“Hi, my name is Joey Marotta. How old do I have to be to be an altar boy?” Father Kenneth Lasch looked down to see a young boy, no older than nine or ten years old, standing in front of him, hand outstretched.
“It’s nice to meet you, Joey” replied the pastor, shaking the boy’s hand. Gee, I am really not sure. I am new here, but I will find out for you.” I am sure the last thing on his mind as he took the helm of this parish was the creation of an altar boy formation program. After all, everything he owned was still packed in boxes and suitcases in the rectory! Did he really need to deal with this right away? However, he smiled, shook the hands of Joey’s slightly embarrassed parents and the line shuffled along.
The following week, Father Lasch stood in the parking lot of St. Joseph’s Church yet again.
“Did you find out how old I have to be to be an altar boy?” Joey asked again. Certainly a persistent young lad!
“No, not yet.” came the reply. “But Father Mike will be starting here in a few weeks. He is going to be in charge of that. It will be up to him.”
Every Sunday for the next month, Joey persistently made a point of saying “hi” to Father Lasch, touching base in case a decision had been made. Then, one Sunday, Father Lasch told him,
“I did speak to Father Mike, and he has decided that the minimum age for Altar Boys will be the fifth grade.” (Joey was about to start fourth grade.) “But, we are going to make an exception for you!”
As I reflect back on the early days of my church ministry, I cannot help but think of the story of Samuel and Eli in the temple. Samuel’s persistence, coupled with Eli’s keen perception permitted God to accomplish great things! Both individuals had a part to play. Samuel was open to hear God’s call. Whether or not his openness was intentional, his heart and mind were disposed to hear the call and respond. Samuel’s determination to answer God’s repeated call was also remarkable. How many of us would have simply ignored the subsequent calls, for fear of looking foolish? Eli initially was as much ‘in the dark’ as Samuel. It took time for him to appreciate the significance of what Samuel was describing to him. But his disposition allowed him to eventually understand. Again, how many of us would be as patient with a young child repeatedly interrupting our sleep? As the father of four young children, Eli’s calm demeanor takes on a unique significance!
In a similar manner, Father Lasch took the time to listen to a young man who had something to say. He treated his request with the dignity and respect that all such queries deserve, regardless of the age or status of the person making it. Young Joey’s repeated questions did border on annoying. And perhaps one would pardon Father Lasch if he had told Joey (within earshot of his parents) to stop asking. But the pastor saw it for what it was: the initial stirrings of a desire to minister to others. He knew that it was his obligation not only as a priest, but as a Christian to nurture and develop the seedling of faith that was blooming in front of him.
By making an ‘exception,’ by permitting Joey to begin serving on the altar a year sooner that would normally be allowed, the priest did something else. He told the young man that he was special. He was important. He was unique. He had something to contribute that was so important, that it could not wait one more year. By doing so, he did far more than light a fire inside that boy’s heart. In fact, the fire had been lit years before when another priest gave Joey’s parents a lit candle and told them to “receive the light of Christ.” No, Father Lasch did not light the fire. He poured gasoline upon it!
In the years that followed, that same fire would propel Joe as he learned about his faith and grew in his love of ministry. Service – whether on the altar or in the community – became a way of life. With the help and support of his chauffer-parents, he juggled multiple activities, all of them volunteer. Many of his friends assumed he did them to pad his college applications, or to earn scholarship money. But if truly pressed, he had to be honest. He did them because he enjoyed it. He loved to serve in a way that a young man can never fully understand. He loved to serve because that is what he was called to do.
Nearly six years after that initial introduction in the parking lot, Father Lasch stood next to Bishop Rodimer during the dedication liturgy for the new church sanctuary. No longer would the parish need to worship God from a sea of folding chairs beneath basketball hoops and scoreboards. He looked to his left, and saw a young man leading the altar servers, helping to walk them through the elaborate mass. It was a bit nerve wracking for the young servers to remember what to do in this new environment. But standing there, patiently directing them was Joe Marotta. He had retired as an altar server in order to assume the ministry of altar server coordinator. Neither he nor Father Lasch knew exactly what God had planned for this devout young man. But they both knew that whatever it was, it must certainly be special. And as long as they kept their ears and eyes open, they were sure to find out!
It is so easy to get caught up in the demands and obligations of our jobs, families, and even our ministry. We can be so sure that we have a good bead on things; that we know exactly what God is calling us – and others – to do. When we do so, instead of being an instrument of grace, we can become an obstacle to the fulfillment of God’s plan. His ways are not our ways, and we must always remember that.
I must keep my eyes and ears open for God’s call not only in my own life, but also the lives of those around me. The outside perspective is critical to effective discernment. As open as Samuel was to hearing God’s call, he needed Eli to identify its significance. As much as Joey desired to be up on the altar, he needed Father Lasch to identify that calling as valid and valuable. Discernment can never be performed in solitude. I need the help of others to identify and respond to God’s call.
As I embark upon a new chapter in my ministerial life, there is a lot I can learn from my initial call to ministry. It is comforting to know that the hand of God is at work in my life. Although I did not realize it at the time, I can see how the Holy Spirit was at play in that parking lot! With a more mature faith, I can clearly sense Her presence in my life. Although I am now able to recognize the Spirit in my life, trusting and following are far more difficult. It is amazing how many inhibitions and fears creep into one’s life over the years. The carefree days of childhood are replaced with professional demands, family commitments and financial obligations. It becomes increasingly more difficult to say, “Speak, Lord, your servant in listening.” Perhaps that is because we are just a tad bit afraid of what He is going to say! But as I think back on my childhood experience, an expression comes to mind: let go and let God!
Joey did not worry about much of anything other than answering the call to serve. His parents and pastor helped support and channel that energy. I must continue to allow my family and the church as a whole to support and guide me as I discern where God is calling me to serve. The path will not be easy, and will certainly require sacrifice. But on the deepest of levels, I know that I am called. I am loved. I have something special, critical and unique to contribute. Does anyone else smell gasoline?