An Altar Boy, But Not a Priest
March 11, 2015
By Michael A. Calvert
“It is a great honor to serve God as an altar boy,” proclaimed Sister Phillip Neri, her face firm and eyes fixed on me – at least, I thought so. She had dismissed the girls early for recess. “You must be in the state of grace to put on the cassock and surplice and be admitted inside into the sanctuary. Are you worthy of such an honor?”
No one responded. We knew from our catechism lessons that we were in the state of grace unless we had committed a mortal sin. As eleven-year olds, we did not have many opportunities for mortal sins except missing Mass on Sundays and specified holy days. We had not yet begun to covet women, particularly not our neighbor’s wives. In any case, we could be restored to a state of grace by a visit to the confessional booth, a few prescribed prayers, and a firm resolve to sin no more.
“Father Faistl wants a few good boys, up to ten, that he can train to serve as altar boys. No one with any bad marks in conduct will be considered. Altar boys have to be smart enough to learn Latin and remember their tasks during mass, weddings, and funerals. Unless you do not want this high honor, I will send the following names to Father.” She read ten names and told the others to go outside for recess. Wounded egos did not warrant serious concern for the Dominican Sisters. She told us that classes would begin the next week on Tuesday and Thursday evenings at at 7 o’clock at the rectory.
Ronnie, Mike, Bernie, and I sat with other boys in the modest living room of the 2-bedroom house in AmVet Village that served as the pastor’s residence. As usual, he was wearing olive drab fatigues and worn combat boots from his days as a chaplain in the Korean War. A tall, angular man with a prominent jaw and deeply set dark eyes, I had decided that he harbored a profound sadness from what he had witnessed on D-Day, at the Battle of the Bulge, and during the fighting in Korea.
Father passed out pamphlets with the words ‘The Altar Boy’s Guide’ on the cover. Father began “All right, boys, if I could learn to speak a little Korean, you boys can learn your lines in the Latin Mass. Sister told me you are all smart. On page 3, you see what I’ll say at the beginning of Mass and your response is below. The English is there, too, but focus on the Latin. You don’t need to know the English, just the Latin. Got it? OK, repeat after me.
I worried that becoming an altar boy might be too difficult for me as I stared at page three:
“STANDING AT THE FOOT OF THE ALTAR:
Priest:In nómine Patris, et Fílii, et Spíritus Sancti. Amen. Introíbo ad altáre Dei. (In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. I will go unto the altar of God.)
Server:Ad Deum qui lætíficat juventútem meam. Amem. (To God, Who gives joy to my youth. Amen)”
After following Father a couple of times, word by word, and then phrase by phase, he said, “You boys are doing great, especially on ‘Amen.‘ “ For an hour, we mangled the Latin, repeated words and phrases as a group and individually. Finally, Father said, “All right, stand down, men. Be back here at 1900 hours on Thursday evening. I mean 7 o’clock, sorry, that’s military time.”
In two weeks, we had reached “Finis.” We could parrot our lines adequately. It was comforting that few, if any, parishioners would know if we butchered the proper Latin pronunciations.
The next session was in our new church. The two-story side walls were cement block with continuous casement windows between the wall and the roof. The windows were faintly reminiscent of stained glass: rectangular panes of pebbled glass, rose, pink, and clear in no pattern that I could discern during many hours in a pew when my attention should have been focused on prayers, sermons and ceremonies. I suspect the plan was to install proper stained glass images of St. Gabriel, the Blessed Virgin Mary, other saints, and biblical figures at some point in the future when the mortgage on the church was paid off and some parishioners had done well and remembered the church with generous endowments.
The altar itself, a high table draped with rich fabrics embroidered with gold symbols and words in Latin and Greek, was ensconced on a modest platform surrounded by three steps, altar and steps covered in red carpet. The floor throughout the church was an unadorned, mottled gray concrete. A lightly stained oak communion rail with a continuous red-carpeted kneeler for communicants separated the sanctuary from the pews for the congregation. A choir loft with a modern organ overlooked the entire church from above the double doors to the vestibule.
Following Father Faistl’s example, we spoke casually in the church where we had been shushed to whispers as long as we could remember. He called two of the older boys to the door of the sacristy where the vestments were stored, modeled the proper position of their hands in prayer, positioned them behind him, and led them to their stations at the foot of the altar. “Everyone see that? A simple maneuver, right?” He did not bother to look over as we nodded. “You knell on the first step and I’ll say, ‘In nómine Patris, et Fílii, et Spíritus Sancti. Amen. Introíbo ad altáre Dei.‘ Then you say?”
“Ad Deum qui lætíficat juventútem meam. Amem,” a couple of boys began hesitantly and the rest of us joined in, almost shouting the last few words, particularly the Amen. We continued with our rehearsal for mass with Father in his fatigues and us in our casual clothes in the partially illuminated church. Yet we were inspired with the gravity of our role in Holy Mass in the House of God. Sister Phillip Neri was right. Serving God as an altar boy was an honor. Becoming a priest would be grand.
We practiced moving the large open book on a filigreed, gold stand from one side of the altar to the other. We memorized Father’s Latin phrase that was the cue, practiced lifting the bookstand without pulling the altar cloth, descending the steps, ascending to the other side of the altar and heaving our burden gently onto the altar. As one of the smallest altar boys, moving the book was a challenge. I imagined a variety of disasters that would justify Father’s justifiable anger, the congregation’s cruel amusement, my family’s enduring shame, and my dismissal from the coveted position of altar boy.
Father demonstrated how to light the candles that were four feet above the altar, six candles for high mass and two for low mass. A varnished pole, longer than a broomstick, was topped with a metal device that held a waxed taper on one side and a candle snuffer on the other. All of our young lives we had been strongly admonished not to touch matches. Now we had to light a taper and hold the flame above the tall candles on the altar until the wick caught the flame while early arrivals watched from the pews. Avoiding the lilies and other flowers the Altar and Rosary Society ladies had artfully positioned between the candles was a challenge. After Mass, we snuffed the flame on each candle with the cup on the end of the pole, and watched smoke curl upward as we moved to the next candle.
We all practiced carrying the tray with cruets of water and wine from a small table next to the altar up to Father, another opportunity for a disastrous stumble during Mass. The miniature pitchers could slide on the metal tray, turn over and spill. This never happened except in my imagination.
At communion, minutes after the unleavened wafer that had been transubstantiated into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the thin, unleavened wafer of bread was placed on the outstretched tongues of parishioners including family and friends. A different perspective. The altar boy’s task was to hold the paten, a saucer-sized, golden plate with a handle, under the chin of the communicant as Father said, “Corpus Christi.” In our rehearsal, Ronnie and I knelt at the communion rail while the others held the paten, and then we took a turn. Father warned us that some people have multiple chins and fat necks. He said to just get as close as you can.
After communion, Father showed us how he would dismiss the congregation; their response is “Deo Gratias” or “Thanks be to God.” I thought it was a bit irreverent because my interpretation was, “Thank God this is over!”
Then Father descends to the foot of the altar and announces, “Let us pray for the conversion of Russia from godless communism as instructed by His Holiness Pope Pius XII.” I was reminded of the picture in our church history textbook of Emperor Constantine bowing to a mitered bishop in the Second Century holding a cross to Constantine like an exorcist. Even as a sixth grader, the conversion of Russia in the Twentieth Century seemed pretty farfetched to me.
Finally Father took us into the sacristy where he put on his vestments before Mass while we donned the cassocks, black robes that ideally covered our ankles, and a surplice, white short-sleeved, pleated overblouse with a square neck. The cassocks were of different lengths, but the surplices were all large. We focused in uniforms. For instance, we had decided that the Cleveland Browns’ orange and brown helmets and jerseys were not nearly as cool as the Green Bay Packers’ green and gold uniforms. The Navy’s dress blues far outclassed the Army’s olive drab outfits. We preened in front of the mirror on the back of the sacristy door.
“All right! You’re altar boys! Don’t do anything to disgrace the cassock and surplice. The schedule will be on the door. Check it every week. Now get out of here,” Father said with a smile. “I promised the ladies from the Altar and Rosary Society that the area around the statue will be spaded and ready for their flowers. I’ve also got a sermon to write for Sunday.”
Mom, Dad, Grandmother, and Uncle Bill attended my first Sunday Mass. My thin, boyish voice wavered, and my hand shook when I held the paten on that day. I did not stumble with the book or the cruets, and soon I lost my stage fright. I began to relish my role on the altar in front of my classmates, their families and other parishioners. When the choir sang their parts of the High Mass, their soothing sound began to resonate with me, particularly the crescendos of hosannahs. I learned how to serve as an altar boy at baptisms with squalling babies, at funerals with tearful and sometimes wailing relatives, and weddings which included an envelope with two, three, or five dollars for each altar boy.
I came to admire Father Faistl who said Mass every morning at seven every morning and again at eleven on Sundays. He was humble, devoted, and always available to comfort parishioners who sought his sympathy, advice and blessing. I could easily picture him providing spiritual support and solace to wounded soldiers and administering last rites as a chaplain.
“Pray to God to reveal his plan for you and be prepared to serve Him if called,” said Sister Miriam often as she urged us to be open to a vocation, the Catholic Church’s word for a calling from God to become priests or nuns. Other priests came to our church on feast days to celebrate special services. Father Culp, Diocesan Director of Foriegn Missions, made presentations about the work of missionaries in China, Africa and South America. We also learned about monks in monasteries laboring contentedly in fields, pausing for prayer several times each day, and, in some cases, maintaining vows of silence as well as poverty.
Life in a remote monastery held little attraction for me, but I could envision myself as a parish priest leading a congregation, perhaps even rising to become a bishop. Priests were widely admired in my family and the Catholic community. Grandmother and Uncle Bill, who occasionally served as an altar boy at St. Patrick’s, would be pleased. Mom was always supportive.
Although I cringe now, administering a mission in some faraway, backward place appealed to me then. I envisioned a priest in an equatorial jungle, modernizing, civilizing, and converting a primitive people of a different race. They would build a simple church, rejoice in their salvation, and bring the priest local dishes, hand-crafted wares, and traditional art portraying Jesus and the Virgin Mary. In retrospect, my image was hardly one of selfless service to God.
After three years serving as an altar boy, my interests broadened. I read more than the comic strips and sports pages of the newspaper after completing my paper route each morning. America’s confrontation with communism resonated with the Catholic Church’s opposition to what was often referred to redundantly for emphasis as “Godless, atheistic communism bent on world domination.” President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program to adapt the terrible destructive power of nuclear bombs for peaceful purposes impressed me. I responded to Life magazine’s cover story on the first astronauts, explorers navigating among the stars and modern heroes. The young Irish senator from Massachusetts, John Kennedy and his brother Robert were often pictured in the paper. I had often heard how Al Smith’s 1929 run for the presidency had been lost due to anti-Catholic bigotry in 1929.
At thirteen, my interest in the girls in my class became increasingly intense. The mandatory, loose-fitting, navy blue jumpers extending below the knees did not block my powers of imagination. The Star, a tabloid inserted in Friday’s newspapers, featured actresses in alluring costumes, and they did not escape my attention as soon as the papers arrived while I was able to stare and fantasize while everyone in the house slept. Despite my fantasies, the challenge of someday winning a woman as a wife and successfully raising a family remained my long-term goal for my future.
I prayed and asked for guidance. I did not hear God calling me to a vocation as a priest. A cousin and a boy I knew from St. Augustine’s school had declared themselves. The path to ordination as a priest was straight but seemed narrow. The priesthood had begun to look like a retreat from the challenges in the world and opportunities that I envisioned before me. I was drawn to being the wise father in TV shows like “Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.” I also discovered an ambition within me to do something in the larger world.
My respect and admiration for Father Faistl and the Catholic Church remained strong. My three years as a young altar boy had been a rewarding experience, but I choose not to pursue becoming a priest.