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Servers vs. Altar Boys

Peregrinus Goes Abroad

Part 2: Peregrinus Goes Abroad; Chapter 24

Antiquary. “At least my old man knew the answers, and there can be no doubt that he fulfilled the Pope’s request to repeat them with the Italian pronunciation![7] And he observed the rubrics, and knelt on his little chair all through.”


“Can’t say I like the way mine served the Lavabo,” growled the Liturgiologist. “Of course I know he was right, and our kids are wrong when they fail to spread the towel on the end of the altar. But one gets so used to the wrong way of doing things, that the right and proper way seems strange.”

“This from you!” gasped the Antiquary. “Already Italy has laid its spell upon you! But I was wondering why, with half a dozen ragazzi [8] in the congregation, it was an old man who came forward to serve, and in his coat tails at that!”

“You’ll get used to that before this trip is over,” replied the Liturgiologist, with the calmness of one who had been there before. And he was right. Only twice, both times on a Sunday, did the old Priests have Altar Boys, vested, to serve their Masses, and then they both wished they hadn’t!

“I’m not sure but I prefer the reverence of these old men to the somewhat carefree ways of our own Altar-kids,” said the Antiquary, some days later, having been distracted by the peregrinations of a small Neapolitan who seemed to have a dozen things to do besides serve Mass. “Better no Server at all than an inattentive, fidgety, irreverent brat!”

“But Canon §13 [9] forbids us to say Mass sine ministro,”[10] replied the Liturgiologist. “And, as Augustine[11] remarks, ‘the obligation to have a Server at Mass is per se grevious,[12] as it is prescribed by the rubrics.'”

“Wasn’t there some Faculty held by the American Bishops permitting Mass without a Server?” asked the Antiquary.

“Yes,” answered the Liturgiologist. “But that was rescinded by the Sacred Consistorial Congregation in 1918, and saying Mass sine ministro is now an abuse, except, perhaps, in small Mission churches where a boy can’t be had, or in a convent, where a Sister answers the prayers a longe.[13] Me judice [14] it would be a good thing if we made use of some of our pious old men, who remember the responses from their own Altar Boy days. I remember seeing the late Bourke Cockran[15] serving Mass at the Jesuit Church in New York, and I was edified. But our people are apt to be a bit scandalized at seeing a man in the sanctuary without cassock and surplice.”

“Just as, I suppose, the populace here are scandalized by seeing Priests walking about without cassock!” murmured the Antiquary.

Basta! Basta!”[16] growled the Liturgiologist, finishing his coffee. “We’ll discuss that when we get back from Pompeii. I’m certainly not going to ruin a nice new merino cassock dragging it through the dust of antiquity, to say nothing of the pumice of Vesuvius!”



1 A reference to the seaside Castel dell'Ovo at Naples on the peninsula of Megaride.

2 An Italian pun-name for the sacristan.

3 A pastry bun of French origin, hence its name.

4 Italian for “breakfast”.

5 French for a “small cup of coffee”.

6 Latin for “favorable comments should be encouraged” from the juridical axiom “favores ampliandi sunt; odia restringenda” or in English “favorable comments should be encouraged, expressions of hatred should be restrained”.

7 A reference to the more Romano —“like the Romans”—pronunciation decreed by Pope St. Pius X to be used in all liturgical functions—the Server’s Mass Response Card of Romanitas Press embodies this rule.

8 Italian for “boys”.

9 This reference is from the 1917 Code of Canon Law.


10 Latin for “without a minister”.

11 Referring to Liturgical Law: A Handbook of the Roman Liturgy by Rev. P. Charles Augustine.

12 Latin for “of itself grievous”.

13 Latin for “from a distance”, that is, outside the sanctuary perimeter.

14 Latin for “in my judgement”.

15 William Bourke Cockran (1854-1923), was an Irish-American politician and a United States Representative of New York. An interesting biography about him can be read here at Wikipedia.

16 Italian for “enough”.

Across the esplanade the grim bulk of the ancient fortress of The Egg[1] broke the line of sparking blue waves. By craning one’s neck out of the hotel window one could glimpse Vesuvius smoking as vigorously as ever did Father Torculus. Incidentally the hotel’s name was Santa Lucia, and the little church around the corner from it was Santa Lucia, too.

Thither the two old priests set out, not too early, the morning after they had landed at Naples. Cassocks rolled under their arms, breviaries in pockets and celebrets handy in bill-folds, they knocked at the sacristy door and were admitted by a young Priest whose greeting could not be exceeded for cordiality.


Came then the first Latin conversation of the two travelers and that they made themselves sufficiently understood was evidenced by the fact that they were presently vesting for Mass, side by side at a long table in the middle of the large room. The vestments were brought from upright presses along the walls by the old Sacristano,[2] the young Priest meanwhile regaling himself with coffee and brioches[3] at a little standing desk in one corner.

The vestments, though neither ancient nor intrinsically valuable, were interesting both to the Liturgiologist and the Antiquary. The amice was adorned with blue ribbons, instead of tapes, and the alb was all linen save for the narrowest possible edge of some coarse lace. The cuffs were of lace, underlaid with some blue material, which also showed through bits of open-work on the shoulders, and a long blue ribbon tied it at the neck. The girdle of a yellowish linen thread, very coarse, ended in elaborate wreaths of silk, with long knotted fringes, and there was a ribbon midway of its length, evidently to tie it together with, for the Sacristano grunted a mild disapproval when the Antiquary knotted the girdle itself about his waist.

The two American Priests adjusted the stoles closely about the neck, and the Sacristano grunted again and pulled them down their back till the crossless ends were barely held by the cincture. The maniple was fastened (by the Sacristano) on the arm, just in the crook of the elbow, by ribbons, Then came the chasuble, rather large and very square. There was no cross upon the back, but simply two bands of galloon forming “the pillar,” and no decoration of any kind on the front, which was cut away hardly enough to allow the free movement of the arms.The material (which, by the way, did not match the small pieces of the set) was a brilliant and many-colored brocade, which struggled to be predominantly white.


There was a certain amount of scurrying around when the Sacristano discovered that neither of the visitors had brought birettas, but finally a rather dilapidated one was found for the Liturgiologist, and the young Priest, who had by this time completed his colazione,[4] graciously offered his own to the Antiquary. Bowing, the Sacristano indicated that the two Priests were to follow him, and they emerged through a wide doorway into the aisle of the church about midway between the main doors and the high altar.


The wall-side of the aisle was, of course, lined with altars, at one of which the Sacristano paused and clapped his hands vigorously, then waved the Liturgiologist up the steps and beckoned to the Antiquary to follow him farther. As that worthy went on he saw, out of the corner of his eye, an incredibly old man come hobbling up, a tiny reed-bottomed chair in his hand, to station himself at the foot of the altar steps and begin answering the prayers for the Liturgiologist.


A little farther on the same performance was repeated for himself, another old man taking his place at the altar steps, while Sacristano rushed off to ring a small bell outside the church door, and to return presently with cruets and a missal, which had apparently been forgotten before. Little groups of people, old men, women, young and hold, and tiny children, formed before each of the altars as the two Priests began Mass.


There were, or course, no pews in the church, but each worshiper supplied himself with a little low chair, which served also to kneel upon, or stood, respectfully, a little back of the others, and answered the prayers with the old Server. Mostly they sat throughout the Mass, except for the brief moments of the elevation.


“Why should they not?” said the Liturgiologist, afterwards as the two friends sipped coffee at a little sidewalk table, to supplement the tiny demi tasse [5] which the Sacristano had brought them in the sacristy after Mass. “What few directions the ‘Approved Authors’ give for the posture of the congregation at Mass, seem to indicate that they should kneel throughout, except during the two Gospels. But our own people are accustomed to sit, at Low Mass, from the Offertory to the Sanctus, and again from the Post Communion to the Blessing, and these Italians seem only to be carrying out the axiom ‘favores ampliandi sunt.’”[6]

“I’m not sure but what I like is a Mass Server rather than an Altar Boy,” remarked the

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