I was recently asked by Father Gareth to share some of my faith story with our young adult group who meet at St. Mungo’s every Wednesday night. One of the things I was recalling was my experience of being an altar server when the Mass was in Latin and the server had a few more things to do than servers nowadays. I started on the altar when I was 5. I don’t remember everything about it, but I remember some things. We had to learn to recite the Mass in Latin of course, and answer all the responses for the priest. We wouldn’t have had a clue as to what we were saying, except that he altar servers’ cards (and also the people’s missals for those who had them) had the pages divided into two columns, with the Latin down the left-hand side, and the English translation down the right-hand side. It was a language of mystery, beautifully sounding off the tongue. There were lots of moves to learn, like transferring the missal from one side of the altar to the other, or more properly from the ‘epistle’ side to the ‘gospel’ side. At Holy Communion we had to walk with the priest along the line of Communicants kneeling at the altar rails, holding the Communion plate beneath their chin in case a Sacred Host should fall.
Some things are not so different from now. For example, pouring water over the presider’s hands at the Offertory, after the bread and wine have been offered. There were three priests in our parish of St. Simon’s in Partick, but I remember in particular the parish priest who, when I would be pouring the water over his fingers, which were held in a very precise and particular way, would raise his hands very suddenly and jerkily when I had poured enough water. The first time he did this, when I was new to it, the water cruet flew into the air and smashed on the floor. After that I was always ready for him. The ringing of the bells at strategic moments is much the same, but perhaps there were more bells back then.
As well as the Sunday Masses, I would often serve the early morning Weekday Masses before going to school. On these occasions I would often spend the night at my grannies who lived right across from the church. If we served at weddings and were given something by the couple, we would hand it in and it would be pooled together for the annual altar servers’ outing to the circus and carnival at the Kelvin Hall after Christmas. If we served at funerals we went to the cemetery with the priest to hold the book and the holy water. If it was a weekday funeral we had no problem getting let out of class at school to serve. We would also serve at Devotions and Benediction, usually on a Wednesday night. If the young curate was the celebrant, and there was a midweek match at Celtic Park, he would hustle us into the car after the service and get us into the second half for free. Of course, he wouldn’t be able to do that now, but back then it was just magic. On a Friday night we would serve at the Stations of the Cross, processing around the 14 stations with the priest, bearing cross and candles. This was just the rhythm of life for a young Catholic boy, it was the very air that we breathed, and I loved it.
With the Feast of All saints coming up I also remember that, on Holydays of Obligation, we would be let out of class early before the other pupils in school, so as to practice serving for the Holyday Mass, to which the school would be brought; and of course, on the Feast of All Souls, we would have to serve three Masses for the same priest, one after the other, because the priest had the privilege of offering three Masses on that day. The priest still has that privilege today, but whereas now it’s not often followed, back then it was the norm and, if you weren’t careful, you might get “caught” by another priest before you left the church and be asked to serve his three Masses as well. Much as I love the Mass, six in a row was a bit much. In case you don’t know the rule, priests are generally not supposed to offer more than one Mass on a weekday and two Masses on a Sunday, with there being the possibility of offering a second on weekdays and a third on Sundays under certain conditions, such as the shortage of priests.
An Altar Server’s Prayer:
Oh Jesus, my King and Lord, by the grace of the heavenly Father and the power of the Holy Spirit, guide me in all righteousness as I serve You today at the Altar, so I may be always worthy of Your presence. If I happen to make an error, may it be a lesson, so my service will be perfect tomorrow.
Jesus, I love you with all my heart. Amen.