Sometimes as parents it’s hard to tell who teaches the more significant lessons – the child or the parent.
There were many things I swore I would never do when I had children: I would not let my baby sleep in my bed; I would not spank; I would not be that crazy lady at the mall with a leash on my child feigning normalcy.
Oddly, not letting my child become an altar boy was among these. I am not sure other parents listed alter-serving amid things to avoid, but like co-sleeping and not spanking, it was intended to protect them.
When my first son was born, it was during an era when night after night sexual abuse in the Catholic Church dominated the news. I am not sure of anything more universally heinous or unnatural than the horror of sexual abuse. Ask any parent their greatest fear for their child, and I bet you hear pedophiles as much as you would death. It is as unspeakable.
So it was not out of hatred that I didn’t want my sons to become altar servers, it was a declaration inspired by fear. I made it early in my first son’s infancy. My husband did not challenge it, probably because he knew the range (or is it rage?) of post-pregnancy hormones.
Life without leashes went on as planned.
When my first son was old enough to become an altar server, I was not opposed. My hormones had ebbed significantly, and I held my church and its priests in high esteem. Still, it was easy to ignore the call because he was busy with so many other activities.
I knew intellectually that I didn’t have any more to fear from a priest harming my child than I did his baseball coach, teacher, scout leader or a family friend. It feels unnatural to consider that any of these people would hurt my children. All of them have been a meaningful part of my son’s life, offering expertise and perspective that is unique from what we offer him as parents. I am grateful for these people, so it feels like a betrayal to associate them with anything other than good.
I trusted my children with others who we deemed appropriate, and thankfully, blessings have followed. Despite the deviant and despicable actions of certain clergy who preyed on children in the most depraved way and thereby almost destroyed the credibility of the Catholic Church, it was time to make a decision based on faith not fear.
For Spiritual Work of Mercy, number 2, “instruct the uninformed,” which emphasizes sharing our faith with our children, I decided to encourage my son to become an altar server. While studying this work of mercy, I was reminded about the candle we receive during Baptism. While I keep the candle among his mementos, what we as parents are not supposed to store like a relic is our faith.
The baptismal candle represents the light of faith which we must pass to our children. Light and faith are intended to be shared. God gave us the sun, moon and stars, all glorious and distinctive sources of light which inspire and awe. More so, without light there would be no physical life, just like there is no spiritual life without it either. Somehow, we are called to emulate this life-affirming light and share God with others. More so than academics, athletics or accolades– faith is the most important gift we can give our children. It is the foundation for their spiritual life.
I received an email from the altar server coordinator saying there were 97 children signed up, and wouldn’t it be great if we could get to 100 because our parish is celebrating its centennial year. I am not a numbers gal, but couldn’t resist a nice round number like a hundred. I told my son about the email, and rhetorically asked “wouldn’t it be cool to be the 100th altar server?” Being ever practical he retorted with “well, you don’t know that I would be the 100th. I could be 98 or 99 … or 101.”
Sigh. Parenting is hard.
I signed him up and told the volunteer who organizes it; he would be the 100th server – even if it meant skipping 98 and 99. Mamas are crazy sometimes.
This past Saturday while the city was deluged by Gators and Dawgs at the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, we went to evening mass. While I realize this is heresy to football fans, and my husband is as devout as any, he was also leaving town Sunday, making this mass our only opportunity to attend as a family.
When we went into the church a man approached me asking if Patrick was an altar server. I told him he was still in training, but he said that was okay. They needed him. My poor child looked stunned but agreed, and obediently followed him into the back room of the church. I felt like a dance mom making sure his robes were straight, his rope belt perfectly askew, and the remaining remnants of Oreo cookie wiped from his mouth. He ignored all my fawning and seemed focused on his preparations.
Alas, mass had begun and he walked down the aisle, eyes forward like a true gator with no peripheral vision. He didn’t make eye contact with his proud mama, and if I were a dance mom I would have to advise him later on smiling. I, myself, couldn’t keep from grinning.
As the priest was preparing for the Eucharist, I eagerly watched my son from our pew near the back of the church. He seemed hesitant at first, but following the lead server’s cue, he didn’t miss a beat of his routine. Knelt in prayer watching him, I became teary thinking back to when he was a baby, and of all those well-intentioned promises I had made to protect him – however flawed they sometimes were.
I thought about how fast he is growing up, and all the joy and blessings his sweet soul has brought to my life. I thought regrettably of all the parenting mistakes I had made, and the challenges being a mother had brought. I thought how much he has taught me about myself, my capacity to love and how nothing could have deepened my faith more than bringing my children into this world.
The choir sang Amazing Grace and I couldn’t help but agree. At the end of mass, the elderly lady behind me asked me the age of my younger son sitting with us in the pew. I told her he was seven and simply wonderful, but that I had another son too. He was serving mass for the first time. I pointed to him as he walked down the aisle. I waved like a true dance mom, but this time he was the one beaming. His smile was bright enough to light up all the stained glass in the church. He looked at his proud mama and shared that smile.
Amazing is His Grace, indeed.