Mary hasn’t told me what she wants me to post this week, so I’m going to talk about my days as an altar boy.
We only got to wear red cassocks on special occasions. (Source: Love That Feeling)
When I was in fourth grade, I was honored by Sister Ann Catherine by being asked if I would like to serve as an altar boy. Of course, I jumped at the chance. That was an honor that was normally reserved only to the older boys (i.e. the fifth graders and above) and I knew that my folks would just be proud as heck of me.
Mother Ancilla, who was the head of the Altar Boys and kind of a young woman, was thrilled that I was interested, and handed me a card printed in black, red and white, with several passages circled in pencil. “Do you think that you can learn the circled parts by Monday, John?” she asked, and I nodded vigorously. It was in Latin, of course, and I had never tried reading or speaking in Latin, but it was Friday afternoon; I figured Dad could help me through it, and I’d be ready for the big quiz on Monday, no problem. Dad was really into that kind of thing. He was a lector and everything.
What I didn’t realize was that Mom and Dad were going out of town for the weekend, and wouldn’t be home until late Sunday night. Now, I was screwed. I was sure that my aunt Florence, who was staying with us for the weekend, wouldn’t be able to help, so I didn’t bother to ask her. Instead, I tried to learn it on my own, and ended up thoroughly frustrated and upset at everyone: myself, Dad, Florence, Mother Ancilla, Sister Ann Catherine, St. Tarcisius (the patron saint of altar boys), the Society of Jesus, the pastor, the archbishop, and the Pope, so upset that I thought of becoming a Protestant. When Dad got home Sunday evening, he sat down with me and went over the responses. I was able to bluff my way through on Monday morning, and no longer had a desire to convert.
After several afternoons of training in the church (which essentially consisted of being told by the older altar boys conducting the training to sit down and shut up), I was ready to serve Mass without making too big of a fool out of myself. I was assigned to the 7:45 AM Mass on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday my first week. That Wednesday after school, we had a meeting of the altar boys, at which we were told that we would have to learn all the responses in English, because Vatican II had changed the rules. I told Mom and Dad this, and they just laughed. I, on the other hand, was thinking of becoming a Presbyterian again.
In my four plus years of serving, I never once dropped a paten (the thing we in the Old Church would hold under a communicant’s chin to prevent the Body of Christ from dropping off the communicant’s tongue, falling on the marble floor, and being smashed underfoot), closed the book on the priest, tripped over my cassock and fell on my face while carrying the cross, or set fire to my surplice while lighting the candles. I was reverent, I knew when to respond and how, and was in general diligent in my duties.
That’s not to say that I was always fully aware of my surroundings. Most people who know me realize that I have a hard time sitting still. If Father happened to get started on a particularly long topic, within several minutes I would be examining the life of St. Ignatius, which was painted in great detail on the ceiling of the church. Or I would begin to fidget with my surplice, rolling it up and down.
One Sunday (and fortunately, there was only ever one), my father was assigned to the same Mass that I was. Needless to say, he was appalled at my behavior, and upon arriving home I was ordered to my room to examine my conscience. About a half an hour later, after he had cooled off, he came in and asked me one question: “John, why did you become an altar boy?”
I looked at him and responded, “because the opportunity presented itself.”
End of discussion. He was laughing too hard to stay mad.