“There is more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye”

To serve in the cathedral is connected with a lot of discipline and responsibility. Cameras are present at every turn, and no one wants to make mistakes. It becomes especially exciting on Christmas days.

Interviewer: Mr. Domvikar, the many cathedral altar servers in red and white, who solemnly enter with the celebrants or perform their service at the altar, seem like a well-rehearsed team every time and it is hard to imagine Cologne Cathedral without them. Many children and young people feel it is a great honor to serve in the cathedral. How does serving as an altar server in Cologne's cathedral differ from serving as an altar server in a parish??

Tobias Hopmann (Cathedral Ceremoniar and Vicar): Basically, the service itself is the same: whether in a small village chapel or in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome – it is about supporting the liturgy Now Cologne Cathedral is an Episcopal church and also not a room like any other. The roads are wider and – unlike the parish church – Masses are also celebrated here by bishops with a certain frequency. And then, of course, there are the services that are celebrated exclusively in the cathedral for the entire diocese: such as the Chrism Mass in Holy Week, ordinations of priests and bishops, the funeral Mass for a bishop or even the central sending out of all carol singers by the archbishop – as now again at the end of December. In the parishes it is rather the case that children gradually grow into this honorary office after their First Communion. This does not apply to the cathedral's communion children. They come through the Cologne Cathedral Singing School and then go into the cathedral choirs. At the cathedral there are therefore many "lateral entrants. One or the other of them may know a server who will take him along to see if this could be something for him. We live therefore above all from the mouth to mouth propaganda.

Interviewer: What are the requirements to become a cathedral server??

Hopmann: Very important: the joy of liturgy. And since the service in the cathedral can last a little longer, there is also the need for perseverance and, of course, punctuality, reliability and discipline. For me personally it is important that the motivation is right. Because in no case should someone be arrogant and believe that as a cathedral servant one is something better. It is not about profiling. Every service – no matter where – is equally important and equally valuable. And it's a service in a large community that everyone who comes to it should fit into. That means to be ready for lesser tasks or to serve in evening and weekday masses, that is, in masses that are not so much in the focus. Whoever joins us should not be a "fair-weather altar boy".

Interviewer: Do you always have an overview if there are enough altar servers for all masses??

Hopmann: For the Chapter Office on Sunday there is no fixed plan. But there are always enough altar servers. But for the other times, which are much more unspectacular – like the 9 a.m. or 5 p.m. Mass – you can register online with an identifier, so I know about it. During pontifical services there are automatically more services. There must also be a minimum number of altar servers: for the presentation cross, the candlesticks, the incense… The more there are, the more solemn it looks, of course.

Interviewer: You've already mentioned it: There's a whole range of different ministries at the Cathedral. Are there also extra rehearsals in the run-up to the big church festivals – like now at Christmas with the many solemn pontifical masses??

Hopmann: Every now and then – but rather on very special occasions, such as Cardinal Meisner's Requiem last year or the opening Mass of the meeting of all the German bishops here in our diocese almost two years ago – there are rehearsals to play through the procedures once according to precise specifications. But this is rather the exception. It is more exciting with television transmissions, like the one on the 10th. March, when the Misereor Lenten Campaign opens in our parish. Then everything has to be right down to the minute and is meticulously timed by the station beforehand with the clock. But as a rule, upcoming special events – such as the blessing of the new lectionary at the beginning of the church year on the first Sunday of Advent – are briefly discussed before Mass. Then I need up to three altar servers more. And since the servers, especially the older ones, have a great routine, this is no problem at all.

Interviewer: There are certainly also very popular services. Who decides who is allowed to wave the thurible at the pontifical Mass on Christmas Eve??

Hopmann: In the cathedral we have services that could certainly exist elsewhere, even if they are not – as with us – the order of the day in a normal parish: the carrying of flambeaus, for example, or the staff and miter service when a bishop celebrates, or also the Vespers service on Sunday evening at the Epiphany shrine. And of course, the distribution of these tasks should be fair, so that everyone is allowed to take on a larger service at times. Because – as I said – they are all equally important. With an age range of eight to 35 years, close attention is paid to ensuring that the younger ones are also familiarized with the more responsible services very soon, so that they can then grow into them. The group of leaders keeps a close eye on this, and they already have a lot of experience, which I also benefit from when I feel that they are thinking along with us. When I myself was new at the cathedral, the altar servers acted completely independently. That is also important in such an important church and it relieved me enormously at that time.

Interviewer: At the Cologne Cathedral there is the special feature that the this site broadcasts every chapter office and also the choir vespers in a live stream and on every second Sunday the 10 o'clock service from the Cathedral is also broadcast in bibel.tv and EWTN will broadcast. This also means that embarrassing mistakes are closely watched by cameras and – as the saying goes – the Internet forgets nothing..

Hopmann: In the episcopal church of a diocese, the liturgy should naturally be exemplary, that is, especially dignified and solemn. I notice from the feedback I receive from all parts of Germany and beyond that such broadcasts are often underestimated. Even viewers who are far away are familiar with us through the media. And they keep a close eye on things that don't go quite right in the sanctuary. Finally, we come to them in the living rooms. Now our claim is not to be perfect, but to guarantee a liturgy that is worthy at all times, that shows an inner participation of all – and thus ultimately also the meaningfulness of liturgy. Because we are not actors. For many of these people we reach through the media, the Sunday service on TV is their docking point to church and something very important. For some people, the cathedral even becomes their home parish.

Interviewer: Look then later again at the one or other service recording?

Hopmann: We are all aware that we are under constant observation. And a video analysis can sometimes be helpful to learn from it. But liturgy is not an end in itself; rather, altar boys should understand the theological background of liturgical regulations and their deeper meaning. In the future, I want to offer more of an exchange about why what happens and how it can be implemented in this special space so that it really looks coherent. In the televised broadcasts, for example, you can sometimes see very clearly that I am giving a sign for a common genuflection or inviting the celebrants to come to the altar for the preparation of the gifts. Especially with guest priests it is then important to underline such invitations with so-called open gestures. That comes as body language much more friendly. In addition, a master of ceremonies, the man responsible for the liturgy, should not spread hectic, should not run back and forth a lot, but should discreetly and inconspicuously take care of a smooth process in the background, also keeping an eye on the processes in the spacious high choir of the cathedral, in order to keep all threads in his hands. It is good that the television viewers and also the service visitors in the cathedral get a lot, but also not everything. Because behind the scenes much more happens than you think.

Interviewer: Recently, there has been the offer that altar servers from out of town may also serve once in the cathedral, if they have registered for this beforehand…

Hopmann: In this way we also want to make it possible for all other altar boys in our diocese to experience the cathedral. Because the acolytes don't want to be an elite troop. I still remember my time as a candidate for the priesthood and how sublime I experienced the entrance through the central nave. That is something very special, and all those who wish to be present in their episcopal church for a day should have experienced it. In addition, an altar boy group can combine this with a nice excursion to Cologne. About the homepage ministranten-koeln.de our pastoral for altar boys you can find all the information about it. All are welcome. And as you can see, this invitation in the "cooler location", as it is sometimes called among the young visitors, is gladly accepted. Sometimes the parents also come along. And the grandmother watches everything on our site to. Then serving in the cathedral becomes an unforgettable experience for the whole family. But it is by no means a matter of enticing away altar servers from the confreres in the parishes with this offer.

Interviewer: The liturgy is one thing, but the community experience is certainly at least as important to many young people when they take on a volunteer position in the church. The cathedral servers also meet outside of mass times?

Hopmann: The main motivation to serve in the cathedral is certainly related to the interest in liturgy, which is all about communion with Jesus Christ. But of course the fellowship among each other is also very important. Trips are organized – such as the big diocesan pilgrimage for altar boys to Rome every three years, which is always an absolute highlight -, there is the annual altar boys' day in Altenberg, then there are faith discussion groups in which people talk about religious questions, but also about the meaning of liturgy. There are discussions with priests or the bishops and always social activities, such as visits to the Christmas market or dates for ice skating. Our faith is based on community. For one is not only a Christian for oneself alone. It is important to me that the young people get into conversation with each other and that their community is strengthened – especially by being on the road together during leisure activities. An altar server group is not about being an individualist, but about getting involved with the others and – if necessary – also supporting one another. I only know how the other person is doing when I am in contact with him. The altar server service is a service at the altar and basically a good learning field for many things. Here it is a matter of love of God and love of one's neighbor, that is, one also looks at what the other person needs at the moment. There is always an atmosphere of openness and joyful togetherness, even when things get a bit hectic – like now during Advent and Christmas with the many additional services, when the cathedral servers are in high season.

Interviewer: A real servant of the cathedral will probably be at his personal best during the feast days..

Hopmann: For this solemn occasion, of course, a lot of altar boys are in action. Especially on such holidays – the last one is Epiphany – you can feel that they are a close-knit group. After the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, the celebration continues into the wee hours of the morning at the seminary, but on Christmas morning, everyone is ready again at 10 a.m. for the next festive Mass.

The interview was conducted by Beatrice Tomasetti (DR)

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