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Mistakes of Altar Boys Again


Peregrinus Gasolinus: Wandering Notes on the Liturgy

Chapter 7

“If you write any more articles about the ceremonial of altar boys,” said the Antiquary, looking over the top of one of his old folios at the Liturgiologist, who was busy with his Corona[1] in a corner of the study, “some of the clergy may think that this book is merely a sort of glorified Servers’ Handbook.”


“Rather like the bishop who said he always destroyed anonymous letters without opening them,” laughed the Liturgiologist, abandoning his work to stand at the window and gaze out at the torrential downpour which confined the Tin Lizzie to its tin garage, and kept the two friends indoors when they would vastly have preferred to have been on the road.

“Well,” continued the Antiquary, quite undisturbed by the younger priest’s literalness, “they used to be in minor orders.”[2]


“So did janitors,” barked the Liturgiologist, “tho' nowadays they seem to be not only in majors, but some of them are perilously near usurping papal prerogatives![3] But, seriously, the kids are not only useful, and sometimes (tho rarely) ornamental, but their work is important, for they make or mar the solemnity of ceremonies even more easily than a careless or, ill-trained priest. Their work is little, but if they do that little well and reverently, they merit the title the Church gives them. ‘Ministri’—they serve—honor indeed for children in their Father’s House.”


Tu autem Domine miserere nobis,”[4] jeered the Antiquary. “Get back to your little typewriter, and write a little article for your little paper about your little boys and maybe by the time you’ve got it done the rain will be over and we can take a ride.”


Quod Deus avertat,”[5] murmured the Liturgiologist, as he sat him down once more, and for a while the click of his machine made an antiphonal response to the patter of the rain outside. And this is what he wrote:


The Caldey Benedictines[6] evidently share with their Belgian confreres a sense of the importance of the services of Altar Boys in the worship of the Church. The good Fathers of Lophem, near Bruges, publish a special paper called Enfant de Choeur[7] containing explanations and directions for ceremonies, while in a recent number of Notes for the Month the Caldey Fathers print some extracts from the Handbook of Servers by no less an authority than Msgr. Menghini,[8] Pontifical Master of Ceremonies at the Vatican. Some of these directions will undoubtedly be a surprise to many of the Clergy, but their high source makes them most worthy of note. Certainly these extracts show us how far we have departed from the Roman practice in these matters of detail. For example, it is not allowable to have more than one server or more than two altar lights at Low Mass unless the Mass is parochial, i.e., the principal Sunday Mass, or celebrating some great feast.


The server, unless performing some duty, must kneel throughout the Mass except at the Gospels. Incidentally, Msgr. Menghini points out that everyone assisting at Low Mass should remain kneeling throughout except at the Gospels. (See general rubric xvii, 2.)[9] This disposes of the common practice of the server standing at the Credo, and the general and slovenly custom of the Congregation, except those who have received Holy Communion during the Mass, rising from their knees and sitting as soon as the priest has taken the second ablution.


The server must always genuflect when passing before the altar, even if the Blessed Sacrament is not reserved, as well as when arriving and leaving.


In making responses, the server should suit his tone to that of the Celebrant and refrain from gabbling; each word should be pronounced distinctly. Boys often resort to this sort of camouflage to cover the fact that they have not learned their Latin well.


At the Confiteor the server should bow down, but not crouch or rest his hands on the altar step. If the altar has only one step (the foot-pace or predella) the server kneels on the floor through­out.


At the Gospels the server should not stand square to the altar, but facing towards the Gospel corner. The Book should be placed cornerwise, and it might not be amiss to remark in this place that the Celebrant also should stand cornerwise when reading the Gospel. At the genuflection at the end of the Last Gospel on ordinary days, some priests turn towards the center of the altar to genuflect. There is no authority for this, and it is probably a confusion with the direction to do so when the Mass is said Coram Sanctissimo.[10]


Msgr. Menghini directs that servers, before going to and when returning from the credence table, do not go to the midst and genuflect. This, of course, supposes that the rule is observed that there shall be but one server at Low Mass. The server is also reminded not to go to the midst and kneel for the Blessing. He is to stop where he is, stand up at the beginning of the Last Gospel, make the response and then go to the Epistle side. A boy serving alone will remember that his place is always opposite the Book.

Fortescue has some remarks about the very common practice of the server bringing the chalice veil over to the Gospel side after serving the ablutions and moving the book. Le Vavasseur,[11] and Martinucci, say nothing of this transference of the chalice veil from one side to the other. It is an imitation of what is done at High Mass.[12] At Low Mass there is no serious authority for it; nor has it any real object. When he covers the chalice the Celebrant can take the veil quite as easily from the right side as from the left, or even more easily. It is better that the server, when he has moved the missal, go at once to his place on the altar step.


“All very well,” said the Antiquary, looking over the Liturgiologist’s shoulder as he typed these words, “but who is to instill all these minutiae into the juvenile consciousness?”


“The Pastor, of course,” replied the Liturgiologist, taking the sheet from the machine and laying it with the rest. “For the Pastor is responsible for the proper carrying out of the ceremonial of the Church. But he may, and probably will, delegate this duty to his Assistant, or to the good Sisters who take care of the Sacristy. If he does so, it might be well if he assured himself that his delegate will not be an innovator. Pastors are usually strong on the ‘nihil innovandum’[13] and yet all sorts of strange ceremonies creep in, simply because they had them in the old home parish of the Assistant, or the Sister in charge.”


“Thus immemorial customs[14] grow up inside the space of a half dozen years!” smiled the Antiquary. Then, glancing out of the window, he gave a mild-mannered shout. “Come on, Pere, there’s enough blue sky to make a gothic chasuble according to the old Paris use.[15] ‘Imber abiit, et recessit. Surge, propera amica mea, et veni!'"[16]


“Thanks for the compliment!” growled the Liturgiologist, covering his typewriter and gathering his papers together. “As I happen to be in the state of grace, I’ll come!”



1 A typewriter brand.


2 The minor orders are: Porter, Lector, Exorcist, and Acolyte.


3 "Janitors" refers to the minor order of Porter which includes the sacristan's duties, such as cleaning the church. As for “Papal prerogatives”, this refers to the abuse of dressing-up servers like miniature cardinals, complete with skullcaps, mozettas, and even sashes, not just in red, but also white-colored cloth.


4 “But Thou, O Lord have mercy on us!”


5 “May God forbid!”


6 A monastic community located on the Welsh island of Caldey.


7 French for "Boys of the Choir", referring to the choir in the sanctuary.


8 Msgr. Giovanni-Batista Menghini, who revised and republished, Manuale Sacrarum Caeremoniarum, an important rubrical reference written by the late Msgr. Pio Martinucci (a famous papal master of ceremonies).

9 This reference is from the Ritus Servandus section of the Missale Romanum.


10 Latin for "in the presence of the Most Holy"; this refers to the special condition of when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, as well as to who. For details, see The General Principles of Ceremonies of the Roman Rite.


11 Fr. Leon-Michel Le Vavasseur (+1892), who as a deacon, was commissioned by Fr. Joseph Liebermann, founder of the Holy Ghost Fathers, to compile a rubrical that conformed strictly to Roman practices. It was published in French under the title, Manuel de Liturgie et Ceremonial selon le rit romain (Manual of the Liturgy and Ceremonies according to the Roman Rite). This work was subsequently revised and republished, first by Fr. Joseph Haegy, then Fr. Louis Stercky, both of who also belonged to the same congregation. Thus the authorship of this book's last edition (1940) is now commonly known as: LeVavasseur-Haegy-Stercky.

12 The term "High Mass" is being used here in reference to Solemn Mass.


13 Latin for change nothing.


14 That is, a custom that is 200 years or older; so considered immemorial, as no one presently living, can remember when the practiced was introduced.


15 Referring to the very ample cut of the older conical form of the chasuble, though this was not restricted to just the now-defunct Parisian Rite, but was favored also in most of Europe (particularly in England) previous to the Baroque era when the curtailed Roman, or fiddle back, style came into vogue.


16 Latin for: "The rain is over, and gone. Arise, make haste my friend, and come!"

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