One day, following Mass, a Polish man, in his fifties, shared a childhood story with me. It seems that he and his brother were serving Mass with another boy who, to their frustration, was being deliberately unruly and obstinate. The two brothers, no doubt higher in the pecking order of altar boys, made threatening gestures to the boy, at least as veiled as one can while serving Mass, but the delinquent refused to conform. So after Mass, the two boys took the one troublemaker outside of the church and gave him a fraternal correction — one brother held him down on the grass, while the other brother fed him a few lightweight jabs and right hooks.
A lady beside me who was listening looked horrified. As for myself? I rather enjoyed the story.
It is part of the life of a healthy Catholic boy. For such a one, to pray and to battle are not contradictory, but congruent. A well formed football player will spend sixty minutes inflicting physical harm on his opponent. After the game, he will then kneel down with his foe, where together they will praise Jesus for this blessed occurrence. Or better still, a young man will, in a time of obvious spiritual warfare, slip into a Catholic church and valiantly pilfer Pachamama idols from its midst, but he does so while genuflecting to Our Lord in the tabernacle. For a male, piety and combat are distinct but not separate.
I think of what Anthony Esolen writes in his exemplary book Defending Boyhood:
What attracts woman to the person of Jesus is not exactly the same as what attracts the boy. The woman wants from Jesus forgiveness and consolation. The boy wants — even if he does not know it — severity and commandments. The woman wants Jesus of infinite patience and mercy. The boy wants Jesus eager with a baptism that will set the world on fire. The woman wants peace. The boy wants war. They are both quite right to want what they want, and I do not say that the woman will never want Jesus the fighter or that the boy will never want consolation. But the woman who brings to the boy the Jesus of peace and patience and mercy brings to him, without perceiving it, a Jesus who will not throw open to him the doors of the world, and life. The boy does not want a domestic Jesus. He wants the Lord of the universe. He does not want to hold hands at the altar with a priest and an altar-girl. He wants to swing the thurible as if it were a sword” (p. 82–83).
The altar boy does swing the thurible as if it were a sword. I know because I have done this. I have also taken aside a delinquent altar boy and, not with violence, but with pointed words, set him straight. I have robed in the familiar black and white, stood with the priest, and prayed, and solemnly noted the priest adding: “Now, don’t we look like Romans going to war!” I have gone unto the altar of God, in military unison with my brethren. There we have marched with order, precision, and above all with purpose: to honor and serve the King. The traditional role of an altar boy, though perhaps a charade to the unbelieving, is the ultimate crusade.
Perhaps you have heard stories, or can even recall memories, of parishes with ten, twenty, or even fifty altar boys attired in the familiar black and white for Mass. An army of altar boys, you might say. Each with a rank and role. The young watched, learned, and dreamed of their turn to swing the thurible as if it were a weapon. The older ones served the actual Mass and, as only boys can, kept order in the ranks. All were ultimately responsible to their general, the priest. As the older boys moved away from home, the younger ones filled their roles. And the older boys? Many became priests, while others married and had children of their own, supplying a future generation of altar boys and priests. It was the ultimate farm system. It may not have always been perfect, but it was prosperous — and necessary. It was Catholicism.
What are we to say of the devastation inflicted upon one of the Catholic Church’s greatest treasures — the altar boy?
The altar boy has been abused, both in the horrific literal sense and with a slow bleeding of life and purpose. I will not speak about the physical and sexual abuse of altar boys here, or else, as Shakespeare says, “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart.” I will, rather, speak about the ordinary, if you can call such a calamity ordinary, assault on altar boys that has happened at most Catholic parishes.
What has become of the military-styled regiment of the pious altar boy? To begin, the Mass, the very act of worship and sacrifice benevolently bestowed upon the Church Militant, has been watered down to a banality of form incapable of stirring the imagination and zeal of any boy. Gone are the many genuflections, Latin responses, regimented movements, and even character- (and muscle-) building acts such as holding a weighted Book of the Gospels while pausing for Father to finish his prayer. Gone is the blessed rigidity that makes hyperactive altar boys thrive and symmetrical liturgical beauty emerge. Gone too is the humbling of the priest, the general, as a slave to the Sacrifice. It is gone in the name of progress, though progress to what I cannot say.
The new Mass, as conspired by Annibale Bugnini, was watered down, knowing that worship cannot exist in a vacuum. In the place of pious regiment, the Mass was filled with dialogue, dramatic improvised gestures; hand-holding; and feelings, nothing more than feelings. Now a boy can hardly bring the cruets to the priest without the priest saying, “Thank you!” Thank you for what? The boy does not want to be thanked for every move, as if his feelings were so fragile, or that serving the King were not sufficient incentive. “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Lk. 17:10). What is to inspire boys at the altar? I hear priests complain that many boys are dreadful at serving now. Whose fault is this? They are bored, demeaned, and apathetic. They have not the ranks of older boys to hold them in check, either.
A solution to the loss of ranks has been to heap burning coals on the dumpster fire. In many parishes, altar girls were introduced, to the sound of a death knell. Boys stopped serving, or caring to serve. Their brotherhood, to them a knighthood, has been taken away, or rather kicked mercilessly to the curb. There are not just girls, but, in some places, old women as well. My five-year-old son calls them “altar grandmas.” Altar grandmas — our new farm system for harvesting priests. Rather, it’s a self-inflicted infertile wasteland. There is no stirring battleground of piety to inspire a boy, but only feelings of apple pie and pinched cheeks. All that is missing is an apron. It produces effeminacy, in the Thomistic sense, when a male will not persevere on account of sorrow and loss of pleasure. Sorrow, indeed. In most parishes, the true altar boy, made to battle for Christ, is nowhere to be seen.
The true altar boy — the very health of the Church. The end of an altar boy’s prayer to St. Tarcisius goes as such: “Grant too that while serving You, may I follow the example of St. Tarcisius, who died protecting the Eucharist, and walk the same path that led him to Heaven.” Imagine that: an altar boy praying for the willingness to die to protect the Eucharist. To serve to the point of death, as a soldier would. Now, that is the true heart of an altar boy, and nothing else. That is the true heart that creates a holy priest, and nothing else. That is the true heart of the Church we must fight for.
I end by recalling the story shared by the Polish man after Mass, of him and his brother once correcting a wayward altar boy. What of this man? He is none other than my parish priest, a devout leader of souls.
What of his brother? He also became a priest, and by all accounts is a devoted shepherd of his flock. Do you see the connection?
And finally, what of the altar boy they corrected, as only boys can? Surely, he must be a lost soul, suffering lifelong torments from such “abuse”? Not at all. He too is a priest, a holy general leading his little soldiers to Christ.
As it once was, may it be so again. Onward, Christian soldiers.
Dan Millette is a husband and father of four. He teaches in Saskatchewan, Canada. Millette is a graduate from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Ontario and has a Master of Arts degree in theology from Holy Apostles College in Connecticut. His personal blog is www.bravestthing.com.