“To serve at the altar is … the highest privilege which a layman can enjoy.”
So says the Handbook of the Archconfraternity of Saint Stephen.
In the early Church a special Order of minister was ordained to help the Priest, Deacon and Subdeacon at the altar : the Acolyte. In the West, to prevent abuses, the practice of only admitting to the ranks of the clergy those who would pursue the Priesthood came about, the Order of Acolyte became a stepping stone on the road to the Priesthood, and more commonly lay brothers or men would serve at the altar in place of a cleric, wearing clerical clothing.
For the past several hundred years in the Latin Church, then, it has been common to see men and "altar boys" serving the Priest at the altar. To encourage diligent service and a serious attitude towards this great service of Christ at the altar, the Guild of Saint Stephen was founded in 1905 in England, becoming an Archconfraternity just a year later by the encouragement and blessing of Pope St Pius X.
The Three-Fold Purpose of the Archconfraternity of St Stephen
The purpose of the Archconfraternity is, according to its Handbook :
- To help sanctify the altar server through teaching him that to serve in the Sanctuary is a great privilege,
- To instruct the altar server in the proper manner of observing the rites and ceremonies of the Church through knowledge of the rubrics, the decrees of the Church and the eminent liturgical authorities,
- To encourage him to understand the meaning and the purpose of the ceremonies in which he takes part.
It does this task by its four rules for members :
- “To serve at the Altar reverently, intelligently and punctually."
- “To make the short acts of preparation before, and of thanksgiving after, serving Mass."
- “To observe silence in the sacristy, and great reverence in the Sanctuary."
- "To recite daily the Guild prayer.”
These help a member to adhere to proper discipline and climb through the various ranks of servers as he proves himself competent, reliable, and virtuous in service at the altar.
The Guild and the SSPX
One of the hallmarks of the Traditional Liturgy of the Roman Church is that it demands that the ministers and servers conform themselves to it, rather than trying to conform to them. This is why the Traditional Mass, Sacraments, and Ceremonies help teach a proper devotion and religious discipline—they conform a man to God, rather than suggesting that God conform to man. That demand means that it is critical that servers at the Traditional Mass and Liturgy learn the proper way of serving Mass, the principles which underlie and guide them.
Early along in the Australian District, the need for a guild like the Archconfraternity was seen, and so Fr Damien Carlisle, then stationed in Rockdale, a suburb of Sydney, gathered up some men who had been Guild members and organized a servers' guild based on the model of the Archconfraternity of St Stephen. This then spread to the United States, New Zealand, Canada and several other English-speaking Districts of the Society.
St Anthony's Church and the chapels of the Society of St Pius X in New Zealand each have chapters of the Guild.
The Supernatural Nature of the Guild
The first and foremost goal of the Guild is supernatural—to sanctify the server. The Guild seeks to do this firstly through prayer, demanding of the server not only prayer during the Liturgy, but preparation and thanksgiving prayer before and after a ceremony. This teaches a server the importance of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, that it is therefore an immense privilege to serve at it or ceremonies related to it, that there is need of interior preparation before taking upon himself such august duties, and it is most necessary to thank Almighty God for the great gift of Holy Communion and for the privilege of serving.
But the Guild also seeks to do this outside of the Liturgy as well. The rules demand of the servers a short prayer each day. Not only is this meant to help him to keep the spirit of the Liturgy through his day, but also to remind him that he is an altar server and his decorum and behaviour should conform to this most serious duty. It should help him to not give scandal or be an object of disdain by bad behaviour. Those who would give such a bad example would thus find themselves stripped of that great privilege.
The Guild also practically creates a weekly serving schedule, which helps a server to order himself and recognise this privilege.
Membership is, according to the Handbook, open " to any boy or man, without any limit of age, who can serve Mass, and who has shown proof of a desire to conform to the object of the Guild."
Certain other parish societies demand membership in the Guild in order to join them, thus it serves very much as an Archconfraternity, standing over other groups and confraternities, such as the Bosco Cadets.