Altar Boys' Vestments


Figure 1.--This photograph of New Zealand altar boys is undated, but was probably taken in the 1940s. It would be impossible to identify the country involved from most photographs of alrar boys.

Altar boys are an important part of the tradition of the Catholic Church as well as other churches such as the Orthodox and Anglican churches. Altar boys appear in the written record as early as 251 AD, meaning that the tradition must have developed even earlier. Altar boys in the Roman Catholic Church were first regarded as belonging to the clergy, thus they had to learn Latin prayers, songs and had to behave in a well manner and follow all the rules that were set on them. Many became priests later, much more so than is the case today. After the II Vatican Council, the status of altar boys changed. They were placed as a memeber of the congregation and represented the congregation at the altar. Altar boys have very important responsibilities in the modern Church service. Catholic boys serving as altar boys or "Acolytes" wear eclesiastical vestments. This is most common for Roman Catholic boys, although boys in the Orthodox Church and even some protesant demoninations may also wear these vestments.

History

Altar boys are an important part of the tradition of the Catholic Church as well as other churches such as the Orthodox and Anglican churches. Altar boys appear in the written record as early as 251 AD, meaning that the tradition must have developed even earlier. Altar boys in the early church lived in the church building and dedicated their whole lives to the Church, usually becoming monks and priests. We have very few historical images of altar boys. We do not know what altar boys wore during the medieval era. We know more about altar boy costumes with advent of the Renaissance and the availability of more paintings. We Have some images from the 19th century. Some 19th century images show altar boys wearing caps. We no longer see this in the 20th century. Most images we have found come from the 20 century.

Role in the Church

Altar boys in the Roman Catholic Church were first regarded as belonging to the clergy, thus they had to learn Latin prayers, songs and had to behave in a well manner and follow all the rules that were set on them. Many became priests later, much more so than is the case today. After the II Vatican Council, the status of altar boys changed. They were placed as a memeber of the congregation and represented the congregation at the altar. Altar boys have very important responsibilities in the modern Church service. The responsibilities and duties vary somewhat among the different congreagations. Individual priests also vary as to precisely what the altar boy's duties are. Altar boys help the priest in preparing the gifts to be offered at the Mass, and with the books, censer and candles during the services. This requires that the boys be responsible and disciplined as well as knowledgeable as to the order of the services. The boys must also make orderly procession in the church. The Church Liturgy is not a stationary service. The priest is constantly moving to meet the word of God, to offer gifts to God, to accept the Body of Christ, and to venerate the cross. It is the altar boys do most of this "moving" on behalf of the entire congregation.

Age

The age at which boys serve as altar boys varies somewhat from church to church. One American Orthodox cgurch informs parisioners, "Upon entering the second grade, all boys are invited to become altar boys. The boys are organized into groups which serve, in rotation, at the holy Altar during all worship services. Extracurricular activities are also planned to encourage fellowship, partnership, and teamwork."

Gender

Altar boys as the name implies for nearly two millenia were always boys. Some denominations now allow girls to serve at the altar. At the begining of the 1990s , Pope John Paul II gave Bishops the authority to allow girls to serve at the altar, although this had become common practic in many congregations, especially in America, since the 1970s. Altar boys and girls dress identically.

Rules

Many churches have developed rules to govern the behavior of altar boys. Often these are rules developed by the individual congreagation. One American church has these rules for its altar boys: 1. No unnecessary talking. 2. No eating or drinking permitted in the Altar. NO GUM. 3. The Sunday dress code is: shirt, tie, dress shoes. NO SNEAKERS. 4. Walking behind Altar should be kept at a minimum. 5. No Altar boys in the Vestry at any time. Vesting is the only exception. All Altar boys should stand at the Altar table or in front of the chairs. 6. Before leaving the Altar, ask Father for permission and his blessing. 7. Accept your assignment without complaint. 8. No pushing, shoving, fighting, or clowning around is allowed. 9. Be on time. Enter via the Deacons doors. Please try to arrive five (5) minutes before the start of any service. 10. When offering or receiving something from the Priest, always kiss his right hand. 11. When you vest, ask Father to bless your belt before putting it on. 12. If you must be absent, please call Father ahead of time so a replacement can be found. 13. Our meetings will be held 3 times a year. Times to be announced in The Voice and the Sunday Bulletin. 14. All Altar boys must register and participate in Sunday School.

Choir Vestments

Ecclesiastical robes are most common in England where the boys wear them for religious services in England's great cathedrals. Some European choirs in the Netherlands, Spain, and other countries also wear eclesiastical robes, but this is most common in England. Choir boys wear both albs, surplices, and cassocks. This varies along primarily national lines. French choir boys commonly wear cassocks as do choristers in Spain. English choir boys more commonly wear albs and surplices. American choirs are not as religiously oriented as European choirs, but many robes are worn by boys in many America churches. These are not, however, normally boy choirs.

Altar Boy Vestments

An HBC contributor who was a student at a Catholic parish elementary school, back in Rhode Island during the late 1940s and early '50s was an altar-boyand had provided the following details on the vestments boys wore.

Country Trends

HBC the experience of altar boys varies from country to country. While the churches involved are intermational relogious organizations and thus there are great similarities, there are also differences from country to country. There are many local and national traditions that are incorporated into church services and altar boys help with these. We have only begun to develop national pages about altar boys in different countries. Some information, however, is available about religious practices in different counties which have information on altar boys. Religious pages at this time exist or are under construction for Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States.

Singing

A French reader tells us, "We altar boys sang the Plein Chant such as the the Intro´t Nos autem The latin prayers ; with the Kyrie, The Gloria, The Santus, The Agnus Dei, without forgetting the Antiennes of the Magnificat and so often the Credo; Confiteor, Pater Noster, and the most loved by me the Ave Maria. There were many more as well."

Personal Experiences

HBC will archive the experiences of altar boys here. One Church indicates, "Service in the capacity of Altar boy is an experience that will give the boys knowledge of their faith and spiritual enrichment. They will witness the Liturgy and participate in a very special way. Certainly it is an experience that these young men will never forget."

Brief accounts

We have recieved some brief accoints that are not extensive enough for a full page, but do include some interesting information.

American altar boy

One HBC reader rembers the vestments worn by one choir. All the choir members wore floor-length red cassocks in the Roman style--that is, with buttons from the collar to the hem. Over the cassock they wore white surplices with square-yoked necklines; the surplices were mid-thigh length and had wide full sleeves. In addition to the cassock and surplice the boys (but not the men) wore stiff white starched linen (later some kind of plastic/cloth composite) collars and large red satin bows at the throat.






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Created: February 16, 2000
Last updated: 7:15 PM 1/19/2006