Driving from Oklahoma for over 13 hours and suffering in rush-hour traffic for hours – were the topics of discussion between the altar servers and chaperons who gathered at Sts Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Parish in Palos Park, IL for the 2010 Chicago Deanery Altar Servers Retreat. Sixteen young men representing St. Volodymyr Orthodox Cathedral, Chicago, IL; Sts Peter and Paul Parish, Palos Park, IL and Dormition of the Mother of God Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Jones, OK gathered for three-days at the Palos Park Parish to learn about their part in Ukrainian Orthodox Christian ministry, to enjoy fellowship with each other and hopefully establish long-lasting relationships.

His Grace Bishop Daniel, the ruling hierarch of the Western Eparchy of the UOC of the USA, participated in all workshops of the retreat and led the altar servers and those in attendance in prayer services. Very Rev. Fr. Taras Naumenko, a pastor of Sts Peter and Paul Parish, welcomed the participants of the retreat inviting them to learn about their vocation and deepen their understanding of their role in the liturgical services of the Holy Orthodox Church. The morning sessions of the retreat consisted of lectures and discussions led by Bishop Daniel, Fr. Taras and Fr. Vasyl Sendeha, pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Warners, NY. The afternoon was devoted to liturgical practice – how, as an altar server, to serve the sacred services of the Church. During the evening the participants enjoyed a movie, swimming, playing soccer, a bonfire with s’mores and delicious Chicago-style pizza.

The bishop prayerfully began his opening presentation with words of prayer, which might be recited by the altar servers each time they begin a service around the Holy Space – the Altar, receiving a blessing from their pastor: “O, Lord, Grant me a true spirit of faith, and humble obedience, so that I may ever behold my Spiritual Father as the representative of Christ our Lord, and I may serve alongside of him, willingly following Your Way, the Truth, and a Life in Christ unto ages of ages. Amen." Bishop Daniel reflected upon his own spiritual journey and the days when he served about the altar of God as an altar server. Moreover, the bishop shared with the participants the history of how the altar servers began their services in the early Christian communities, explaining that the term "acolyte" (nowadays called altar servers) is a very old term in the Church, meaning "follower" in Greek. Today, it is a term that has come to mean attendant or helper. Altar servers, assistants, were mentioned as early as 3rd century AD by church historians. In many cases, they were young boys who were orphaned and taken in by the Church. In return, they offered the church service as assistants to the priests, freeing them to attend to the other spiritual needs of their flocks. The acolytes dedicated themselves to this work and often lived their entire lives within the church building serving the church and God and often grew up and became priests themselves.

Fr. Taras Naumenko provided a practical workshop for the altar boys, instructing them in their sacred responsibilities around the Holy Altar. It was an interactive workshop that allowed the participants to ask practical questions and to practice for a Divine Liturgy which was to be served with His Grace Bishop Daniel on the last day of the Retreat.  Fr. Vasyl Sendeha spoke to the participants of the retreat of the dangers of loosing their understanding of their responsibilities and becoming bored with their unique ministry. Fr. Vasyl challenged the young men to open themselves to the presence of Christ in their lives and to assist and learn from each other about their responsibilities. The young men shared with each other the ways in which they can perfect themselves in their service.

The highlight of Wednesday morning was the presentation to all participants of a special t-shirt, which was designed for the retreat, stating: “Being Cool for the Lord!” 

The altar servers could not wait to begin a journey by a car to a long promised destination – Six Flags – Great America Amusement Park in Gurnee, IL.

All of the participants, including Archimandrite Raphael, the pastor of Holy Dormition Parish, Jones, OK and Bishop Daniel traveled to this “fun” destination – dressed in their new t-shirts – thoroughly enjoyed all the rides and food at the park and got to pick a ride – rides -  on which the bishop promised to go on with the servers and did.

Thursday morning was a day to bid farewell and begin the journey back home. However, before the hugs and phone numbers and e-mails were exchanged, the altar servers and a number of parishioners from Sts Peter and Paul parish participated in a Divine Liturgy celebrated by His Grace Bishop Daniel and all the clergy attending the retreat. The altar servers escorted the bishop to the church, where he was greeted by the pastor and the concelebrating clergy. Once again, the bishop spoke about the sacred role of the altar servers to the congregation gathered for the Liturgy:

“To be an altar boy is a special honor… What made you want to become an altar boy? Did you know that God chose you to become an altar boy and serve Him? Maybe one day you thought to yourself that you'd like to become an altar boy. Maybe your parents suggested that you become an altar boy. Maybe your friends who are altar boys suggested it—whatever it was, it really was God who called you.

You see, God works through you and through other people. In His own way, He called you to serve Him. You should be very happy that the Lord God chose you. He loves you very much. He wants you to love Him more and more each day. He has given you a great honor by choosing you to be one of His altar boys. Remember that you have been called by God to serve Him as an altar boy. You should do your best to serve Him faithfully and obediently.

You have a special, important, and holy role to play, not only when you are in the altar, but also when you are at home or at school. You do not stop being an altar boy the minute you leave the altar”, said the bishop.

The day concluded with the delicious luncheon for all the participants in the retreat. Each and every meal during the retreat was sponsored either by a Sts. Peter and Paul parish organization or an individual member.

The participants of the retreat offered their most sincere gratitude to all of these generous people and to Very Rev. Fr. Taras Naumenko and Panimatka Laura Naumenko, who served as their hosts.

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