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."

He's a great Santa Claus of a man -- a deep boom of a voice; a hearty, pinkish complexion -- but without the white beard or the belly laughs. Or any laughs, really. Though his kids say he's a funny guy, he clearly regards all of this as serious business.

Stuart came to Little Flower in 1994. It's a suburban church, with the typical suburban profile -- lots of families with kids , including that of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, who lives in nearby Chevy Chase. But it's still not easy gathering those willing to give up a weekend for the altar. (A few other Christian churches -- Episcopal, Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox -- also use altar servers.)

The Rev. Everett Pearson of Holy Name Catholic Church in Northeast says church observers agree that the reasons for the decline begin with basic demographics: lower church attendance across the country. Fewer parish-run schools from which to draw. And for urban churches, the ongoing exodus of families from city centers, leaving them without a substantial child population.

Add to those facts, says Pearson, that Sundays used to be set aside for church 30 or 40 years ago. "Now we have soccer moms, minivans, baseball, ballet, football," he says. "We're no longer bound by Sundays, by parish boundaries -- hell, we're not even bound by the faith!"

For Stuart at Little Flower, quality was the issue. A couple years ago, he started noticing that the performance of altar servers had deteriorated. Training at Little Flower had always been limited, says Stuart; many altar servers did most of their learning from watching others, so bad habits or attitudes were passed down. Then a personnel gap at the parish left the servers with no training at all for several months last year.

That's when Stuart decided to step in. He created his own program and instituted it last fall. Instead of one hour of training, he asked for three. He drilled the kids, had them walk up and down the aisle, light candles and then snuff them out, only to light them again. They'd set up the altar and then take everything away -- over and over, he says, dozens of times before serving their first Mass.

"I believe that this is where the Navy shows its influence," he says.

Bypassing the many how-to books on altar serving, he wrote his own 75-page manual. It reflects Little Flower's unique layout, complete with floor diagrams fit for a jewelry heist. An accompanying CD-ROM serves as both a nod to his tech-savvy students and a bottomless repository of supplementary texts. The late Pope John Paul II's sprawling document on Holy Communion, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, for example, makes an appearance, just in case the boys and girls find themselves at home on a rainy day.

"He's, like, way organized," says Elizabeth Lent, 14, one of this day's two altar girls.

Ultimately, Stuart wants his kids to put their faith in the grand paradox: Only when they understand every ritual taking place on the altar will they enjoy the mystery of it all. And, contrary to popular opinion about kids ages 10 to 15, they've responded.

"It's fun up there," Elizabeth says. "You're not just sitting there and watching it all happen. You're doing it."

"I like that you get to see what the priest is doing up close," adds Trap Jervey, 12. "I learn more up there."

When the pope died and the televised ceremonies began, Stuart sent a flurry of urgent e-mails to his servers, asking them to study how the big boys, the big little boys, do it in Rome.

Pay "particular attention to their solemnity and the reverence," he wrote. "Note how the servers walk, carry the crosses and candles, use the incense and so forth. Sometimes we can pick up good ideas from seeing how other people do things."

Initially, says Stuart, "the geography of the sanctuary, the significance of the symbols -- they didn't understand any of that." Now, knowledge of traditions, such as the keeping of martyrs' relics, helps draw them in. "They think it's cool that there are bones in the altar," he says.

Stuart also offers his students common-sense tips. When you're walking in a procession, for example, don't stare at your candle's flame or you'll veer off course.

Girls at the Altar

Many non-Catholics don't get the opportunity to see altar servers at work. Films and books such as "Bad Education," "Primal Fear," "The Butcher Boy," "Angela's Ashes" and "The Basketball Diaries" have told the stories of altar boys and former altar boys in a number of ways, though all of them, surely, are far removed from the ones being told at Little Flower today.

"Altar boys are an icon," says Peter Care, whose 2002 movie, "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys," follows an unsaintly lot that curses, dreams of violence and sex, and steals church property. Speaking from Los Angeles, he suggests that altar boys represent "the young male teenager being repressed by his surroundings and having to burst out of that repression in any way he can."

Popular culture plays such a strong role in defining the perceptions of altar servers in part because there isn't much information on their history in the church. Their role officially dates back to the ninth century, when an ecclesiastical council declared that every priest should have a male student to assist him: to read the lesson, chant with the priest, answer when he called. Their significance grew through the centuries as priests started viewing altar boys as substitutes for ordained clerics on the way to the priesthood.

"There was a time when altar boys were regarded as acolytes," says Holy Name's Pearson. "They were seen as little priests."

Then after the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, when the rules of Mass were simplified 40 years ago, so were the duties of altar serving ; boys no longer had to memorize responses in Latin, for example. Also, as the role of lay people expanded, adults were given functions at Mass such as doing some of the readings and, when necessary, helping to administer Communion.

These days, altar servers really don't say very much -- some can hardly murmur a prayer -- but they're still an active bunch. They prepare incense, do overtime at weddings and funerals, and carry the container of holy water for when the priest sprinkles the parishioners.

Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth says her favorite assignment is holding the liturgical book for the priest, which allows him to read with his arms outstretched, as though he were on a cross himself.

Technically, altar girls like Elizabeth have had the Vatican's blessing since 1983, though their numbers didn't surge until a further Vatican interpretation in 1992. (About half of Stuart's servers are girls.) Altar girls still can't become priests, which has further sidelined the tradition as a training ground, but it's generally agreed that they do a better job than boys. They have a remarkable flair for details.

As do adults. They're generally more punctual, enthusiastic, awake -- more alert in detecting and responding to the varied nuances of the liturgy. But most of all, they're valued when child servers just aren't available.

Stuart says he won't take adults. There simply isn't room.

A Pathway to Priesthood?

When asked if he thinks any of his altar boys would like to be priests, Pearson laughs and says no. But Stuart says, "The importance of planting seeds is something that you have to keep in mind." He says he knows at least two boys at Little Flower who have expressed interest. And the archdiocese's data suggest 80 percent of priests in America served as altar boys.

But if Stuart carried any important seeds in his own life, they weren't planted at the altar. Born to a Catholic father and Baptist mother in Columbia, S.C., in 1955, he was baptized Catholic but never went to Mass as a child. Though he says he was always interested in theology and remembers reading up on religion starting at 13, he didn't witness altar boys at work until 1984. That's when, having spent seven years as a Navy officer -- four of them in naval intelligence -- he called up the priest at his parish in Norfolk and announced a calling.

"I told him that I thought I might have a vocation to the priesthood, even though I had never been to a church," Stuart says. "The priest said come in, and we'll talk about it."

Sixteen months after his First Communion, at 28, Stuart resigned his post and turned to the church full time. A theology degree came in 1989, a canon law doctorate in 2001, both from Catholic University. Apart from being a priest at Little Flower, he now serves as a judge on the archdiocese's tribunal, where most of his decisions concern annulments.

Stuart can spout church history as if the pages were in front of him. Asked for a quick definition of a "minor order," he'll give an answer of major length. But when asked to describe the character of his calling, he struggles as though forming the thoughts for the first time.

"It's not like joining the Navy," he offers later in the conversation. "The vocation to the priesthood has to do with who you are as a person."

A fuller answer eventually comes in an e-mail:

"At times it has meant knowing what feels or seems right and what doesn't. . . . I dated in high school and college, but things did not begin to 'feel right' until I started considering this particular vocation. That doesn't mean that it is always easy to live the priesthood and celibacy, but it isn't easy to live the vocation to marriage and parenthood, either."

Stuart's hope for frocked futures among his kids lingers only in the back of his mind. He says he simply wants to train better altar servers. But if Stuart only wanted more knowledgeable, more reliable altar servers for Little Flower, he could have easily called on adults. That doesn't seem to be the point.

"By having kids," Stuart says, Mass "becomes more of a community."

Surprisingly, the kids say he doesn't treat them like little soldiers even though he's called their training sessions "live-fire exercises" a few times.

"I also sometimes call them troops," he says, "when I'm not thinking."

The Scandals

It's impossible to discuss the lives of altar servers without mentioning the church's sex-abuse scandals, so pervasive in the news since they broke in 2002. In fact, director Peter Care says that when he would speak to strangers about his movie, they'd immediately assume they knew the movie's subject matter.

"They would say, 'Yeah, I know, you're making the movie about priests molesting kids,' " Care says. "I'd say, 'No, it has nothing to do with that.' "

More than 11,750 allegations of sexual abuse, dating to 1950, have been made against more than 5,100 priests in this country, according to figures released this year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

There's no breakdown on the number brought specifically by former altar servers, but they're clearly among the victims: David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, estimates from conversations with many of the 5,000 people in the network that one-third were former altar servers.

It's hard to chart a direct effect from the scandals on the numbers of altar servers. David France, who spent two years researching his 2004 book "Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal," says that in the aftermath, he didn't so much see parents pulling their children from altar service as families pulling themselves from church altogether. Attendance plummeted. When parents did lash out, he adds, most of their rage was directed at church authorities -- the bishops who tried to cover up the crimes -- not at their local parishes.

"I feel absolutely safe at my church," says Madeleine Longano, whose children have been serving at Little Flower for five years. She says the scandals have had little effect on parents who make it their duty to be involved with their parish.

In fact, France argues, the scandal might have some positive effects on the future of child altar servers. Apart from the measures the Catholic bishops and local parishes have belatedly implemented -- such as rules against robing together and classes on "touch safety" -- "Priests have been taken down from their pedestals," France says, making it "far less likely that this sort of crime spree will ever happen again."

For some, the losses of the tradition go far beyond the numbers.

"On the rare occasion I find myself in a church these days, I've noticed that there are fewer altar servers than there used to be," says Andrew Madden, whose "Altar Boy: A Story of Life After Abuse" chronicles his late-'70s victimization in Ireland, where he still lives.

Madden says there was a time when "you would see your neighbors in church, they'd look at you and you felt you were being admired. It was very special.

"Now, it's difficult to consider anything that the church does involving young people and not see that the relationship has been very much tarnished."

Corporals and Attention

When the priest prepares for the Eucharist -- or Communion, a ritual where Catholics receive Christ through the consumption of wafers and wine -- that means the Mass is winding down. Parishioners whose souls are too unkempt with sin to host the resurrection of Christ will make a beeline to the parking lot. Others start lining up.

The priest receives Communion first, so 12-year-old Trap Jervey begins setting the altar table, which includes laying out the three small linen corporals. He still calls them "napkins," and therein lies the long road of Stuart's work.

After Trap places the corporals, Melissa Longano, 13, whispers to him. He looks uncertain, then walks away. Melissa switches the order of the corporals, which prompts Trap to walk back to see what's going on. The incident takes just seven or eight seconds but seems much longer in church time.

"Well, being kids and being human, they will make mistakes," says Stuart. (He adds that Trap actually didn't make a mistake; the order of the corporals isn't important.)

Overall, the kids did a fine job, even though two spent stretches yawning and rubbing their eyes.

"I don't know," Tom Longano, 12, will say later, "but church sometimes makes me sleepy."

After the Eucharist, Tom takes his seat at the right hand of the priest. He yawns one last time, wiping away the sleep from his eyes so that he can see the path that may, or may not, be ahead of him.

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.

The Rev. George Stuart was never an altar boy and came to the priesthood late, but his program to train servers at Little Flower has generated a large flock.

Trap Jervey prepares the altar for Communion at Church of the Little Flower. Of serving, he says, "I like that you get to see what the priest is doing up close."

The Rev. George Stuart, left, and the Rev. Adam Park, who was visiting at Little Flower, talk to parishioners after Mass on a recent Sunday.

Tom and Melissa Longano hang up their vestments after Mass. They have been serving at Little Flower for five years, according to their mother, Madeleine.