Altar Boyz

Enough of the “I survived a Catholic childhood” right? True enough. I’ll say no more. But after all the cynicism and all the cliches, I thought I might take a serious pass at the whole business one last time. This inspired by the current flap in the Church about the “extraordinary form” of the Mass, otherwise known as the “Latin Mass”. If you are RC and younger than 55, you may want to skip over the entire business. You may have never heard a Latin Mass. If you did, you may have had no idea what was going on since the entire performance differs quite a bit from what the people in the pews hear today when they attend Mass.

And this is not about carrying a torch for a antiquated rite that is apparently yet another flashpoint for Old Style versus Woke Catholics. I confess my sympathies for the Old Style types, in part along aesthetic grounds. I always thought that the post-Vatican II rite in English was lame, from the choice of music to the hip vestments the celebrant now wore. Maybe the older guys were sending me to Eternal Damnation every week or so in Confession, but they seemed to appreciate they had a duty to point out the proverbial slippery slope in the moral life. To the extent that I think about what we termed categories of degrees of sin, venial and mortal, I owe it to the pre-Vatican Church and its shock troops. And mostly to my apprenticeship as an altar boy. I wasn’t good enough to make the CYO football team, but on Good Friday, I kicked ass at the Superbowl of Ceremonies where we prayed for the perfidious heathens. Those were the days. Now we are the perfidious heathens.

At some parochial schools, the really big city ones, getting to be an altar boy (there were no….girls) was a stiff competition, sort of like getting into Notre Dame. There was none of that at Prisontation. There weren’t that many of us, so Fr. Whoever had to pretty much take what he could get. That included the likes of my late, lamented friend Hornet, who inevitably screwed up even the ordinary ceremonies of daily mass. Shessh, Hornet couldn’t even manage to shake a decent sound out of the consecration bells. Talk about no chops. He inevitably rolled in wearing a wrinkled cassock and surplice, and he once produced a two-toned ceremony with me vested in red and old Hornet in black. The celebrant was not amused, seeing as how there was no conceivable explanation for the happy/sad combo. Talk about getting the ray from on high. It was a good thing it was at 7 AM on a winter’s morning, because only the truly devout were there. They didn’t really care, or joined me in mute amusement. They knew we were going to catch Holy Hell afterward.

But actually, this is about the truly devout, rather than about our slaughtering lingua Latina or nearly setting ourselves on fire whenever we were in the neighborhood of good old beeswax candles, not these feeb electric things in use today. Yeah, we messed up a lot, especially when we had to switch from the Latin dative to accusative in the Confiteor. One of the poor parish priests used to wince as we interchanged the two, which must have been like playing out of tune around a musician who had perfect pitch. Beatae Mariae….beatam Mariam semper virgine (-ae, -a), right, whatever. After all, this was a commemoration of the Crucifixion, and if it was Fr. Flaherty on the Cross, well, tough incense. It’s not like we were working on Cicero. Besides, no one took as much altar wine at 7:10 AM as that guy did. But you could see why he drank.

What I really wanted to write about were two very different people I remember at early Mass. And if you think I’m exaggerating, remember, we are talking sixty years after the events. So they made some impression on altar boy Salvucci.

One of them was a physician. I do remember his name, but I’d prefer not to use it, even though he’s now long departed. He was a daily communicant, which means he attended Mass every day and received the sacrament of the Eucharist. Even in the old days, this was no small thing, especially at 7 AM. It meant you were fasting, so no Tastycake beforehand. And, it meant you were in a state of grace. This was pretty impressive to a Catholic kid hitting puberty, because I couldn’t walk down the street and stay in a state of grace, or so I thought. Like Jimmy Carter said, you sinned in your heart, frequently, which was the same as actually…..Any event, it was a pretty rigorous program even for a devout Catholic, and not too many could manage it.

The doctor’s appearance was striking. He was about 5’7″ or so. He was olive skinned and not handsome, but boyish looking, probably in his late 30s or early 40s. He inevitably wore a dark jacket, white shirt and a tie, which was the only part of him you could see him kneeling. And he was crew cut, not quite military style, but a brush cut. What I remember about him was his face. It was like something out of a baroque painting, you know. How the artists manage to create an impression of light radiating from the canvas, usually centered on the principal figure’s face. He was like that. He looked straight ahead, with his eyes slightly elevated. He wasn’t trying to look pious or anything. In fact, he looked some combination of inquisitive, surprised and interested, watching the old Tridentine rite Mass–which could be pretty mundane at that hour of the day–but into it, really. No, he wasn’t obviously talking to the Man, but he was getting charged up for the day. Some people did it on coffee and cigarettes, but this guy did it with daily Mass. I don’t think I consciously envied him, but I do remember telling his daughter, whom I slightly knew–and this was years later–that I could see him as clearly as if the whole scene had played out the day before. And that was the truth. All I can say is, if you were his patient, you were both lucky and blessed. If he took medicine as seriously as he did Catholicism–and I suspect he did, because he was active in a Catholic doctors’ group in Philly–you were in good hands. I suppose you may be rolling your eyes and thinking he was as likely to be some tortured physician working out the principle of double effect on some poor pregnant Catholic girl in a novel like “The Cardinal,” and maybe he was. But this guy just radiated serenity. Man, what a gift.

One of the perks of being an altar boy at Prisontation was you got detailed to other gigs in the immediate neighborhood. The prize assignment was a bit of work, at least for me, because it involved a week of getting myself to the Convent of the Sacred Heart at City Line and Haverford for a week at 6:30 or 7:00 AM once every couple of months. (Note: It is now a Jewish Community Center) This was not a terribly long hike. In the Spring, it was, in fact, delightful, because you got to smell the azaleas and morning glories on the way from my home. But winters–and yes, there were winters in those days, dude: I know, because I’ve gone back and checked the records–man, that was another story. Dark, cold, windy, even snowy sometimes, and getting to the Convent was no fun.

Once you were there, though, man, it was another world. The nuns were not cloistered. In fact, they ran a convent school for girls, some of whom were resident there. Talk about mixed feelings. Here you are trying to look cool for the ladies while you’re wearing a dress, which was not easy to pull off. And you couldn’t stare either, especially at communion, when you got to approach some goddess who would never look twice at you in real life. The chapel looked like something out of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with carved woodwork and a sort of medieval choir, even though I think the place was built in the 1920s. The famous Mexican author Elena Poniatowska attended school there, before my time I gather. So did a well known radio personality on the WMMR of my later days, who went by the name Shelley. Maybe some of you will remember if you wrack your brains hard enough. Anyway, she was also part of the show, so I knew her when, sort of. But back to Elena and Mexico.

In those days, I didn’t know Mexico from Margate, NJ, so I never drew any connections. But the nun who watched over our altar boyly efforts was named Mother Mejilla. Man, she was a pill. Her name aside, I now figure she was probably Mexican, maybe even a refugee from the bad old days of Calles and stuff, because she was incessantly correcting our foul ups–you know, failure to go to the right spot, being asleep at the switch for the Canon of the Mass, that sort of thing, deking the celebrant into the wrong move on the altar–with a loudly audible “Tsssssssssssssss” that sounded liked one of the pipes in the chapel had burst. She must’ve done that at least three times a day, and recently, it hit me that this is a classic Mexican gesture of disapproval. But, like, I was from South-West-near suburban Philly, so how was I supposed to know that in 1963? I now wonder if there wasn’t some kind of pipeline to Mexico with the Order on the Sacred Heart Nuns? It would’ve never occurred to me then.

But this is all prologue. What I recall most of all was an ancient nun who received communion every day, which was not so unusual for a nun, after all. I guess even Mother Mejilla did, between hisses. But this one was different. She had to have been in her eighties then, maybe even more, because even though I was a young kid, she looked genuinely old. When she knelt at the rail–and the communion rail was a beautiful, marble topped affair, if I remember correctly–that’s where the magic happened. We’d go from person to person with the celebrant intoning “Corpus Domini” and the attendants, exclusively women, all had their own style. Some lingered a moment, some arose immediately, some averted their gaze, and one or two of the students brazenly made eye contact (no, unfortunately, not Shelley). But this one nun, I never learned her name, my God, I think I actually saw someone go into ecstasy at Communion. I mean that literally. The beatific smile that transformed her face was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. Her eyes were closed and she was gone somewhere else. Even a dopey kid like me knew that. You know all that stuff you read about angels descending to the altar and the rest that the regular nuns dished out in religion class. Well, for this one, I’m pretty sure it actually happened. She just went into rapture. I could never hang around long enough to follow up, because by the time we had finished, she had gone back to her pew. Where I am certain she had her daily chat with My Lord and Saviour, for real. Man, I never got over it. It didn’t spook me or anything, but it clued me into the fact that for some believers, this was no game. I wish I could have talked to her now, but stupid me, I never even asked. No, I was too busy fending off the audible wrath of Mother Mejilla.

Mother Mejilla. The young doctor. The ancient nun. For too many Catholics of my generation, the Church was Mother Mejilla, all fussy rules and empty gestures to satisfy some pantocratic God that only a truly deranged person could worship, even then. You know, the kind who wanted to see a nuclear war break out so she could see Jesus coming on the Cloud, because it had to be the end of the World. Meanwhile, the people we should have been learning from we barely knew. Think about it. I still do. It explains a lot.

Published by RJS El Tejano

I sarcastically call myself El Tejano because I'm from Philadelphia and live in South Texas. Not a great fit, but sometimes, economists notwithstanding, you don't get to choose. My passions are jazz, Mexican history and economics. Go figure

2 thoughts on “Altar Boyz

  1. Rich, Another thoughtful piece. I lived in a parallel universe where traditions intersected with extraordinary events and individuals, many of whom impressed me the same way. As an altar boy back in the day I could relate similar experiences.

    I was imprinted from early on to respect and honor piety, humility and even faithful devotion to a church which I now find wanting in so many areas.

    You pointed to people who seemed to be transformed out of their relationship to the church/God/Jesus/daily Mass. That is one access point to transformation for sure but it is not the only one.

    I think that humility requires that we recognize transformation where we see it (as you have) but also honor the means whereby individuals come to it, be that through the church and religious experience, association with a mentor/role model, parenthood, study, AA, whatever.

    I think there is a prescriptive piece that is part of Catholicism that claims an exclusivity in creating the sort of transformation you saw that I no longer subscribe to.

    I realize your point wasn’t to exclude other possibilities but rather to point to what impressed you as a kid. I just felt like I wanted to say, yep, but it isn’t for everyone. Sorry for going down the rabbit hole but that is what came up for me after reading this one.


    1. I know, bro. There are many paths, and I don’t subscribe to extra ecclesiam nulla salus any more. Yet at some level, I accept that faith is a gift. I envy Dorothy Day, you know? She went into the good night with a minimum of existential fuss, which I admire. And she took Christ literally about stop worrying about where the means for tomorrow comes from. But then, she wasn’t much of a parent, so there are always trade offs.

      Believe it or not, and no matter what the Church says–or whether I’m there every day or not anymore–the stuff we studied did have a big impact on me. And it’s why I stopped taking parish Catholicism very seriously, especially in Philly. I can’t speak for Jesus. bit I think he probably thinks guys like Chaput are assholes. I hope you enjoyed the concert. Boy do I miss that.

      I also apologize for the initial inaccuracy in extra ecclesiam nulla salus: it hit me in the middle of the night that extra took accusative and I have better check the gender of salus. You know you’re CAtholic when this stuff wakes you up.

      Liked by 1 person

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