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Why Altar Boys?

Peregrinus Goes Abroad

Part 1: See America First; Chapter 12


Romanitas Press preface

This installment of Peregrinus on altar servers illustrates well the reason for establishing the Archconfraternity of St. Stephen. This altar servers’ guild provides an excellent practical structure for training acolytes, while simultaneously (and more importantly) giving them a profound supernatural formation.

* * * * *

“Well,” said the Liturgiologist, “I suppose there’s no hope of our taking a trip together this summer?”


“Hardly, with the new St. Inveteratus already a hole in the ground, and the concrete mixers already pouring the foundations,” replied the Antiquary, complacently waving his hand grandly towards the busy scene across the street from the old Rectory at Centerville. “Much as I’d like to have you go with me, my duty is here.”


“What do you mean, go with you?” barked the Liturgiologist. “You went with me last summer, and my suggestion was that we go together this year. I was about to add, in my car, but fortunately you saved me the embarrassment of such a social error by declining to go at all (before you were really asked).”


“But don’t let me stop you from going, Pere,” was the conciliatory answer of the Antiquary. “Surely you can find some Priest, who drives, and who will be glad to go with you and take his turn at the wheel. There’s Fr. Maduro, for example—”


“What? Who?” shouted the Liturgiologist.


“Colorado Maduro on a trip with me! Man, man, ‘twould be the Kilkenny cats, only worse.[1] We agree on absolutely nothing. I may be a fossil, but he’s a paleolithic survival of the very worst sort—not that I want to seem uncharitable—when do you think he’ll be poking his antediluvian nose into this corner of the world?”


“In about two minutes,” grinned the Antiquary. “He’s just finishing breakfast, not being an early bird like us. And as the windows are open, I fancy he’s caught the echo of this little porch-confab of ours!”


“So much the better!” proclaimed the Liturgiologist, voce elata.[2] “It’s just as well he should know what I think of him.”


“But what he thinks of you, you’ll never know,” came a booming bass from within, and, a moment later, a tall, dark Spanish-looking priest, of excessive thinness and uncertain age, emerged from the house, smoking a very long and very black cigar. He seated himself without further recognition of the Liturgiologist, and at once opened up on the Antiquary.


“Your little scheme of starting this ancient humbug off on a trip with me has all the earmarks of a deep-laid plot to rid the diocese of both of us, and thus eliminate undesirable elements from the next concursus[3] for this parish.”


“Who’d want this parish, with nothing but a hole in the ground—?” began the Liturgiologist.


“Not I, for one,” said Fr. Maduro (His name was really Madiera, and he had been baptized Colin, his mother being Irish and his father a Basque. Born in the United States he was, a not uncommon type. His nickname was an invention of seminary days, and it so eminently fitted him that it had stuck for thirty years of priestly life distinguished, more than for anything else, by the love and consequently constant bantering of his fellow priests.) “Why, this is no kind of a parish at all, at all, with not even an Altar Boy to serve a man’s Mass when takes a long sleep.”


“If your Reverence expects an Altar Boy for a Mass at 11:30 on a Saturday morning, without previous notification, you’ll have to go elsewhere,” remarked the Antiquary, without the slightest asperity.


“And isn’t that precisely what you’re suggesting I should do?” was the dismal reply. “Go elsewhere, hither and yon, with the Liturgiologist, for a month or two. Pre-pos-ter-ous!”


“If you’d put up at our Rectory,” said the Liturgiologist, “you might have slept till noon and still had a Server. The janitor knows Latin, and if he’s not available, there’s usually some old fellow around who can answer Mass.”


“Is it not myself that knows it?” went on Fr. Maduro, without the slightest sign of a smile on his long face. “The last I had the honor of visiting your excellent Pastor, did I not sing the High Mass, with two human Woolworth Buildings[4] handing me cruets and things and me expecting every minute—”


“Of course,” interrupted the Antiquary. “That’s one of the few nice things about that Pastor. He keeps his boys ‘on the Altar’ for years and years, till they’re married, in fact, and some of them after.”


“Has he no children in his school, then?” asked Fr. Maduro.


“About five hundred, fully one half of which are males, and at least one-third of them can ‘answer Mass’ as our friend here calls it,” said the Liturgiologist. “But why, in the name of Martinucci, must a Mass Server always be a sniveling little brat with his wrists bursting out of his cassock far too short for him, a very imperfect knowledge of the responses he has to say, and a generally rowdy and unedifying appearance—”


Pere, Pere,” remonstrated the Antiquary.


“Well, maybe not so bad as that. We have some good pious kids, I’ll admit. But the older lads are really edifying, at least not distracting. Years of experience have taught them their business, they serve well, answer promptly and intelligibly, and at High Mass they put things through in a really distinguished and thoroughly correct manner which is a joy to behold.”


“After all,” remarked the Antiquary, “the Altar Boy, qua boy,[5] is a modern institution. And in quantities, almost, one might say, an American institution.”[6]


“Imported from France,” cut in the Liturgiologist.


“Like most of our ceremonial practice,” went on the Antiquary. “But even in France, the serving of Mass is not restricted to children. One sees grown men, often stepping up from the congregation, serving at Low Mass constantly, and so everywhere on the continent. For more elaborate ceremonies the younger lads are used, but the important positions in the ceremonies are usually taken by older boys who have been carefully drilled. It seems only to be here in America that a positive prejudice exists against the presence of older boys and young men in the sanctuary. Quid de casu, Pere?”[7] turning to the Liturgiologist.


“There is no case,” replied that worthy. “Nowhere in the liturgical books or Approved Authors is there any ruling about the age of those who assume the parts of Clerics in the Sacred Functions. They are supposed to know their business, to be able to make the proper responses, and, in short, to take the parts assigned by the Liturgy to Clerics. Altar Boys as such are not contemplated, they are merely permitted in the absence of Clerics. And since, under the new Code [of 1917], Clerics can only be adults of some years, already admitted to the Major Seminary in fact, the analogy seems to hold that the Church not only approves but expects the assistance of young men in her sacred ceremonies rather than immature children who can hardly be expected, save under most unusual conditions, to be able to edify the Priests and people in the performance of liturgical duties.”


“That may be all very well,” put in Fr. Maduro. “But there’s a practical difficulty. Altar Boys, almost everywhere, are trained by the Sisters who have charge of the children in our schools. Most of these good nuns are prevented by their Rule from having much to do with older lads and young men. The Clergy prefer to be relieved of the training of their Sanctuary personnel; result, the prevailing custom of using small boys, who really do remarkably well, all things considered. Why seek to change existing customs, even when unauthorized, if they work well in practice?”[8]


“You’ve sounded the battle cry,” said the Antiquary. “You might take that last phrase of yours as a text for future discussions with the Liturgiologist, as you wend your speedy way across the continent of North America.”


“Not so fast, Pere,” cried the Liturgiologist, “you take too much for granted. Nobody says we’re going to take that trip together!”


“But you will—you will,” murmured the Antiquary. And they did!



1 That is, a tenacious fighter.


2 Latin for, “in an elevated voce”.


3 A Latin term that refers to an examination prescribed by canon law between candidates aspiring to an ecclesiastical office for the care of souls, in this case, the office of pastor.


4 Referring to height of the altar servers, as the Woolworth Building in Manhattan (New York), constructed in 1913, was one of the first skyscrapers.


5 A combination of the Latin word “in the capacity of” and the English word “a boy”.


6 Whereas in England, men tend to be the norm as seen in numerous images (e.g., of Fr. Adrian Fortescue and his altar servers at St. Hugh Church) and testified by the Archconfraternity of St. Stephen’s membership which “is open to any boy or man, without limit any limit of age, who can serve Mass” (p 2 of The Altar Servers’ Handbook) as well as its history. For example, the Guild was almost extinguished during World War I, as a great many of its members (men) were killed during the conflict. Veterans from the 1950s and 60s also testified that the higher positions were typically fulfilled by men.


7 Latin and French for “what of the case, Father?”


8 Having female religious train altar servers is not an ideal practice, and this so should be left to men—clerical or well-trained laics.

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