and duties listed on the Prayer and Skills charts for Master servers; fulfill all reading requirements; and a demonstrated record of faithfully showing up on time and serving when scheduled.

Elite servers will act as a Master of Ceremonies and take charge by delegating tasks and directing other servers during Mass. They are intimately familiar with the order, prayers, rubrics, and theology of the Mass. They will assist in training and leading younger altar servers.

Requirements: Must have memorized and mastered the prayers and duties listed on the Prayer and Skills charts; have acted as MC at 3 different Masses; fulfilled all reading requirements; committed to serving through high school; and a demonstrated record of faithfully showing up on time and serving when scheduled.
It is important to note that promotions are not automatic. Servers must have an excellent record of faithful service and take responsibility for meeting all of the requirements for promotion. Please note that this is a general outline of how the ranking system will work, and that details may change in the future.

  1. All vesting and devesting must be done in the sacristy. Do not leave the sacristy until you have completely finished vesting, and do not begin to devest until you are in the sacristy and have completed all of your post-Mass duties.

  2. Once you have vested, you are “on duty.” This means that you need to behave in a reverent and dignified manner befitting someone serving at the altar.

  3. Follow the priest and MC’s cues for when to sit and stand.

  4. Always pay attention to what Father is doing. He may need something, in which case he will gesture towards you. He should not have to gesticulate wildly to get your attention.

  5. Always avoid walking up to the platform from the front steps (at Prince Avenue). Altar servers should approach from the side steps (including when bringing up the crucifix after the procession).

  6. When standing from a kneeling position, you may lift the side of your alb or cassock to avoid tripping as you stand. You can also stand up one foot at a time to avoid stepping on your vestments.

  7. When walking, standing, and kneeling, keep hands together in a prayerful position close to the chest with the right thumb crossed over the left thumb.

  8. When one hand is occupied with some task, the empty hand should be placed flat against the chest.

  9. As much as possible, servers should act in unison when performing actions together. Follow the lead of the most senior server for bowing, kneeling, and crossing yourselves in a synchronized manner.

  10. Make a large Sign of the Cross; make sure that you are signing yourself with a cross, not an upside down T.

  11. When approaching or walking past the center of the altar outside of Mass, genuflect. When walking between the Tabernacle and the altar, bow moderately toward the altar (this is not necessary when you are carrying vessels to the altar during Mass).

  12. When two servers turn around together, they should turn inward (facing each other).

  13. Whenever the tabernacle is opened, the person doing so will genuflect. If you are standing on the platform, also genuflect. If you are not on the platform, make a head bow.

  14. As vessels and cloths are used, they should be carefully placed toward the back of the credence table. Vessels that will be used later (eg, water cruet) should be kept near the front.

  15. After placing a sacred vessel on the altar, always make a head bow to the priest or deacon.

  16. Vessels should be placed on the altar when brought up (except for cruets). Do not hand them directly to the priest or deacon.


Different priests will do things differently when they celebrate Mass. Changes for when Fr. David celebrates Mass are in RED UPPERCASE LETTERS.


  1. Arrive at least 15 minutes before Mass begins. Wash your hands before vesting and check the calendar so you know which color vestments to wear. To put on a hooded alb, hold the collar with one hand. Slip your other arm into the alb and its sleeve. Grab the collar with your sleeved hand, then put your other arm into its sleeve. Finally, slip the collar over your head. Say the vesting prayers while vesting. After vesting the most senior server will lead everyone in the Prayer before Mass.

  2. The candles need to be lit at least 10 minutes before Mass (see “Lighting Candles” section below).

  3. The credence table should be inspected to ensure everything that will be needed is there. These items should be on the credence table (see diagram below):

    1. Priest’s chalice with purificator, paten, unconsecrated host, pall, and 1 corporal on top

    2. Three communion chalices covered by three purificators

    3. Cruet of water

    4. Ewer, hand towel, and lavabo

    5. Wine flagon and ciborium with hosts on the offertory table (these should be covered)

  1. After everything has been prepared and you have prayed, go to the back of the nave and line up.


  1. The crucifer is first in line, standing far enough up the aisle so that everyone can stand behind him. Candlebearers stand directly behind him side by side. Others servers line up in an organized manner, with shorter servers nearer the front. The corpus should face forward, toward the altar (THE CORPUS SHOULD FACE THOSE IN PROCESSION).

  2. The procession begins when the choir begins to sing, not when the music begins. If there are people still in the aisle, wait for them to be seated before beginning. During the processional, walk at a moderate pace while looking straight ahead. Do not look around.

  3. When the crucifer reaches the front of the aisle (marked by the black line), he will veer diagonally to stand in front of the RIGHT altar candle. The servers behind him side by side will separate: half going to the crucifer’s left and the other half to the LEFT side (beginning at the LEFT altar candle). The priest and deacon will stand between the servers. No one should be standing between the priest and the crucifer, and there should be about the same number of servers on either side. The crucifer bows while everyone will genuflect or bow, depending on what the priest does.

    1. If there are candlebearers, they will position themselves on the outside. All other servers should be standing between them (see “Candlebearers” section below).

  4. After reverencing the altar, servers on the right will go up the right steps while servers on the left will go up the left steps (the priest and deacon will go up the right side). The crucifer will return the crucifix, while everyone else goes directly to their seats. When passing the altar, bow to it profoundly. The MC will sit next to the credence table so that he can more easily direct everyone.

  5. If there is a book bearer, he will sit to the priest’s left. THERE WILL BE NO BOOK BEARER WHEN FR. DAVID CELEBRATES MASS OR WHEN THERE ARE TWO DEACONS.


  1. Whenever the Holy Name of Jesus is read or sung during the Liturgy, make a full bow of the head. When the name of Mary is read or sung, make a half bow of the head. During the homily, bow for the first three mentions of the names Jesus and Mary.

  1. When sitting, hands are placed face down on top of the knees.

  2. When the Alleluia begins, the candle bearers will promptly go to their candles and walk with the priest to the ambo for the Gospel reading (see “Candlebearer section below).

  1. At all times, servers must avoid looking around and all unnecessary movement. No playing with crosses, cinctures, squirming, crossing legs, cracking knuckles, tying shoelaces, chewing nails, giving manicures, etc. Remember that the congregation can see everything that you do. If you are distracted, they will be distracted. If you do not act reverently, neither will they. If you do not participate at Mass, neither will they.

  1. During the Apostles’ Creed, moderately bow while reciting the lines “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” During the Nicene Creed, bow while reciting the lines “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”


  1. After the prayers of the faithful, begin bringing vessels to the altar when the lector says “We now take up the collection for the support of our parish” (or when directed by the MC). The escorts will immediately go to receive the gift bearers (see “Escorts” section below). The vessel bearers will begin to prepare the altar (see “Vessel Bearer” section below).

  2. When the priest begins to descend the platform, everyone on the platform will follow him. RETURN TO WHERE YOU WERE AT THE INTROIT.

  1. The priest will give the wine flagon and the ciborium with hosts to the servers on either side of him. Head bow to the gift bearers. Ascend the stairs on the side that you are on.

  2. Servers carrying the ciborium and flagon should proceed directly to the altar. Remove the ciborium lid and take it to the credence table. If the water cruet has not already been take to the altar, it needs to be done immediately after returning to the platform.

  3. The priest or deacon will pour a little bit of water into the wine flagon. When he is finished, the cruet needs to be retrieved. Then the wine will be poured. Afterwards the empty flagon needs to be removed from the altar as soon as possible (it should not need to be handed to you). During this time, the lavabo can be set up (see “Lavabo” section below).

  4. When the priest is ready, the lavabo will be brought to him so that he can wash his hands (see the “Lavabo” section below for more detailed directions).

  5. During the Eucharistic prayer, you should be still and prayerful.

  6. At the appropriate times, the Bell Ringer will ring the bells (see “Bell Ringer” section below).

  7. Make a profound bow when Father genuflects after consecrating the Blessed Sacrament and Precious Blood.

  8. Do not hold hands at the Our Father.

  9. At the sign of peace, Father David will come to you to exchange the peace. Some priests will only bow to you, in which case you will head bow to him in return. Do not exchange the peace with the other altar servers (only exchange it if it is offered to you).

  10. If there is an empty ciborium or pyx on the credence table, bring it up after the sign of the peace.

  11. At the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), strike as your chest with your right hand cupped at the words “have mercy on us” and “grant us peace” (three times total). Then kneel.

  12. Optional: While Father is taking Communion and the Extraordinary Ministers are coming to the altar, you may pray the Confiteor that is said at the beginning of Mass.

  13. When directed by the MC, rise and stand near the altar as illustrated below to receive Holy Communion. Bow or genuflect before receiving.

  1. After everyone has received, kneel in front of your seat.

  2. The Book Bearer (or another server if there is no Book Bearer) will remove the Missal from the altar and place it on the lectern. If directed by the MC, everyone may be seated.

  3. As the priest and Extraordinary Ministers and priest begin to walk back to the platform, the lavabo needs to be prepared. After the Extraordinary Ministers return the chalices and ciboria to the credence table or altar, their fingers will need to be purified (see the “Lavabo” section below).

  4. Here is where things will get a little tricky, so you need to be paying attention.

    1. If Deacon Jim is assisting Fr. David, you will not need to bring the water cruet to the altar.

    2. If a deacon is not assisting Fr. David, take the water cruet to the altar and pour enough water to cover the base of the paten.

    3. If a visiting priest is celebrating Mass, take the water cruet to the priest. He may either have you pour water over his fingers or he may take it and start purifying vessels.

  5. As vessels are purified, they will be moved to the edge of the altar. One or two servers should be standing by the credence table ready to remove them as soon as possible.

    1. When Deacon Jim is assisting, he will bring the priest’s chalice back himself. You only need to get the ciboria and corporal from the altar.


  1. When the priest stands and approaches the altar, the servers move to their positions at the front of the platform. The servers who lined up on the RIGHT side of the altar at the beginning of Mass will follow the crucifer across the platform and down the steps. Servers who were on the LEFT side of the altar will go down the left stairs. The crucifer will get the crucifix and the candlebearers will get the candles from the altar (see “Crucifer” and “Candlebearer” section below).

  2. Line up in front of the altar as you did at the beginning of Mass. Bow or genuflect with the priest.

  3. During the recessional, walk at a moderate pace while looking straight ahead. Do not look around.

  4. Process until the end of the aisle before heading back to the sacristy. When you reach the sacristy, do not de-vest until AFTER you have made an Act of Thanksgiving in the nave.

  5. Extinguish candles using the taper in the reverse order that they were lit, careful to avoid spilling wax on the altar and vestments.

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