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VATICAN LETTER Aug-11-2006 (710 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

'Pre-seminary' houses altar boys for St. Peter's Basilica

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Silently processing out of the sacristy of St. Peter's Basilica at 7 a.m. each day, the altar servers look like angels, but the women who cook and clean for them say they are normal boys.

Well, maybe not totally normal. After all, these 11- to 18-year-olds live at the Vatican during the school year.

During the 2005-06 academic year, 21 of them ate, slept, studied and occasionally created chaos at the St. Pius X Pre-seminary inside the Vatican walls.

Father Enrico Radice, rector of the pre-seminary, said four students graduated from high school in June, and three of them are entering diocesan seminaries in September.

This year's percentage of students going on to a full-fledged seminary is high, even by Vatican standards, he said. About 10 percent of the 700 boys who have lived at the pre-seminary in the past 50 years have become priests.

Some of the boys return home before finishing high school, and one or two, suffering severe cases of homesickness, leave before their first Christmas at the Vatican, according to the women who not only cook and clean, but also confess to mothering the boys on occasion.

The pre-seminary opened its doors in 1956 at the urging of Father Giovanni Folci, a priest of the Diocese of Como, Italy, who founded an association of priests committed to promoting vocations to the priesthood. The association, still made up mostly of Como priests like Father Radice, runs the pre-seminary.

During the academic year, the students attend a Catholic middle school or high school near the Vatican. Their altar-serving lessons, prayer life and recreation are in the hands of the rector, another priest and a layman.

Two women run the kitchen and two others take care of the cleaning and laundry. But they also watch over the boys, listen to them, and cry when they leave.

Because St. Peter's Basilica needs altar servers year-round, the pre-seminary never closes its doors.

In the summer, it turns into something resembling an altar boy camp. Taking 20-day shifts, altar boys from all over Italy come to the Vatican to serve from late June to early August. Service for the remainder of August and early September is in the hands of a group of altar boys from Malta.

"We spend the first day teaching them everything they need to know" to serve Mass in St. Peter's, including where to enter the basilica, what vestments they need to wear and where the various altars are located, Father Radice said.

"Obviously, they speak Italian and know only the little bit of English or French they study at school, so unless the Mass is in Italian, they cannot respond. Although some of them know some of the responses in Latin," he said.

Usually after having written to reserve a chapel or an altar, bishops and priests from around the world arrive at St. Peter's between 7 and 8 a.m. to celebrate Mass in the world's largest church.

The altar boys from the pre-seminary lead the bishops and priests from the sacristy to their assigned altar and serve their Masses, unless another priest, deacon or altar server is with the visitor.

Father Radice said the pre-seminary purposely does not call itself a minor seminary; its primary function is not to prepare young men to enter a seminary.

"Our first aim is to provide a decorous liturgical service in St. Peter's Basilica. We try to create a spiritual atmosphere appropriate for that service," he said.

When the pre-seminary is effective, he said, the boys get more of a taste of what the priesthood would be like than they would as altar servers in their home parish.

While serving daily Mass is their primary responsibility, Father Radice said, "at least two or three times a year" each of the boys enrolled in the pre-seminary gets a chance to serve a papal Mass.

Unfortunately, he said, the same does not apply to the summer substitutes because the pope is away for most of the season, although the group that comes each year from Malta usually poses for a photograph with the pope when he comes to the Vatican for his weekly general audience.


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