A fellow ChicagoNow blogger wrote a few days ago about an altar server with an unusual perspective. It got me waxing nostalgic a bit . Memories of being once an altarboy myself flooded my mind. It was during the front side of the 1950s, to be precise. Before Vatican II. When the priest-celebrant had not made a 180 to face the congregation. And neither had we, the altar boys ---girls weren't deemed worthy to set foot in the sanctuary at the time.
In no particular order, the following memories take center stage. Let me begin with the strains and struggles I had with the lingua franca of the traditional Mass---Latin. For whatever reason, I never got comfortable with ecclesiastical Latin Which, you could imagine, posed an impediment for an aspiring altar boy. Nonetheless, I was given a dispensation from being proficient in this language requirement, perhaps because strict enforcement of it would have been too onerous and would have decimated the server ranks at the Sunday Masses in old St. Pancratius Church. But I did grow adept at faking the Latin responses. Especially , those in the penitential prayer called the Confiteor ("I confess"), which is recited at the beginning of the service and was the benchmark of Latin mastery. By the time I reached 8th grade, my incoherent rendition of the Confiteor had grown to legendary proportions for its artful verbal slurring. The congregation had no way of knowing how mangled my Latin was. You see, there wasn't a mike on the altar. Most priests did have compassion. Although some winced in spite of themselves.
Before the Mass, in the sacristy, after donning our cassocks and surplices, we altar boys had the ritualistic duty of helping attire the priest for his role as celebrant. Fans of Downton Abbey might picture Bates dressing Lord Grantham. Not quite. Our valet service consisted, principally, in handing the priest various parts of his vestment or outfit---such as the stole and the girdle. No, not what you think. The girdle, or more properly, the cincture, was the cord the priest tied around his waist after he had put on the alb, a longer white vestment. We were too young to reflect on this social stratification in the spiritual realm. In time, like any other ritual, it became perfunctory.
Being an altar boy had its perks, though. We occasionally were pulled out of class to serve funeral Masses. During these Masses we accompanied the priest as he circled and censed the closed coffin which stood in the nave of church in front of the Communion rail before the altar. I still attribute some of my latter respiratory problems to breathing in the frankincense, myrrh, or whatever else was used to overpower my lungs.
At other times, altar boys were pulled from class to tag along with the priest to canvass the parishioners. I vividly remember when Father N___k knocked on a back door and was greeted by the lady of the house in dishabille---she was not, shall I say, dressed for visitors. Fr. N____ k wasn't fazed at all. He told me to stand outside while he, presumably, took care of her spiritual needs. I always gave him the benefit of the doubt, of course.
During the Easter season, the Mass missal rested on a gold portable stand. It was the altar boy's task to carry this heavy burden from one side of the altar to the other. It had to be done with utmost concentration and with acute strain in the muscles of the arms. On one Sunday, my classmate Leonard W___s stood at right bells, or something like that, so it was his assignment. Unfortunately for him, the cassock he wore was a tad too long. He stepped on its hem while doing the exchange, tripped, and dropped the precious cargo. He always had had a tendency to get red in the face, and, at that moment, his face was redder than his bright-red cassock. The celebrant was not amused. But I laughed inside till I busted a gut. Of course, all with due reverence.
My most disconcerting memory was when I had to serve, solo, at the 6:00 morning Mass in the nuns' convent chapel. Its small altar was at one end of a very compact room with a few rows of pews facing it. It was a formidable experience for several reasons. The early hour, the presence of a few dozen nuns---the 50s, remember?---and the quiet. So quiet that my Latin had to sound almost flawless. And somehow it succeeded to. Maybe because the nuns' couldn't hear all that well through the wimples they wore.
On one occasion, a visiting priest had the chapel Mass. He was breezing through it until the Consecration, the most solemn and holy point when the host, the unleavened bread, becomes miraculously the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. With his back to me and the nuns, the priest bent over the altar, raised the paten with the host, brought it down, knelt...and farted.
He repeated the rite with the chalice...and farted again. When the Mass ended, I pretended like nothing out of the ordinary happened and left for home.
To this day, I wonder if, at least, one of the nuns, in the solitary confinement of her room, laughed her ass off.