We learned Latin and were known as Altar “Boys.”

mass, processional, dress like a man for mass, altar boys

By Larry Peterson

Recently I found an old picture from my grade school days. It was taken inside the church in the parish where I grew up (circa the late 50s to early 60s).  Just like that, it escorted me back in time.

In the picture, the church was filled with all the kids from the school and many parishioners. The photo was taken from the church balcony, but what the occasion was, I do not know.  As I stared at that picture, however, my memory jumped into overdrive.

They called us Altar Boys

 Back then, I was part of a unique group of young men called “altar boys.”  Boys historically served at the altar during Mass to encourage priestly vocations.  Traditionally boys became acolytes (altar servers) as the first step in the “minor orders” of a seminarian’s training for the priesthood. This changed in 1972 when St. Pope Paul VI issued the motu proprio Ministeria Quaedam.  (Also, see here for more information.)

In 1994 the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS) issued a ruling saying that the correct interpretation of Canon 230.2 allows for girls to be altar servers.  The CDWDS further clarified the ruling in 2001 saying “that diocesan bishops could not oblige priests to implement a diocesan policy allowing for female altar servers.”  (See here for more information.)

I began my tenure as an altar boy in fifth grade. We were around ten or eleven years old. This was the earliest age Father Hyland would allow us to enter “service to the Lord.”  Recruiting and training altar boys was serious business to Father Hyland. If you wanted to become an altar boy you had to let your teacher know.  Your teacher would then inform Father and he would personally interview you.

We were youngsters, and Father Hyland, in his wrinkle-free, black cassock and shiny black shoes, was an intimidating figure. His white, cellulose priest collar seemed so tight that you thought he might choke at any moment. And the aftershave lotion he wore was so intense that it took several seconds to get used to the powerful fragrance.

The “Interview”

We stayed after school for the “interview.” Father was in a classroom, and the “wannabe” candidates would stand out in the hall. Father called us in one at a time.I can still remember how terrified I was when my turn came. After all these years, I only remember the first question, “Well, son, tell me, why do you want to be an altar boy?”

I do not remember how I answered or what I said. All I can recall is being handed a small booklet with the Latin responses printed out phonetically. This was so we could learn to pronounce every syllable correctly.  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). The last thing I remember of that meeting was him saying, “Be here tomorrow after school.”

 Learning to speak Latin

Learning to speak in Latin and when to respond was a challenge. When you got to the Suscipiat Dominus sacrificium etc., at the end of the offertory prayers, there was a tongue-twister that gave all of us trouble.

Today, in the Novus Ordo Mass at the end of the Offertory, the priest, facing us, says: Pray, brethren, (brothers and sisters), that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”  The congregation responds, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all His holy Church.”

I included the above in English to give you an idea what we fifth graders had to learn in Latin way back when.   In Latin the priest says, “Orate Fratres, ut meum ac vestrum sacrificium acceptabile fiat apud deum Patrem omnipotentum.” The altar boys would promptly respond, “Suscipiat Dominus sacrificium de manibus tuis, ad laudem et gloriam nominis sui, ad utilitatem quoque nostrum, totiusque, ecclesiae suae sanctae.”

The part of the response highlighted above gave us all fits. A few of us got through it somewhat unscathed, but for some reason, most of us suddenly had marbles in our mouths and what would come out was a language of unknown origin. It took a year or two for most of us to get it “almost” right.  We were lucky because Father Hyland, demanding as he was, knew us.  He knew we would never pass the Latin test we had to take before being officially presented with our Surplice (the white puffy shirt with the over-sized sleeves we wore over our cassocks).

The Altar Boy Exam

The final exam required before being elevated to “Altar Boy” status was verbal.  Father brought us into church one at a time and began saying a “rehearsal” Mass. He would start at the beginning of the Mass and keep going. We needed to respond at the proper time. If we did not make the correct Latin response, we would have to write the Confiteor 10 times for extra homework.

That night, besides doing Mother Mary Gabriel’s fractions, I had to write the Confiteor in Latin 10 times. I remember wanting to watch “Captain Video and His Video Rangers” so 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.

All of us passed our exam, however, and received our Surplus. Years later, I realized that Father knew we would never get it right, so we all “graduated.”  After all, we were 5th graders, and he knew we were afraid of him.

Father Hyland may have been a demanding taskmaster, but we were the best altar boys in the south Bronx. At least, that is what Mother Mary Augustine told us.

The Masses

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 music.  There was also the Missa Cantata Mass, which was the 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 boy, the crème de la crème of all the other altar boys. That position Eddie O’Reilly and I ascended to in eighth grade. Two other acolytes were responsible for the censer and boat (the incense and charcoal guys).When the occasion called for it (Christmas, Holy Week, etc.) there were also 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

Much was expected of us. We wore black cassocks during the week and red on Sundays and Holy Days. We also wore those stiff, celluloid collars with the big red or black bows tied in front of them. I hated them, especially in the summer.I also did not like serving at funerals. The only upside was that we would get called out of class to serve. The fact is, there were many funerals and, even as a kid, I would rather have stayed in class. And every Monday night was a Novena and Benediction at 7 p.m. We all took turns serving at those devotions.

There was one great 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 one dollar. Sometimes two dollars or five. Once, Ronnie Murray and I got $10 each, but Father Quirk made us give it back. He said it was too much. He let us keep two dollars each. We were really ticked of and said a lot of grumbly things. But we made things right – we went to confession the following Saturday.

You know, it is a funny thing, but I am quite happy I found that old picture. I had a lot of wonderful memories hidden away that came back to life. Sometimes an unexpected journey back in time can be a beautiful thing.

copyright©LarryPeterson 2021


St. John Berchmans; A Remarkable Role Model for our Youth. He is the Patron Saint of Altar Servers

By Larry Peterson

St. John Berchman’s; Patron St. of Altar Servers…
en.wikipedia.org

This is about a young man who became a saint. He did not found any religious orders or have any miracles attributed to him. He did not commit ant great acts of heroism or adhere to a life of poverty. Rather, John Berchmans became a saint by being kind, courteous and incredibly loyal to the faith.

John was born on March 13, 1599, in a town called Diest,  located in the northeast part of Belgium. His father was shoemaker and John was one of five children. John became an altar boy at the age of seven and his parish priest, Father Emmerick, noticed his genuine piety and even commented to others that the Lord would work wonders in the boy’s soul.

When John was nine, his mom took ill and he spent hours at her side doing his best to comfort and care for her. She passed on when he was about thirteen and Father Emmerick allowed John to move in with him and some others boys he had living there.

He became fast friends with the others at the priest’s home and never failed to take on the most menial of tasks and complete them to the best of his ability. He was always kind and never would stray from doing what his conscience told him was right. His kindness and intelligence were a great example to the other students and the young man proved to be a profound influence on them.

John then read the biography of  St. Aloysius Gonzaga and decided he wanted to be a Jesuit. At the age of 17, he was able to enroll as a Jesuit novitiate at the Jesuit College at Malines, Belgium. He worked hard at his studies and, inspired by the life of St. Aloysius, had developed a desire to teach all the multi-lingual migrants that were in Europe. In 1618 he was sent to Rome for more education.

John Berchmans was very poor. His journey to Rome was not easy. He had to walk to Rome, a distance of 300 “leagues” or a distance of 900 miles. Carrying all his worldly goods in a  sack hung across his back, he made it to Rome. How long the journey took is unknown. He did arrive and began his studies.

In addition to studying rhetoric and philosophy, he managed to study different languages with his ultimate goal being to become a missionary in China. In his third year at the Roman College, John was selected to take part in a philosophy debate at the Greek College run by the Dominicans. John was brilliant in his arguments and carried the day. However, on the way home, he became very ill.

John Berchmans illness turned into a quick downward spiral. He seemed to have a cold which turned into other unknown maladies and he died within a week of becoming ill. The thought today is that it was dysentery that caused his death. The young man was only twenty-two-years-old and had not lived long enough to be ordained.

John Berchmans was known for his extreme piety and for being diligent in all matters, even involving the most trivial of tasks. When he died he was holding onto his rosary, a crucifix and the rules of his order. As he was dying he said: “These are my three treasures; with these, I shall gladly die.


There were many miracles attributed to John’s after his death and, as a result, the famous “altar boy” developed a huge following, especially in Belgium. In fact, over 24,000 portraits of him were given out within a few years of his death. He is known for his devotion the Blessed Sacrament and to Our Lady, to whom he composed a Chaplet in honor of the Immaculate Conception.

John Berchmans died on August 13, 1621. He was canonized a saint on January 15, 1888. He is the patron saint of altar servers and students. He is also a true role model for all youth of today.

St. John Berchmans, please pray for us all.