Little Flower's Buds

Five young people lead the way to the altar during a recent Mass at Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, which, unlike many churches, has an overabundance of servers.
Five young people lead the way to the altar during a recent Mass at Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, which, unlike many churches, has an overabundance of servers. (Andrea Bruce - The Washington Post)
By Tommy Nguyen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 26, 2005

In the opening procession at Bethesda's Church of the Little Flower -- its path cleared by a curiously powerful shaft of light -- five young altar servers move with the "calm, serious, reverent" pace that the Rev. George Stuart clearly expects. One leads the way with a large processional cross held out in front of him like a battle flag. Two others try to balance the tiny flames jumping atop their candles.

But the two remaining servers walk empty-handed. Their grumblings about that will be heard in the changing room about an hour from now.

At a time when so many factors -- from over-scheduled Sundays to fallout from the Catholic Church's sex scandals -- have left parishes nationwide scraping for young altar servers, Little Flower has a hard time keeping its standing army occupied. More than 60 kids overpopulate Stuart's program, learning the intricacies of a millennium-old role that assists priests with the rituals of Mass.

So while St. Patrick, on 10th Street in the District, has no altar kids (it relies on adult servers) and St. Matthew's Cathedral has them only for the Spanish-language services, the kids at Little Flower have complained that they don't have enough things to do.

"There are also to[o] many servers," one wrote on a recent evaluation form, this concern ranking just below "when the candle wax drips on you, it hurts a lot."

Stuart has to hear these complaints every weekend. (New candles with larger shields have been ordered.) Beset by his kids, he has to keep explaining that there are only so many bells to ring, candles to light, crosses to bear. If he had any more sacred vessels for them to retrieve, the vessels wouldn't be very sacred.

"I think it's more important that they be up there and not doing something than not being there," says Stuart, who often has to schedule Mass with two or three more servers than necessary so that every kid can serve twice a month. "If they serve less frequently, they're not going to get it at all."

Stuart wants them to get it, and get it right. Bow to the altar but genuflect to the tabernacle. Bring your palms together close to your chest. Don't wear sneakers, please.

If this procession is any indication, the performance of these altar kids will be pivotal to the pomp and piety of the Mass, which Catholics regard as the central mystery of their faith.

But another mystery is embodied by the man standing behind the pews, watching silently: How a former Navy intelligence officer -- who was never an altar boy, never set foot in a church before he found his calling in the early 1980s -- shepherded this local upswing of a declining institution.

Everyone takes a seat. The Mass is about to begin.

A Modern-Day Exodus

"I wouldn't say the servers needed to be 'whipped into shape,' " says Stuart, sitting in a library at the Washington Archdiocese. But "they looked like they weren't quite sure with what they were doing."


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