By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
Pope Francis has sent a message to the acolytes (altar servers) of Portugal for their 25th National Pilgrimage, which took place on Saturday at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima.
In a letter addressed to the President of the Portuguese Bishops’ Commission for Liturgy and Spirituality, Bishop José Manuel Garcia Cordeiro of Brangança-Miranda, the Holy Father said that Our Lady will be happy to see the altar servers around her and that she will whisper to them in the same manner as she did the servants at the first miracle of Jesus at Cana: “Do whatever He tells you.”
“Here is the first thing Jesus says to each one of you: be holy,” Pope Francis said to the altar servers.
He reminded them of the good fortune they have to approach the altar where the host and wine are consecrated to become the Body and Blood of Our Lord, adding that though their eyes do not see Jesus, their lips and hearts adore Him.
The Pope urged them to behave as befits the service of holy things, conforming their interior and exterior attitudes to be in accordance with what they do, especially when they are near the altar, or when they make the sign of the cross, sit or participate in prayers and hymns in common.
“Animated by respect and interior recollection, your service as an altar server will become a Profession of faith for the community,” the Pope said.
Offer yourselves to Jesus
Pope Francis further encouraged the altar servers to put all the enthusiasm of their age into the encounter with Jesus hidden under the Eucharistic veil. “Offer Jesus your hands, your thoughts and your time,” he urged, “and He will not fail to reward you, giving you true joy and making you feel where the most complete happiness is.”
He highlighted the examples of the saints who found nourishment for their journey toward perfection in the Eucharist, including Blessed Alexandrina of Balazar who lived only on Holy Communion for fourteen years, and Saint Francisco Marto - the little shepherd boy of Fatima whom they have chosen as their model and heavenly protector.
Recalling his message in the 2019 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit, Pope Francis reminded the altar servers that they “will not become holy and find fulfillment by copying others.”
He pointed out that the testimonies of the saints are useful for motivating us towards holiness, yet imitating the saints does not mean copying their way of being and living holiness because that could “lead us astray from the unique and specific path the Lord has in mind for us.”
“You have to discover who you are and develop your own way of being holy, whatever others may say or think. Becoming a saint means becoming more fully yourself, becoming what the Lord wished to dream and create, and not a photocopy,” the Pope stressed, adding that their lives “ought to be a prophetic stimulus to others and leave a mark on this world, the unique mark that only you can leave.”
Further urging the altar servers, the Pope recalled the words of Blessed Carlo Acutis: “All are born as originals, but many die as photocopies.” He noted that although they may seem different, many end up just like others and do not bring forth the gifts and the unique personal talents the Lord has given to them.
“Please, dear acolyte, don't let yourself fall into mediocrity,” the Pope said… “Don't follow negative people, but keep radiating around you the light and hope that come from God! As you know, this hope does not disappoint; it never does! With God, nothing is lost, but without Him all is lost. Don't be afraid, then, to throw yourself into the arms of the Father in Heaven, and trust in Him, who will see to it that you become the original saint that He wants.”
The example of St. Joseph
Pope Francis went on to hold up the example of St. Joseph for the altar servers, highlighting that though he did not serve at Mass, St. Joseph became a great altar boy of Jesus by his role as the husband of Mary and the foster-father of Jesus.
He added that St. Joseph set aside his plans to follow God’s plans, taking Our Lady and the Son in her womb into his home, and he refused to lose Mary or Jesus for anything in this world.
“And for nothing in this world does St. Joseph want to lose you, generous and good acolyte,” the Pope said, urging the altar servers to “confidently invoke and zealously imitate St. Joseph, and to worthily serve the miracle of Jesus’ descent to earth that takes place daily on our altars.”
Pope Francis, concluding his message, imparted a blessing on them and prayed that St. Joseph, Guardian of the Holy Family and Patron of the Universal Church may protect all the altar servers of Portugal, together with those who accompany and instruct them, including their families and catechists, as well as their diocesan and national structures and priests and parish priests.
Reechoing Pope St. John Paul II’s 2004 message in his letter to priests on Holy Thursday, Pope Francis urged the priests to be “fathers, teachers and witnesses of Eucharistic piety and holiness of life” to the altar servers, who see the Eucharist “take place” in the priest’s hands, see its mystery reflected on their faces, and in their hearts, as they sense the summons toward a greater love.