Altar Boys by Octo G. Enario
After working out regularly at the gym over the years, we get to know each other’s history. A topic comes up and everyone seems to have an interesting tidbit to add. We retirees have a lot of mileage on our odometers. When the topic of altar boys came up, comments about the costumes, the early hours and memorizing that darn Latin filled the air.
My remembrances were more colorful. See the following piece I wrote at home that evening.
What does one envision when one hears the term altar boy—an angelic, freshly scrubbed face, a deeply religious individual, friendly and kind, an all-round paragon of exemplary behavior? Many people do; it is only natural. But I was an altar boy, and I know the inside poop.
Whenever you have a group of all or mostly all males thrown together with a common mission, a culture evolves with its own codes, mores and self-image…think the Marines, State Troopers, Navy Seals, super stars of college sports. These groups see themselves as special, with special rights and privileges. They look upon those they should be serving, fans, citizens, etc., as The Others, almost as antagonists. Altar boys are no different. Macho-lite might be a good adjective to describe this group of energetic, competitive and rambunctious 10- to 13-year-old males, not angelic.
Becoming an altar boy was an esteemed rite of passage at the Catholic elementary school I attended. Not all could attain this status. Only those who could surmount the entrance hurdles could make the grade. Learning the Latin responses was the toughest obstacle. Once you were in, you were required to purchase some religious regalia and to be prepared to assist the priests with saying Mass on a regular basis. The schedule was quite heavy. Usually it included daily Mass, one Sunday Mass, and occasionally weddings, funerals, and special services with elaborate processions. As the altar boys became experienced at the tasks, boredom set in. These mostly preteens then looked for something exciting during the ceremonies to keep their interest. The game was to push the envelope to the point of optimal excitement without getting caught. Success in these naughty endeavors also increased one’s esteem within the altar boy society. In effect, what was happening simultaneously on the altar was a solemn religious ritual at one level and a stealthy, sacrilegious antic at another level.
During one very special ceremony in honor of the Pope, we altar boys were in full force. We were chosen to make up a procession that was to slowly and solemnly move up and down the aisles of the packed church. The procession was led by my friend, Amicus, who was dressed as the Pope and carried a little metal globe representing the world, with a cross imbedded in it at the top. The rest of us represented different saints and biblical characters. The effect on the congregation was intense. People were really getting into the religious experience, fingering their rosary beads, rocking slightly, and tearing up. The sacred organ music intensified the atmosphere.
As Amicus walked oh so solemnly, his fingers discovered a bolt at the bottom of the little globe he carried cradled in his outstretched hands. As he fiddled with it, it began to rotate the cross (evidently attached through the center of the globe) at the top of the globe ever so slightly. As people began to notice the cross starting to turn unexpectedly, gasps and whispers of “It’s a miracle” spread through the church. Amicus picked up on this reaction. He immediately transitioned from altar boy to lead actor, and realizing he commanded a willing audience, he kept rotating the cross. Now the rocking and praying intensified, and the tears flowed. As Amicus realized the powerful effect he was having on the audience, he started imitating the Pope, bowing his head from side to side, smiling, and looking down at the congregation while continuing to turn the screw. The organist picked up on the elevation of emotion and raised the tempo and volume of the organ strains. Even the other altar boys following in procession got caught up in the scene and began acting saintlier.
As the procession ended, the emotions in the church gradually wound down. The congregation filed out slowly from the church, with renewed faith in God and their holy rituals. On the other hand, Amicus left with a smirk and much greater prestige in the hierarchy of the altar boy group. It would take a lot to ever top Amicus’s performance. His name is still legend among the boys at St. Rose of Lima church in Brooklyn.
My experiences were a little different from some of the other altar boys at St. Rose. I was a “good boy” and always towed the line; no sacrilegious acts for me. If anything unexpected came up, I would try to respond piously. One Sunday, during a formal Mass with a packed house (I mean full congregation), the traditional Mass was interrupted with a sermon from a visiting missionary. This meant that the priest saying Mass and we two altar boys would be sitting in the formal seats at the side of the altar. The missionary began speaking and was working the crowd up with his touching story about poverty in China. He was going to pass the collection plate after the talk and needed to really move the congregation. He did. All eyes were on him, and emotions were high. No one whispered or even coughed. Everyone was choked up as they shared this solemn moment.
Suddenly, a stray cat appeared walking up the central aisle. The mood gradually shifted from solemnity, to interest, and then to humor as the cat passed each pew and more and more of the congregation became aware of the situation. The missionary continued his emotional oration, unaware of the four-legged intruder. Ladies took out their handkerchiefs to stifle their laughs. The mood of the congregation then changed to apprehension. How were we ever going to get out of this?
Meanwhile up on the sidelines of the altar, the priest sitting next to me saw what was unfolding and came up with a plan of action. He whispered to me, “Bill. Get the cat.” I was taken aback. I did not know how to respond. “What does he mean, get the cat?” I thought, “After all, this is a church, and I’m in my formal altar boy costume, and the cat is on the other side of the communion rail…” Impatient with my lack of action, he told me again to get the cat. I thought, “How do I do this with appropriate solemnity and decorum? Aha!” I got up and slowly advanced toward the cat, with my hands together as if in prayer (my angelic, reverent look). The audience now had forgotten the missionary, and all eyes were on me.
I walked over to the communion rail and saw the cat just on the other side. I moved into action with a sweeping grab with my arm, and the cat eluded me. The congregation gasped. I then put my hands back together in a gesture of prayer and chased the cat around the church, making grabbing efforts whenever I got close, and resuming my prayerful attitude as I advanced. Eventually the cat ran out of the church on its own. Still in my worshipful attitude, I returned somberly to my seat, the congregation calmed down, and all went back to normal. That week the missionary was pleasantly surprised at the generosity of the congregation.
Now upon hearing the term altar boy, one might have a different take on this group of “little angels.”