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I think it was in the fourth grade when one of the Sisters approached me about the possibility of being an altar boy. I felt pretty special, imagining what it must be like being invited to join the Special Forces with some of my male classmates. It seemed also to be a passage of sorts which carried responsibility with it. I was now officially connected to this church building which sat next to the school. Thinking back, what really made this interesting for me, is learning the official language of the Church, as well as law and medicine – Latin. Well, my friends and I didn’t actually learn the language as much as memorize it. It was the use of ceremonial verbiage to carry out a mission - that fact alone was pretty cool to me. Then there was the choreography of the Mass - candles, incense, water and wine and it would all happen on a stage in costumes in front of family and friends. I was in!
I’m fortunate I think, to have observed the behind the scenes ritual of the Mass along with its’ enactment at the altar. We servers would have our cassocks and surplices hung on a clothes rack near where the priests layered on their sometimes-majestic wardrobe in the sacristy. Our apparel consisted simply enough of a black ankle-length robe, the cassock with snap buttons or a zipper covered by a white short sleeved blouse affair - the surplice. As in athletics there were accommodations for our various uniform sizes. Instead of numbers on our backs we had small cloth labels sewn to the inside of our garb which generally identified the current wearer. The vestry or dressing room at St. Lads was nothing ornate, holding the priest’s robes in sliding door closets or pull-out drawers resembling flat files. This is also where the ceremonial accoutrements of the Mass were kept, things like a processional cross or a “crucifix-on-a-stick”; incense burners, which resembled a kind of a smoking ball and chain; tiny hand held bells, glass cruets, chalices, of which each priest would have his own like coffee mugs in the office; altar cloths and probably the most memorable for me, the candles of varying heights and girths. The Church prescribes these flame-topped ivory pillars to be composed specifically of bee’s wax for liturgical ceremonies. I fancied using the brass candle lighters. The hollow handled pole allowed you to extend the long wick using a slide on the side. The apparatus was conveniently designed to not only light a candle but to extinguish it as well. I loved the smoke trails that were left behind. A running joke among we altar boys was the Latinization of the phrase “...and with your spirit”. It was a recitation from the Mass – Et cum spiritu tuo.. When you pronounced it sounded like Et cum spiri 2-2-0. We laughingly deemed it to be the Pope’s phone number.
As my mind drifted about during the formation of these paragraphs about my experiences at the altar, I recall that as a writer-producer of several video documentaries, a lit candle played a key role in my storytelling. A dancing flame is evocative and can set a mood which can reflect the past or illuminate the future. Let’s face it, a darting flame embodies much more drama than a light bulb. The church knows we know that too. Similar to the familiar aromas our own homes, houses of worship do the same for me. Not so much in the modern steel and glass edifices we build today as in the worn wooden spaces that are so quiet you can hear wind pressing against stained glass. These structures breathe amidst the fragrance of often oiled oak steeped in an air of aged decorum. Whether they be stone-cold floors in elaborate European cathedrals or the creaking tongue and grove of a small parish church, they all hold a bouquet of mystery. They serve as refuge from personal storms and a welcomed pause from our routines. It seems to me for general well-being they are important. Using decency as your lens, an organization as old and immense as the Catholic Church will run off the tracks from time to time – way off the tracks. Some of those departures have resulted in horrific death, destruction and deeply damaged lives. The sincere questioning of this dilemma-ridden behavior has historical roots. “If the world grows too worldly, it can be rebuked by the Church”, says the early 20th century British lay theologian and philosopher Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton, “...but if the Church grows too worldly, it cannot be adequately rebuked by the world”.
I would, at times, observe the priest engage in the methodical preparation of dressing himself item by item to celebrate the Mass. I didn’t stare, it was more glancing over at someone who was in the same room. He was repeating a process which had begun in the fourth century after Christianity became legalized in 313 AD. At the time I could not appreciate the symbolism. The vestments he wore had evolved from Graeco-Roman times and each item spoke to tradition. I served my tour of duty before the populist wave of Vatican II flowed through the front door and quenched or swamped, depending on your point of view, the sanctuaries of the nation. With our backs to the congregation, only I saw the words in the book of gospels the priest was reading from. Only I could see his fingers breaking the eucharistic host over a sometimes-bejeweled chalice. I lifted glass cruets to pour water and wine over his fingers, close enough to hear the liquids splash into the ceremonial goblet. While in truth the appearance of bread and wine remains unchanged, your theological mind may not permit it. As is the case with all religions whatever you pick, Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation or a simple act of remembrance, you’re correct.
The French have a phrase for the ritual of the Mass, Participation Mystique or mystical participation. The results of Pope John XXIII’s conclave were enormous, arriving on the eve of the tumultuous 1960’s. I do remember the persistent talk among the Catholic mothers in our neighborhood that the Virgin Mary, in some passing prognostication declared that Russia, a communist country at that time, would convert to Catholicism in 1960. They confidently repeated what they’d heard, that the Blessed Virgin had asked that we all pray for that conversion. I remember at the time thinking I believed it and - wow that will be so cool when it happens. 1960 came and went but apparently, no one took the time to tell the Russians about their impending conversion. The power of prayer revealed. It took another thirty-one years for Communism to appear to fall apart from a growing democratic culture, social and economic pressure. Little by little, as I learned how the world really worked, I began asking more reasoned questions and employing John Donne’s admonition to “...doubt, wisely”.