When the Mass Changed: Memories of an Altar Server in the Sixties

The following guest post began as an email from a reader, who also happens to be a permanent deacon in a major American archdiocese. Having lived his formative years during the tumultuous time of Vatican 2 and the promulgation of the New Mass, his memories are both bittersweet and invaluable.

Over the years I’ve found it amusing, but actually delightful and optimistic to see all these young people on the web commenting on the Traditional Latin Mass, the Extraordinary Form. It’s a strange term for a 70-year-old like me. When I grew up there was no talk of form. Mass was Mass, not a form. I glanced at the table of contents of your book, thought I’d get to know you, and give you a small history of the life of an altar server in the 1960s in one particular parish in one particular city. From one who was “there” as reverence was stripped from the Mass year by year.

I remember the date of my first time serving Mass because the director of altar servers, Sister Mary Eileen, gave me a holy card and wrote the date on the back side as a memento. I attended a Catholic grade school, in the suburbs of Los Angeles, graduating eighth grade in 1964.

I was nine years old when I first served. Altar servers were supposed to be at least ten in our parish but I was anxious. I kept pestering Sister, so she challenged me. I think she hoped she’d get rid of me by convincing me I was not yet ready.

She gave me the card with the Latin responses (I wish I still had that card) and told me to learn it over the weekend. I can’t remember what day of the week she gave it to me. But I do know that it was a Monday when she stopped me on the stairs at recess and quizzed me. I passed. I had been using a St. Joseph Daily Missal since I was eight, and at that time all students started their day at the 8 o’clock Mass before classes started. So I was already familiar with the Latin responses. All I had to do was brush up. [I would continue to serve through high school, eventually going on to St. John’s Seminary College to study for the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.]

But I grew up in a unique time in church history.

I was in third grade when Pius XII died and John XXIII was elected. As soon as he announced the upcoming “Ecumenical Council” one of our parish priests came to our classroom to explain what it was. I can’t remember a thing he said, but I still have in my possession a church pamphlet talking about the upcoming council.

I became a loyal altar server following the server schedule printed in the bulletin when it was my turn. At that time two servers were scheduled for a two week shift; the first week we served the 6:30 Mass, the second week we served the 8:00 Mass. So there were four servers on the schedule every week.

When we were scheduled for Mass, both sets of servers would have to serve on Tuesday evenings at the Mother of Perpetual Help novena followed by Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. As a kid I thought it was funny being called a novena, when it went on every Tuesday. But that’s what the parish staff called it.

A funny story, but not funny at the time. I was 11 or 12 when this happened. These were the days before self-lighting charcoal. One Sunday at Forty Hours Devotion the congregation was praying the Rosary to be followed by Benediction. On this day I was the thurifer, and my job was to go to the sacristy during the last decade and light the coals and bring the thurible and incense boat to the sanctuary. It was our practice to break the coal in three or four pieces to make it easier to ignite. I held the coal with tongs as I lit it.

Somehow, unbeknownst to me, a piece of coal got into the right sleeve of my cassock. At our parish the servers with the boat and thurible would kneel behind the priest a few steps back as we sang O Salutaris. We would approach the priest and he would add incense to the thurible,  incense the monstrance, and then hand it back. We would go back to our place. We’d sing Tantum Ergo, and bring the thurible back to the priest again for a second incensing.

Well, during the start of the Tantum Ergo I felt something fall out of the right sleeve of my cassock. It was a piece of coal. I looked at my sleeve and there was a red ring surrounding a hole burning in my sleeve. I handed the thurible to the server holding the boat and walked off the altar. The pastor was kneeling in a pew in the sanctuary. He saw what was happening, grabbed my arm and whacked it putting out the fire. I was famous for a while as the altar boy who caught fire.

The servers in our parish now are directed by lay volunteers, and have no opportunity to have these adventures. And I’ll bet that most parishes now have adults that do the job that we had to do, which was to set the altar up for Mass, putting out the Missal, filling the cruets and placing them on the credence table along with a finger towel, a Lavabo bowl, and the patens that would be used for Holy Communion. You had a lot to do if you were a pre-Vatican II altar boy. (Edit: Thankfully these responsibilities are still held by the altar boys at my traditional parish-Liturgy Guy).

Sunday Masses had a different schedule, and the “big boys,” seventh and eighth graders, were routinely scheduled for those. I think we wore red cassocks on Sundays, we wore black cassocks on weekdays. One reason the older kids were scheduled for Sundays, I think, was that the Missal stand used on Sundays was a lot heavier and was unwieldy for 9- and 10-year-olds.

The Council didn’t begin to affect me until I was in seventh grade, in 1962. (Note: we kids didn’t use the term Vatican II, it was just the Ecumenical Council, or the Council. I hope I still have your attention and am not boring you. I’m having fun recalling all of these details…)

Like I said above, this was a unique time in church history, and little did we know what was coming as kids. Little things kept changing.

The first change in October 1962 was that St. Joseph was added to the Canon of the Mass (which got relegated to Eucharistic Prayer #1 and regrettably is hardly ever used). Then the second Confiteor right before Communion was eliminated. Some weeks or months later, Psalm 42 was no longer said at the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. The Last Gospel was eliminated some time during all these changes as well.

I didn’t realize what these changes would eventually mean, that little by little, the Mass was being altered, slowly, like raising the water temperature slowly in a bucket so that the frog won’t notice he’s being cooked. It happened slowly in Los Angeles, because our Ordinary was James Francis Cardinal McIntyre, and he did not want to make changes until he was forced to.

By the time I was a senior in high school, the last of the Latin was gone. I think that in my junior year the Collect, Secret, and Postcommunion were still in Latin. They were in English when I graduated. I’m not sure about the priest’s prayers. I think we still had altar cards on the altar so that the priest could say the Latin prayers.

Changes continued throughout my years at the seminary college. In the second semester of my freshman year we had services in an auditorium we called the Prayer Hall, because it had a stage for visiting speakers, but there were pews. This was because the altar was being moved out from the wall. This was in the Spring of 1969. I guess Pope Paul VI had finished his revisions, and now they were trickling slowly throughout the world. In the spring of 1971 we got our first introduction to the new Eucharistic Prayers, in Latin. ICEL hadn’t finished their translations yet.

We would wonder what was next. One of my classmates sarcastically referred to these as the “change of the month club.” I think by the time I was a junior we had the new Lectionary.

I have copies of the Missals from my childhood and from my parents, including the ones that show the changes in progress through those years. I watched them even before I knew about Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Well, I must say that writing this was a trip down Memory Lane, and it was cathartic to put it all down. Because what I’ve felt for a long time is this: I was robbed.

Reverence was removed, built-in reverence that kept the Mass the best thing this side of heaven as Fr. Faber wrote in the 1800s. There’s a bumper sticker that says the worst day fishing is better than the best day working. In my mind the worst TLM is better than the best Novus Ordo.

The journey to the diaconate was an adventure for another email.

Well, that’s the view of an old-timer who only knew the Latin Mass as a kid. I hope you found my story interesting.

Posted on March 11, 2021, in liturgy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. I grew up 10 years before you did during the Latin Mass period before the Council. I have no fond memories of that period in the Church or the Latin Mass. At 20 years old, before the Council began, I put my Catholicism aside for many years so I was not informed of the Council changes or particularly interested. After reading some of the Council documents that related to Scripture and personal conscience, I began to see that there was no need for me to remain distant from the Church.
    If the Council had not happened, I probably would have remained distant.

    • Peter, no one can deny you your personal experience, but let’s just acknowledge that the complete collapse of the faith in the west, the widespread apostasy and heterodoxy, and the collapse of belief in the Real Presence and catholic moral teaching would suggest that the liturgical revolution destroyed, rather than renew, Catholicism.

      • I wonder if the liturgical revolution was just one of many changes in the Church after the Council as opposed to causing the changes. During the 1950s, there was virtually no teaching on the place of personal conscience; therefore, there was no room for dissent from what we were taught about Catholic teaching. When I read parts of Dignitatis Humanae, I was surprised that it had much to say about the importance of our assent to what we are taught. The place and importance of Scripture in Dei Verbum were also given ample attention. The place of the laity was clarified in Lumen Gentium 12.
        I noticed that there was a more diverse Catholicism after the Council than when I was growing up. If some Catholics interpreted the Council in a way that made it more like the world, this was not the case with me. The Council allowed me to be a part of the diversity in the Church.

    • I’m right there with you. I’m not quite as old as the author of this article, but I know countless people who transitioned through that period. No one missed it. That’s not to dismiss his experience. But I’ve heard many accounts that indicated it’s not the norm. People yearn for what they don’t have. The current trend of moving towards the more traditional is seen across the board. Everything old is new again. There is always a push to do better than those before us. To be different. To distinguish ourselves. And we always look at the past through rose colored glasses.

      The next generation will probably look askew at the extraordinary form, and we will be reading commentary on the “good old days” of Vatican 2. It’s human nature.
      Only God is constant.

  2. Franklin P. Uroda

    The Sacrifice of Jesus deserves a better name than “Mass.” I know it comes from “Missa,” but why “Mass”? As far as form/minister, I love to hear the prayers in American English and it doesn’t matter to me what gender (m/f) the minister of Holy Communion is. I believe that it was out of expedience that our Church began to use Latin as it made its way out of the catacombs and into the world. Why it didn’t continue with Greek and Hebrew in the Liturgy has always puzzled me.

  3. I would direct Franklin to Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic exhortation “Sacramentum Caritatis”. I quote:

    “51. Finally, I would like to comment briefly on the observations of the Synod Fathers regarding the dismissal at the end of the eucharistic celebration. After the blessing, the deacon or the priest dismisses the people with the words: Ite, missa est. These words help us to grasp the relationship between the Mass just celebrated and the mission of Christians in the world. In antiquity, missa simply meant ‘dismissal.’ However in Christian usage it gradually took on a deeper meaning. The word ‘dismissal’ has come to imply a ‘mission.’ These few words succinctly express the missionary nature of the Church. The People of God might be helped to understand more clearly this essential dimension of the Church’s life, taking the dismissal as a starting- point.”

  4. To Franklin: The Church began as a “Roman” Catholic Church, for wherever Peter conducted the final years of his ministry as pope, so was located there the Catholic Church. Yes, there were many Particular Churches spread across the Empire in the 1st century, but the distinguishing characteristics of Catholicism are the pope’s primacy of honor and his primacy of jurisdiction over the universal Church of Jesus Christ. Sure, this is in dispute today, as it has been down the centuries, but you in your comment are going back to the catacombs. The Catholic Church is not the church of the few, or the elite, or the chosen, or a church of esoteric knowledge hidden from the many. It is the universal Church of the common man, of everyman. Thus the vulgar language (in the classical sense) became the language of the “Roman” Catholic Church. The Scriptures in the Vetus Latina and later in the Vulgate were all written in the language of the “Roman” Catholic Church.

  5. David Anthony Domet

    Vox Cantoris here. Born in 1956, I can relate to this Deacon’s memory, though I’m just behind him. In 1966, I entered Altar Boy training. The first words from Father, “Congratulations Boys! You are the first not needing to learn Latin.”

  6. I am exactly your age, and because the altar boys didn’t show up for a local Traditional Mass, I was privileged to serve Mass two weeks ago. There must be a special grace for 70-year old altar boys because my knees survived.

    I remember the day that John XXIII was elected. The principal of my huge Catholic school in Chicago, Sr. Mary Cletus, came over the loud speaker and said, “We have a new pope, children. We are sorry he isn’t another Pius…” Sorry he isn’t another Pius! She was a prophet! Oh, how sorry we have come to be.

    • Dcn. Paul Schwerdt

      P. O’Brien, I envy you, being able to serve once again at our age. I still have the Latin responses memorized; I could fit in at a moment’s notice and serve.
      As a deacon I would love the opportunity to serve at a high Mass and sing the gospel.
      God bless Sr. Mary Cletus, having the courage to say that over the loud speaker.

  7. I truly believe that the TLM is THE Mass of the future. The shakeout after this ‘covid’ lockdown, fear mongering, no mass obligation, will show what is left standing. The TLM parishes are thriving and blooming–the ones I know of have NO restrictions and no sicknesses either. They are ‘normal’ with gatherings, meetings, parish activities and so forth. I know of novus ordo parishes with severe restrictions and very limited numbers and even those limited numbers are no longer being met. The people have dropped out. The lukewarm and weak most likely will not return. It is a time of winnowing. My excellent novus ordo parish has a Sunday TLM that is, I think, now the most attended Mass of the weekend. All Masses are ad orientem. There is no funny business and the parish has grown. No mask required. Hey, we even have holy water and missalettes! No fear, no sickness: the way it should be. Many–about 9 this morning–young altar BOYS. The boys want to serve! If there were any girls, that would not be the case.

  8. Thank you Sent from my Galaxy

  9. My parish celebrates four TLM masses on Sundays, in addition to daily mass at 8AM and a full schedule of ancillary devotions throughout the month. Attendance is strong, many of the faithful being young families who dress for the occasion, which is to day no cargo shorts or yoga pants. The entire package makes ME feel like it’s 1962 again, but at least half my fellow worshippers were not yet born 60 years ago and so have no memory of the pre-Vatican II liturgy.

    Speaking of 1962, I was an altar boy back in the day. Supervising priests were strict about clean steepled hands, held at chest level and plain brown or black shoes, hair cut short. Of the things that rankle today about many NO masses I’ve been to, especially in recent years, is the half awake look on many altar servers, as well as their general sloppiness, poor posture, and high-top Nikes. Much depends on how you’re taught, I should think. There is a reverence vibe which is calming and induces the faithful to meditation and prayer.

    The absence of guitars is a bonus.

  10. One of the beauties of the Latin Mass is that it’s universal. I went on a motorcycle trip with my son in central Europe in 2018. I attended Masses given in Slovenian, Hungarian, German, and Polish. Didn’t understand more than a few words. If the Masses had been in Latin I would have been able to participate more fully and follow the scripture with my English Missal.

    Strangely enough, the lectors and extraordinary ministers wore bold print fabrics, just as I see in the US. The rest of the people in the congregations were dressed conservatively.

  11. I was told a similar story from one of the “old timers” about my own parish which is a Novus Ordo only parish now.
    He said he was a server all the way until he was drafted for Vietnam when he was 18. When he returned home and came to Mass his first Sunday back, he said, “I really believed that I had actually by mistake, gone into the wrong church some how.” I thought to myself this must be a Methodist church. But I was wrong. It was the same parish.”

  12. you seem to not understand that all children neither had the money or the catholic school close by to attend. Born on the ND fields of grain in 1931, made it impossible because of reasons stated to have a Catholic education. Our mass was in Latin, making it difficult for young people to concentrate on the meaning. The only part of Mass that was important was the mystery of the Body and Blood of lord.

  13. I was born in 1948 in India, and so grew up in the Latin tradition of the Holy Mass. I remember administering, as an Altar Server, the water (one drop) and wine (half cruet) to the priest and thereafter assisting in the washing of the priest’s fingers with water. But, after the distribution of Holy Communion there was another administration of wine and water where the priest would hold the chalice with forefingers and thumbs meeting in the middle of the chalice bowl. We would dribble the remaining half of the wine from the cruet in the first administration followed by some of the water from the first administration, over his fingers and thumbs. Some fellow altar servers from the same era don’t seem to remember this second administration of wine and water. I wonder whether a. It’s all my imagination, b. It depended on the priest, whether he chose to have a second serving of wine. The priests concerned were of the OFM Cap. order and were all Missionary Italians. Would appreciate any comments

  14. @Robert Williams There is indeed a rubric that instructs the priest to use water and wine in the ablutions after Holy Mass. The rubric is right in the Missal. The below instructs the priest right after he has consumed the Precious Blood.
    “Interim porrigit calicem ministro, qui infundit in eo parum vini, quo se purificat.”
    In the meantime he holds out the chalice to the servant, who pours in a little wine, which purifies himself. After only taking wine to purify the chalice, he next takes wine and water over his canonical fingers (forefingers and thumbs).

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