Reflections of a former altar boy

The time frame: World War II had just ended, and Pope Pius XII was Vicar of the Roman Catholic Church.

At age seven I was officially sanctioned as an altar boy at All Saints Catholic Church in Flint, Mich. The predominantly Polish-American community started the parish and were successful in convincing the Bishop to appoint Polish-speaking priests to administer the congregation.

Roman Catholic Churches celebrate a variety of masses. Two common types celebrated on Sundays are known as Low and High Masses.

High Mass was always held at 10:30 a.m. The sermon was delivered in Polish, followed by the priest walking up and down the main aisle, attended by two acolytes, blessing the congregation with ample doses of sprinkled holy water. Attendees at High Mass consisted mainly of first generation immigrants.

For years my standard assignment on Sunday was the 5:45 a.m. mass, which was attended mostly by General Motors factory workers. All Saints hosted three priests who officiated at the six daily masses, running from 5:45 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. and including the Children's Mass; the Polish-culture Mass took place at 10:30 in the morning.

This last mass of the day was another assignment I served for years; other boys had refused, but I volunteered. The pre-Vatican I and II years (i.e., before 1966) were unique because the church imposed stiff communion requirements. Fasting and abstaining meant few to none of the parishioners went to Communion at the last mass.

Because the rules required communicants to fast and abstain from all liquids and food starting at midnight, that meant a person attending the last mass at noon would have spent at least 12 hours without any food or drink.

That's difficult to do. Thus almost no one could be so brave and thus only one or two stalwarts came forward to receive the host.

On most Sundays, baptisms were scheduled to occur at 1 p.m. Only one altar boy was required to serve at a baptism. Since the last mass ended about this time, I'd usually hang back and serve this event as well.

Altar boys selected to serve at a funeral or wedding actually made money. At the completion of the service, the officiating priest would carefully place coins on the dressing table in the sacristy. The going rate was 25 cents for a wedding and 30 cents for a funeral. No cash was given to boys for serving a "catafaulk" mass. This was a mass said on the anniversary of a parishioner's death. A faux-casket was stationed beyond the communion rail.

A decent hourly wage back then came in at 75 cents an hour, so our tiny earnings were greeted with glee. In 1948, that paid my way into a double-feature movie, with enough left over for popcorn and candy.

Memorizing every required prayer for a Latin Mass required weeks and weeks of grueling tests. The Sisters of Saint Joseph from Garfield Heights in Cleveland, Ohio, were the nuns contracted for teaching at my school. One nun was assigned to train novice altar boys the proper manner of serving the priest. The criteria must have been that this nun came from a large family of brothers who used to tease her - our training course was like to boot camp!

I once witnessed Sister Terisita smack an aspiring acolyte so hard that the kid tumbled off the three top steps of the altar. He got up, a bruised cheek and all, apologized for causing the nun grief, and the lesson continued. His offense: he poured water from a cruet incorrectly.

No parent at that time would have challenged or complained about such corporal punishment. Nope. In fact, if the incident did reach home, there was a strong possibility that the kid would have received additional scolding for his mistake.

The Catholic Church routine prior to 1960 was tough on altar boys. We had to arrive 15 minutes before the start of a mass, dressed as if it was always Sunday - no tennis shoes, ever, and never in jeans or sweat shirts. My hair was kept short, as was the hair of all boys who served on the altar.

Hands were clasped firmly together at all times. No talking was allowed in the sacristy once mass was underway. Movements and gestures were extremely coordinated, ensuring that all six altar boys performed and spoke simultaneously.

Sixty years later and I can still recall the pain of having to kneel on wooden steps and floors. I used to like to wear corduroy pants under my cassock - the dual combination provided a tad of padding for my bony legs. The corduroy proved noisy, however, and at times embarrassing, like when all was quiet and I had to walk around the altar carrying the missal.

One of the events I most loved participating in during my 13 years of service was wedding mass, usually celebrated on Saturdays. Someone always fainted during the ceremony, which prompted large grins and snickers. Of course, we always helped revive the stricken person with water, which then eliminated the possibility of his receiving Holy Communion. It "broke" the fast.

Until Pope John XXIII had the rules amended circa 1966, every communicant had to fast, abstaining from food and liquids from midnight until mass. This was worse than the sugar fast I recently endured for my annual physical exam - at least before the physical I was allowed to drink water or black coffee.

Thank goodness all that torture was tossed out eventually. Receiving communion is a joyfully experience these days, even at the late mass.

Pax vobiscum (peace be with you).[[In-content Ad]]