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.
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.
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.