Monday, 14 June 2010

Archconfraternity of St Stephen – a Poignant Anniversary

In March 1905, the Guild of St Stephen for Altar Servers was established by Fr Hamilton Macdonald at the Sacred Heart Convent in Hammersmith where he was chaplain. So 2005 is its hundredth anniversary year.

For two years, it was a guild of the Archdiocese of Westminster. In 1907, it was erected by Pope St Pius X into an archconfraternity, prima primaria. Now it could affiliate similar confraternities in the United Kingdom, which in those days included what is now the Republic of Eire. In 1934, Pope Pius XI extended the right of affiliation to the whole of the British Empire.

My own connection with the Guild began when it was revived after the Second World War in my parish of the Most Precious Blood and St Edmund at Edmonton, North London, in 1948. The enrolment ceremony in those days began with the singing, in Latin, of Psalm 83, Quam dilecta tabernacula tua. After three prayers and the blessing of medals, each server made the Guild Promise: "I offer myself to God Almighty, to Blessed Mary ever Virgin and to our Holy Patron, St Stephen, and I promise to do my best to serve reverently, intelligently and regularly, having the glory of God and my own eternal salvation as my object". After the investment with medals and a final prayer and blessing, the hymn to St Stephen, "Holy Stephen, Christ's dear martyr", was sung.

The Guild medal is made of latten, an alloy of copper and zinc, and has in the centre the Greek letters XP, the initial letters of the Greek "Χριςτός", i.e. "Christ", and around the edge the Latin motto, "Cui servíre regnare est" ("He who serves shall reign"). At the top of the medal is a crown and at the bottom the palms of martyrdom. It is worn on a red cord around the neck.

"A great religious privilege"

The object of the Archconfraternity is stated as being "the sanctification of the altar server by teaching him that serving in the sanctuary is a great religious privilege, by instructing him in the manner of observing the rites and ceremonies of the Church according to the rubrics and decrees of the Sacred Congregation of Rites and the interpretations of the most generally accepted authorities, and by encouraging him to understand the meaning and purpose of the ceremonies in which he takes part"; in other words to teach him to serve and understand what he is doing, and why.

We were responsible for serving daily Mass at 7 am and 7.30 am. A server would volunteer to serve one of the two Masses for a week, Monday to Saturday. More senior servers, who could not cover daily Masses because of work commitments, were responsible for the four Sunday Low Masses, and all of us were encouraged to serve the Sunday Missa Cantata. Such was the dedication of our Guild members that there was rarely a Mass which did not have its allotted server.

A much smaller number of Guild members turned up to serve weekday Benediction on Wednesdays, First Fridays, Saturdays and Holy Days of Obligation, before the days of evening Mass. Sunday's Rosary, Sermon and Benediction was much better attended, and the MC and his assistant were always present.

Honouring the Blessed Sacrament

There were processions of the Blessed Sacrament once a month and, of course, the Corpus Christi Procession on the Sunday within the Octave of the Feast. Then there was Holy Week culminating in the Easter Vigil service, in those days on Holy Saturday morning (my favourite, perhaps because, like Pope Benedict, I was born on Holy Saturday). We began at 6.30 am when it was dark outside, and Mass and the shortened form of Vespers which finished the service ended at about 10.30 am in blazing sunlight. As the rite had progressed, it had been a natural Lucenarium as dawn came up and the sun rose higher in the sky to flood the church with light. It was Easter, and Lent ended at midday.

It was a solemn, but also an exciting time, and for the four Sundays before the Great Week we had extra Guild meetings so we could practise the Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday services.

At Christmas, we had more Masses to cover as each of our three priests said three Masses. There was midnight Missa Cantata, and at the same time, one of our priests said Mass in the local convent chapel. On Christmas morning, there was Mass every half hour from 9.00 am to 12 noon, with a relay of servers taking over from each other as the priest ended one Mass and began his next without leaving the sanctuary. The last Mass was followed by Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament which was served by the senior members of the Guild as it was followed by drinks with the clergy.

Again there was a relay of servers taking over from each other on All Souls Day when again, of course, each priest said three Masses beginning at 7.00 am.

For funerals, a number of boys would be allowed to go late for school, with a letter from the priest for those of us who attended the Jesuit College at Stamford Hill. Nuptial Masses meant half a crown for the boy who served, unless there was a server in the family of the bride or groom. I usually served these. When I did not serve, I usually pumped the organ for which the fee was a shilling.

Can the Guild revive?

Every year there was a rally of servers from all over the Archdiocese of Westminster in the Cathedral. The nave was filled with boys and men in cassock and cotta (and wearing their Guild medals) who all walked in the Blessed Sacrament procession around the cathedral. Our members from Edmonton would afterwards be entertained with tea and buns in the kitchen of the clergy house by the Sub-administrator, Mgr Gordon Wheeler, once a priest at Edmonton, later Bishop of Middlesbrough, then of Leeds.

Other activities outside the parish were a Day of Recollection at Hammersmith convent where the Guild had been founded. My memories of that are of the smell of beeswax polish, the sunlit garden and tea served by kindly sisters. Then there was the Guild outing when we went to the circus, or played ice hockey at Harringay Stadium.

We were proud of being in the Guild and proud of our medals, which indicated we were experienced servers, and an important part of the parish. In the 1950s, our then MC was awarded a silver medal to commemorate twenty-five years of serving, although I was sad to see that it was not actually silver; instead his latten medal had been chromed.

Few Guild medals are seen these days at Traditional Rite Masses, at least in London, partly I imagine because the Guild is organised on a parish basis and Traditional Rite servers do not usually have contact with their parishes, but also, I know, because some servers who would be, or actually are, members object to its admission of altar girls into its ranks; in every illustration in the present Guild handbook where there are two servers, one is always a girl. So much for the 'garden of vocations'!

The priest from whom I borrowed the current Guild handbook commented, "It is my ambition to found a Guild of St Stephen for boys"; he has no altar girls in his parish.

It was common knowledge (and re-emphasised by Pope John Paul II towards the end of his reign) that many vocations to the priesthood came from altar servers. The following prayer, taken from the Archconfraternity of St Stephen's Handbook but now partially redundant due to the invasion of girl altar servers, is one that should be said frequently for this intention.

Prayer to be a Priest

"O Lord Jesus Christ, the great High Priest who dost call chosen souls to offer Thee in sacrifice and to assist Thee in saving souls, I beseech Thee to grant me this high grace though I am most unworthy of it; make me carefully to prepare my heart to receive it and to keep myself pure and lowly that Thou mayest call me to serve Thee at Thine altar. Amen.
O Mary, Mother of God and my dear mother too, obtain for me this grace from the Sacred Heart of thy dear Son."

(Also published on the Latin Mass Society's November 2005 Newsletter)


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