For Catholic parents, the next best thing to having a son ordained a priest is when he becomes an altar boy. For us, this occasion arose when our first son, Christopher, reached the age of 10 and Sister Theophane sent the good news home in a note: he would assist at Mass the following Sunday at Most Precious Blood Church in Angola.
There is a certain endearing innocence about how proud we were to provide a son, and eventually two sons, to this churchly service.
The parish school was across the street from the church, so our sons had ample weekday practice ironing out the kinks in the art of filling crystal cruets with wine and water, lighting candles, swinging incense shakers and ringing bells.
Dressed in a uniform of floor-length black cassock and short white smock, they looked like little angels. Looking back, however, little and angelic are not always the adjectives that jump to mind.
It was when we learned how excited Christopher was about ringing the bells that we feared the service might turn into a sideshow. The bells must be rung twice during the Consecration, the most sacred part of the Mass, when the priest genuflects and holds the host to heaven. The bells are meant to gently summon angels, not the Fire Department. Nor should they be rung at the wrong moment. It hardly came as a surprise to us that Christopher did both.
Another cause for apprehension had to do with the fact that the sneakers our boys wore tended to snag on the carpeting of the altar area. It is ironically tragic that our athletically gifted sons could be so clumsy up on that red carpet. I could easily imagine one of them tripping as they carried the vessel of wine and communion wafers, sending the sacraments in all directions. Or worse, tumbling down the steps during the recessional while holding the heavy gold crucifix, clobbering a little old lady in the front pew. Although, thankfully, these last two disasters never occurred, each son managed to provide us with moments not defined in the Sunday missal.
Such as Christopher’s mishap on Holy Thursday. He had the task of lighting the large candelabrum to the side of the main altar. The seven candles were arranged in stair steps, making it a challenging maneuver to light each one without having the sleeve of his surplice burst into flames.
While the congregation watched in reverent silence as Chris lit wick after wick, I was holding my breath. At last the seven little flames were twinkling and I started to relax. Alas, the silence was broken by gasps and giggles as the brilliant display was immediately extinguished. Chris had blown out the candle-lighter with too much gusto. The dimly lit evening service, which had appeared to momentarily glow in a heavenly light, was shockingly plunged back into dimness.
Not to be outdone, our younger son Christian’s altar service was even more harrowing, if possible. First of all, he did not resemble any of the other cute little acolytes. By sixth grade, he was 6 feet tall and towered over his fellow servers. In fact, he towered over Father.
This, along with his size 12 sneakers catching on the carpet, made his every move riveting. Such as the times when, with his backside to the congregation, he would pluck at a wedgie.
Whatever dismay they caused us, and despite their interesting shortcomings, we were still proud of our sons. Oh, what we wouldn’t give to relive those Sundays in the 1970s and 1980s when church-going was an unnerving experience.