The other day I found an old picture of my grade school days. It was of the entire church, packed with all the kids from the school and parishioners. It was taken from the church balcony and I did not even remember having it. What the occasion was I do not know. But it did trigger my memory function and here are a few that grabbed hold of me.
A long time ago I was part of a unique group of young men called altar boys (back then the term altar server was never used). I began my tenure serving in fifth grade. That was the earliest Father Hyland would allow us to begin our careers. We were trained hard and true. We were handed cards with the Latin printed out phonetically so we could pronounce every syllable properly. Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meum and underneath was printed Ad Deum qwee lay tif ee cot---yu ven tu tem mayhem (or something like that).
It was not that easy and when you got to the Suscipiat Dominus sacrificium etc. at the end of the offertory prayers there was always big trouble. That was because we had to take a “Latin” test and if we did not make the proper phonetic response we would have to write the Confiteor 10X for extra homework. (Besides doing Mother Mary Gabriel’s fractions, try writing the Confiteor in Latin 10X). I remember wanting to watch Captain Video and His Video Rangers sooo bad, but I couldn’t. I had to write the Confiteor. You had to really want to be an altar boy to stick it out.
We were 5th graders and easily intimidated. I guess I was weird because I loved it. Father Hyland was a demanding taskmaster but we were the best little altar boys in the south Bronx. At least that is what Mother Mary Augustine told us.
I served as an altar boy into my first year in high school. Back then we had the regular Low Mass, celebrated by one priest and two altar boys without song. Then there was the Missa Cantata Mass which actually was a low Mass done in song. It had one priest and a master server plus two servers called acolytes.
The Solemn High Mass was, and still is, the most beautiful presentation of the Mass. This holy offering of the Mass includes three priests; the celebrant, the deacon and the sub-deacon, usually all priests. There is the master altar server, the crème de la crème of all the other servers. That position Eddie O’Reilly and I ascended to in eighth grade. Altar servers included two acolytes, and a thurifer & boat (these were the incense and charcoal guys). When the occasion called for it (Christmas, Holy Week, etc) there were Torchbearers and a Cross Bearer. Yup—there would be altar boys all over the place. A Solemn High Tridentine Mass is still something to behold.
Much was expected of us. We wore black cassocks during the week and red on Sundays and Holy Days. We also wore those hard, celluloid collars with the big red or black bows tied in front of them. I hated them especially in the summer. I did not like serving at funerals. The upside was we would get called from class to serve. The fact is, there were many funerals and, even as a kid, I would rather have stayed in class. Every Monday night was a Novena and Benediction at 7 p.m. and we all took turns serving at those devotions.
There was one grand perk in being an altar boy. It was when you were assigned to serve at a wedding. You always received an envelope with money. Sometimes a buck. Sometimes two bucks or five. One time Ronnie Murray and I got $10 each but Father Quirk made us give it back because he said it was too much. He let us have two bucks each. We were so ticked off we said a lot of bad stuff and had to go to confession the following Saturday.
You know, it is a funny thing but I am really glad I found that old picture. I had a lot of good memories hidden away that I was able to enjoy and I did not even know it.
* This appeared in Aleteia on January 11, 2017
©copyright 2017 Larry Peterson