Thursday, March 02, 2006

Acolyte school, then and now

I happened into a Catholic parish church a few weeks ago after Mass and found a small group of children, mostly girls, attending a class for acolytes, or altar servers, or whatever they call what used to be known as "altar boys."

It was barely controlled chaos. Kids crawling over the pews, talking, laughing, barely paying attention. (Remember, this was going on in the front pews, a few feet from the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament). The poor young woman teaching the class wasn't able to convey much because she was constantly interrupting herself to plead with the miscreants to stop, without more than a few seconds success each time. The miscreants were beyond help; the majority looked bored; the few serious ones looked angry and frustrated. The only topic she could cover during my 15 minutes there was how to hold the Bible so the priest could read it during Mass, including reassurances that if they held it upside down, no problem, the priest would turn it over for them.

Roaming down memory lane about 45 years, I recalled my altar boy classes at St. Mary's, a little parish in Fullerton, California. Our little bunch of third and fourth graders were taught our Latin (and the tiny bit of Greek in the Kyrie) outside at the school lunch tables on Saturday morning by the redoubtable Fr. O'Brien, straight from Dublin and strict as all get-out. Did you catch that about Latin? All the responses, including the daunting Confiteor, from memory. Third and fourth graders. And we all got it.

Needless to say, Fr. O'Brien didn't allow even the slightest irreverence while we were finally allowed inside to practice at the altar. After all, Jesus was there. And everyone knew that the sanctuary was only used for worship, and that worship was solemn and reverent.

By the lights of modern liturgists, we kids shouldn't have been able to do it. We shouldn't have had so much demanded from us. We shouldn't have wanted to do it. But we did. And I think we did because it was hard, but it was real; we were being allowed to take part in something big, something adult, something rightly awe-inspiring.

Contrasts: Being taught by a priest who demanded respect and attention, and behaved like he deserved it, vs. being taught by a harried young lay woman who begged for attention and respect and so got neither. Being taught the ancient traditions in the ancient languages, vs. being taught dumbed-down contemporary liturgy in Oprah-speak. Being allowed inside to the sacred space as a privilege, vs. using an already demeaned sanctuary as just another noisy classroom.

This parish church is one of three in a town of 70,000, and they're down to one Mass per Sunday. If they keep it up, they'll get down to zero. Soon.