Remember When Altar Boy Edition

Well I do have to admit this will be a rather unusual edition, as I am sharing a lot of personal feelings and observations about what it was like to be an Altar Boy. They call them Altar Servers now and girls are allowed to do this special service. Both of my daughters were Altar Servers when they attended Catholic elementary school. However, it just isn’t the same as it was years ago. So read along as I tell you about my experiences, when I was an Altar Boy from the 4th to 8th grade.

My earliest recollection was Altar Boy Training. It took place in the “old school building” with Sister Mary Alcantra, who was in charge of the Altar Boys. Her tasks included basic training, advanced training, making out schedules, conducting inspections and enforcing discipline.  We affectionately called her Sister Mary Alcatraz because she was like our warden. 

Training was our” boot camp” and needless to say, she took her job seriously. Practice was 30 minutes every day after school. When she handed out those old and worn Red Latin Missals, it felt like I was touching and connecting with something, or someone from out of the past.

When we started we read as a class, then as individuals. We read the words very slowly and reverently being so meticulous in our pronunciation. We were constantly reminded that these were sacred and holy words and Latin was the language of the “Holy Mother Church”. We started with the “Ordinary of the Mass”, but it was anything but “ordinary”. It required total memorization and repeating those Latin words distinctly with a slight rhythm. Somehow it began to sound like a Gregorian chant, which made it easy to learn and remember.

When we mastered the language of the “Holy Mother Church”, we moved on to learning the synchronized movements of serving Mass. This included synchronized kneeling, bowing of your head, ringing bells and chimes, playing with fire (lighting candles, charcoal, incense, and carrying lit candles) and other solemn behaviors of being up on the altar. Forbidden behaviors included: picking your nose, rubbing your eyes, yawning, cleaning your fingernails, daydreaming, or the worst offense heaven forbid, was scratching an itch!

You were issued your own cassocks for the year one of each color red, black and white. Your name was in each one. Surplices were small, medium or large. Protocol dictated which you wore and when.  White shirts were preferred and required for Sunday Masses, Weddings, Holy Days or when you would be in procession (also known as holy parades).  Procession regalia included colorful capes, cuffs and cords to wear. Shoes had to shine (you could never wear tennis shoes), hair had to always be neat, cut and combed.  Cleats were forbidden on shoes, because Sister Alcantra said, “they make you sound like a horse walking down a brick street”.

Serving 6:00am Mass was the hardest task on the weekends. It meant no sleeping in and when it was snowing or raining you had to leave extra early and wear protective gear. The sacristy was always warm in winter and usually cool in the summer. Your conversations were always soft spoken and there was something so special about being so close to the altar like you were closer to heaven. The church had a special aura to it when it was dark. It was mysterious yet familiar and made you feel insignificant, yet special and protected. When it was 10 minutes before mass, we would light the altar candles and turn on the rest of the altar and church lights.   

Serving for weddings were a real treat and I never missed one, or got substitutes. They were happy and special events. Everyone was dressed “to the nines”. Brides and bridesmaids were pretty to look at and admire.  When the ceremony was over, the “Best Man” came looking for you to give you anywhere from $2.00 to $5.00 for serving. They knew you were on your own time, got up early on a Saturday morning and had to dress up. Serving for a wedding was like winning the Lotto!

Other special mass events were pouring wine that was going to be consecrated and burning incense (which surely must smell like heaven).  Serving mass was mystical, sacred and special. You got to do things that not everyone could, or would ever do. You felt like it was almost a calling and could possibly lead to something more in your future. It sure did make you think about becoming a priest, even if for a short time in your life.  Some made it and listened to that calling and others didn’t. I didn’t and I guess it just wasn’t loud enough.