A reader wrote with this dilemma:
As a choir director I am occasionally faced with boys being told that they should skip choir to be altar boys on that Sunday because a scheduled server didn’t show up and being an altar boy is more important than singing in the choir. This has rubbed me the wrong way for a few years and I need some help researching this claim. I seem to remember something about the church not recognizing a hierarchy in lay ministry, but maybe you would point me in a good direction.
My friend has hooked into a situation with a ghostly remnant of minor orders, and the conflation of being an altar server with that of the role of acolyte. The two might be related in history. But the modern altar server is a lay minister.
I remember when I was in grad school and was hired to be a songleader at a Saturday evening liturgy in a suburban parish. At one Mass, there was a shortage of people for Communion ministry and I was asked to skip the Communion song and step in. I declined. The music director had contracted with me to lead singing. The pastor signed my checks. Well over two-hundred people were at Mass, most all of whom were far more familiar with procedures at the altar and rail. It seemed wrong to accept this “promotion.”
My own sense is that a person’s gifts and a community’s needs should dictate the “honor” given to any expression of service. If a young lad in the choir has an outstanding voice, then his calling as a chorister is probably a higher one. If a young person has gifts for procedure, commitment, and grace under pressure, then the calling of altar server is probably higher. Let the hand be a hand, a foot be a foot.
Some communities–either vowed religious or intentional parishes–might value particular apostolates higher than others. In my current faith community, campus ministry has something of a higher focus. But we still have people serving in faith formation, youth ministry, liturgy, and social justice. These are not “lower” callings. Not at all. These ministries, these ways of serving honor the gifts of the person who offers them, serves the local church, and reflects something of the ministry of Christ who came to serve and urges us to a like example.