By David Karas |Correspondent
As the Mother Church of the diocese, St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton, is where special Masses and liturgies such as ordinations of priests and deacons, the Chrism Mass and Rite of Election, are celebrated by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.
Given the nature of such celebrations, it is only fitting that a special group of altar servers are commissioned to assist in such celebrations and services.
In 2011, Msgr. Joseph Roldan, cathedral rector, and Julio Alvarez, parish director of religious education and formation, formed the Guardians of the Altar program to train high school-aged boys to serve during Masses celebrated by the Bishop and other special services in the cathedral.
“They are, what we call, the elite of the servers,” said Alvarez, who coordinates the Guardians.
The initial class of Guardians consisted of five young men, followed by an additional three who were installed in 2012. The most recent cohort, installed in December, had seven young men, bringing the size of the entire group to 15.
Different from the traditional altar servers of the parish, Guardians are trained to assist during celebrations with Bishop O’Connell, which can have varying traditions and rituals as well as a significant number of priests and deacons who are joining the bishop at the altar.
“The group is specifically (trained) to serve the bishop when he is here for Mass in the cathedral and any (other) special Mass in the cathedral,” said Alvarez.
Members of the order, who have previously served as traditional altar servers before joining, participate in quarterly trainings, as well as periodical retreats. The members are also involved in the parish youth group, Alvarez said.
Beyond the practical training involved in helping them to assist during special celebrations in the cathedral, the order has a spiritual formation component as well.
“The group is geared towards vocations as well, so we try to talk to them about that,” said Alvarez.
Retreats and trainings include spiritual components and time for the members to learn about vocations and have their questions about a life in ministry answered, he said.
“It has been a very, very good thing for the boys of our parish,” he said.
Aside from providing support to clergy, the young men also serve as role models for their peers in the parish, he added.
“The group is a model to all of the youth of our parish,” he said.
This status has helped to serve as a recruitment mechanism, of sorts, for the group.
“Especially for boys, they see (the Guardians) and we get more people interested in joining,” he explained, emphasizing that in the course of two years the size of the order has tripled. “Every year, we get new additions into the order.”
Danny Montero, 17, was one of the first Guardians installed in 2011 as part of the initial cohort of members. The Ewing High School student sees the order as an opportunity to become involved in Mass beyond just attending.
“I feel that it is a lot better than just sitting in the pews,” he said. “I like being part of the Mass and I know the things that have to get done.”
Noting there were several occasions he had occasion to serve Mass with Bishop O’Connell, including midnight Mass on Christmas as well as during Holy Week, Montero said his first Christmas Mass with Bishop O’Connell, is most memorable.
“Christmas Mass was very special to me,” he said, “because it was our first official Mass inducted as Guardians. It was just really significant.”
Montero now helps to train new inductees to the group and says that even beyond his high school years, he plans to maintain his involvement in the Church.
As for recruiting new members to the order, Montero says it is a simple task.
“We really don’t have a pitch – the guys see us on the altar and they want to join us,” he said.