Saturday, January 19, 2008

"And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times": Serving the Latin Mass,

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A friend emailed me and mentioned how much she liked the photo of the four altar boys bowing while they said the "Confiteor" ("I Confess") at a 1962 Latin Mass recently in Sioux Falls, SD. I acknowledged how much I like the photo also and then mentioned a few things I have noticed about the lack of training for servers in Masses in the some parishes in the Twin Cities. She asked me to elaborate and say more about what it was like in the "olden days."

At the parish where I normally attend Mass the servers are very poorly trained, and it's apparent almost every Sunday when Father has to correct them or have them do something they had forgotten. Partly it is poor training done by a lay person, rather than by a priest or a nun. Mostly it's because they don't have much to do. They sit, bored, in chairs off to the side for most of the Mass. When they do have something to do, they end up casually walking around the altar like they were setting the dining room table at their homes.

Well a couple of Sundays ago, the servers forgot to give the unconsecrated communion hosts to Father at the Offertory for consecration. It was a retired priest filling in that day. When he got to the part of the Mass where he was going to give the consecrated hosts to the EMHC's, he realized that he hadn't consecrated any. They had been left on the credence table. To be consecrated, they have to be on the altar in front of the priest, not 20 feet away from him. Fortunately, there was a ciborium in the tabernacle that had a sufficient number of consecrated hosts and he was able to use those for Communion. Had there not been, he would have had to go back and re-do the Consecration. I doubt that the servers even now know what was happening.

In my youth, we attended St Anthony of Padua, a parish in Duluth on the East Hillside that mostly was a lower middle class and somewhat poor congregation. Most people walked to church, some because the parking lot was too small, many because they didn't own cars.

Mass was celebrated seven days a week, twice during the week when school was in session, only once during the summer. Altar boys were needed for all those Masses. Sixth, Seventh and Eighth grade boys were the servers and I suppose about half or more of the boys volunteered, some at the insistence of their parents, I suppose. Fourteen Masses a week were celebrated by our pastor and his assistant when school was in session, needing about 30 boys a week (two for each low Mass and four for the last Mass on Sunday which was a High Mass with Benediction. So you might have served Mass twice a month or so (more at Christmas and Holy Week).

The first thing we had to do was memorize the Latin responses to the Mass. We stayed after school a day or two a week and worked with an older altar boy on the memorization. That probably took a month or two. The "Confiteor" ("I Confess to Almighty God"), because it was so long and the "Suscipiat" ("May the Lord receive the Sacrifice from thy hands"), because of the tough Latin words, were the most difficult to memorize. The priest alone said the "Gloria" and the "Credo" (Creed) when they were to be said.

Once we had mastered the Latin (correct pronunciation and all the words, but not any understanding except maybe "Amen" and "And with thy Spirit"), we then had several more after school sessions with one of the nuns who walked us through the sacristy and altar, showing us where things were and how to put on the cassock and surplice, how to behave and then she would walk us through a typical Low Mass. Actually there was a "cheat sheet" with all the Latin words lying flat in front of the servers. But few needed to use them after they had a few Masses under their belts.

The parish only had two employees besides the pastor and his assistant: The janitor and the housekeeper, both of whom seemed to be about 90 years old, to someone my age. The housekeeper laid out the celebrant's vestments for the day and probably refreshed the water and wine cruets. The janitor's main duties for Mass was to ring the bells about 15 minutes before them. One day as we walked up the steps to the sacristy (the church was on the second floor of the school building), I noticed that there was a hole in the floor next to the bell rope. It turned out that the day before, when the janitor was ringing the bell, the "clapper" broke free of the bell and crashed through three or more floors. If the clapper had been a foot or two further from the wall, the janitor would have been a goner. As it was he probably added another five years to his age.

There was a schedule in the sacristy with the server duty dates. And to make sure that the altar boys showed up on time, there was a tradition (little "t") that whoever arrived first had (a) first choice of cassocks (many of us were the same size and some had missing buttons, etc.); (b) since all boys love fire, got to light the candles (two at a Low Mass, six at a High Mass); the first experienced server got to handle the censer (the thurible, incense burner); the second experienced server to arrive got the boat (the incense container) at Benediction; or, during Lent, carry the processional crucifix during the Friday Stations of the Cross at the end of the school day.

Out on the altar, the first to arrive knelt at Father's right, the Epistle side of the altar, and handled the bells. This was as great as fire, especially on Holy Saturday during the Gloria when bell ringing was resumed after a period of no music or bells after the Holy Thursday service. You got to ring the bells during the entire Gloria as it was sung by the choir! Great stuff!

The second experienced server to arrive knelt at Father's left and he got to move the "Mass Book", what we now call the "Sacramentary" from the Epistle Side to the Gospel Side after the reading of the Epistle, and then back again after Communion. That was great too, except for one time when a boy who lived behind us, a couple of years younger than me, stepped on his cassock as he was moving from the Epistle side to the Gospel side and tumbled down the three steps leading to the altar. How mortifying! Fortunately, he wasn't hurt and the Holy Ghost (that was His name in those days) must have intervened because I never heard one mention of the incident at school the next day. But Billy (that was the altar boy's name) must still cringe with embarassment to this day).

Having gotten outfitted correctly, lit the candles, watched Father say his prayers and put on his vestments, we proceeded out to the altar from the sacristy (there was no procession from the back of the church in those days. "Where did that ugly word "narthex" come from? The same place where "ambo" came from, I would bet).

Father carried the veiled chalice out to the altar and carried it back to the sacristy at the end of Mass. Under no circumstances were we to touch any of the sacred vessels. Frankly, I did touch a monstrance once for a second or two and still wonder why I didn't drop dead on the spot like those two guys who attempted to keep the Ark of the Covenant from falling into a ditch.

If it was a high Mass, the two extra servers generally (except for major Feasts like Christmas, and Holy Week) would be younger boys who were still in training and the nuns would watch to see how they did). But the name of the game from then on was "choreography." We did everything together, either with Father, or with each other: stand, kneel, genuflect, sit (during the sermon, not homily), etc. This reverential posturing was extremely important for the Mass to be offered properly. And we were right out there kneeling on the bottom step of the altar, not sitting off to the side with our legs crossed and arms folded. Any fidgeting would be duly noted by the nuns in the first row who had an unobstructed view of us.

At the Offertory, the Epistle Side server brought the wine cruet and the Gospel Side server brought the water cruet to the priest, together, of course, then they, respectively, brought the water and the glass dish and hand towel to the priest for the "Lavabo" ("I will wash my hands among the innocent"). My Dad told me that when he was an altar boy, it was not unknown during Prohibition in the 1920s that a priest would need two cruets of wine to get him through a Mass.

From then on, the Mass was pretty much as it is now except that there was no "Handshake of Peace" and no Communion standing in line for "in the hand" reception. All the churches had altar rails and people would process down the center aisle and kneel at the rail as the previous person left it to return to their pew. The celebrant was accompanied by the Gospel Side server, walking backward, who carred a gold paten with a handle and who placed it under the chin of the Communion recipient to catch the host or crumbs should they fall as the Priest placed it on the tongue. I never saw that happen. But occasionally, if you happened to notice that a friend was kneeling in front of you, you might accidentally nick his Adam's apple.

In those days not everybody received Communion at every Mass. The only exceptions would be Christmas, Easter or after the occasional Parish Mission. But occasionally the assistant pastor would be there to help distribute Communion, using the second server with a paten.

At our High Mass on Sundays, the assistant would show up in the back of the church to watch what he would term the "St. Anthony's Track Club" as they hightailed it out of church before the Benediction. He would regularly preach on that, but it didn't seem to do any good. One time I had to leave early to babysit as my Dad was out hunting or fishing and my Mom had to go to a later Mass at the Cathedral parish. It was mortifying to have to walk by Father. I mumbled something about "babysitting" and he never said anything. But I'm sure he never forgot it.

That's pretty much it. The High Masses on Sunday were followed by Benediction. The Low Masses were all followed by three Hail Mary's for the conversion of Russia and the Prayer to St Michael the Archangel.

Two fringe benefits of being an altar boy would be the opportunity to serve at weddings and sometimes at funerals where you would get a five dollar "honorarium" for your service. It didn't happen that often, but it was always appreciated.

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