Monday, September 23, 2019

Iuventutem Meam

A young Rad Trad up to no good
A few days ago I managed to reach thirty years of age without event. After winning two senior superlatives—most likely to be rich and most likely to be assassinated—I must say that I have not lived up to the hype.
On my birthday and the day after I had the opportunity to hear the old Roman Mass, the treasure of my passed youth and blossoming seniority. The celebrant looked resplendent in his red chasuble. He placed the chalice on the altar, opened the Missal to the Mass of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, nodded to the Crucifix, descended and began familiarly "In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen. Introibo ad altare Dei."

No perceptible response followed from the child kneeling next to him.

"Iudica me, Deus, et discerne causam mean de gente non sancta. Ab homine iniquo et doloso, erue me."

Again, nothing.

This pattern persisted, although the assembled faithful did reply to the Kyrie and some Tradistanis nervously replied to the Dominus vobiscum, which is still a reserved sin in Ireland. The child serving at the altar, no more than seven years old and probably not even that, clearly struggled in his duties. When transferring the Missal for the Gospel and the Post-Communion he could barely see over the book stand. Indeed, the combined Missal and stand were substantially larger than the adolescent's upper body. Comically, the celebrant had to bend down half way to the floor in order to fill the chalice at the Offertory and to perform the ablutions after Holy Communion. While the scene was "cute" in a Christmas card sort of way one wonders if this has the makings of a vocation.

We ought not forgot that in every rite of the Church—Byzantine, Roman, Paul VI, and the rest—the position of acolyte is an ordained order of particular service and the highest one in which a layman may substitute. In the non-Roman, medieval Latin rites the acolyte was a solitary minister—the torchbearers were distinct from the acolyte—who, following his first millennium Roman forebearers, held the paten in the humeral veil during the Canon of the Mass, a role absorbed by the subdeacon in the Curial Roman liturgy. The acolyte at the Tridentine high Mass and the server at low Mass provide actual service connected to the priest's own ministry, making his work possible. Evelyn Waugh found the low Mass mesmerizing, likening the celebrant with a lone server to a master tradesman and his apprentice. Would it not be reasonable to expect the server to be at least a potential apprentice.

When the altar cannot be served by those ordained to stand along side those in major orders, it could at least be served by those who could one day take up orders themselves. While today in most diocesan parishes altar service is something parents compel children to do as a church-y activity which the children themselves are loath to do (the female altar boys' mothers are the worst), in some parishes the altar is a sort of day care service. Children are put at the altar too young to know what they are doing, much less saying, and the declining average age of servers means that they age out of the program before they could reasonably begin to consider a sacerdotal vocation.

The most successful churches I have seen at fostering vocations always have a male sanctuary with range somewhere between pre-teen and college age servers. The older boys, becoming men, guide the younger ones, which removes pressure from the priest and avoids any bureaucratic nonsense from liturgy committees which emasculate clergy. The craft of service is passed on between boys somewhere in the same age group but in distinctly different phases of life; the result is always a memorable kind of camaraderie which benefits the servers as men regardless of which path they take.

In these formative years, when the servers are old enough to understand the significance of what they are doing but young enough to be open to the world, not yet set in their views, they can develop a passion for Divine service. They will say the prayers at the foot of the altar clearly and in a way which suggests that they know what the words mean; by contrast, a six year old still does not know he can take a breath during one of the commas in the Confiteor before Communion.

This brings up a related point overlooked by the communitarian approach to altar service, the fact that it must be done unassumingly and pleasingly to God. A six year old altar boy does poorly because he simply does not know what he is doing, and occasionally the celebrant must discharge disproportionate effort to keep the servers in line. This is not harsh criticism from an aspiring curmudgeon. I remember as an altar server around age eight we were always more interested in who was going to carry the incense boat during the procession or who got to hold up the Missal and be seen; the "best" job was ringing the bell, because no one could avoid hearing what we were doing, that it, until Fr. G shot the stink eye in our direction.

If we are to have reverence for our rites we must concern ourselves both with their performance by those who serve at the altar today, because they may well be the ones there tomorrow, too.

1 comment:

  1. 2014-2016 our chapel had one altar boy who started serving at 7 yrs old.
    His Father & Mother went over the prayers and duties of an altar boy with him through the Week.
    This young man did an outstanding job and his Father would serve by himself occasionally.
    Secondly,I grew up serving the Novus Ordo Missal in an old traditional style church with many pre-1968 ordained Priests.
    I struggled mightily carrying the large Crucifix,especially during the Holy Day processions as it was taller and heavier than myself.
    However,it made me pray for strength and composure as I was nervous and not strong.
    After each Mass,the Priest or Priests would remind me that I accomplished this stressful physically enduring task through prayer and confidence in our Lord.
    If the altar boy is slacking and/or lacking,take it up the parents or Priest.
    My time as an altar boy was one of the only good learning experiences as a Child.