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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.

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