Fakin’ It at the Foot of the Altar

This is a story that takes place in Monterey, California, when I was nine or ten. I had become an altar boy at the military chapel at the Presidio of Monterey.

Relax—it’s not one of those stories. In fact, in the year or so I was an altar boy at the Presidio chapel, I never once had an uncomfortable moment with any of the priests I worked with. Perhaps I was lucky, but more likely they were just a bunch of decent guys who lived what they claimed to believe. [Sadly, I have close relatives who were not so lucky. Google Pinkosh v. Diocese of Honolulu for details.]

Anyway, we altar boys were the traditional crew of young beasts and sinners that churches inevitably get stuck with. No doubt this was because we were boys. For the most part, nine- and ten-year-old boys are young heathens. We made little exploding frisbees out of coffee stirrers and threw them at each other. We told disreputable and highly inaccurate stories about what sex might be like (it being all theoretical for us at that point). We snooped around the vestry if we could do so without being caught. Pretty mild stuff, actually, but compared to serving Mass it seemed dyed black with wickedness—well, medium brown, anyway.

It being a military chapel, the priests worked in an unpredictable—for us—rotation. There were a couple of Army Chaplains, some locals, and a lot of old chaps. A really mixed bag compared to a lot of civilian parishes.

Another feature of the military chapel is that it was shared with other groups from other faiths. All Christian, as far as it went, with the possible exception of the 2:00 PM “SUN Worship” that the sign in front listed. Welll, we knew it was just an abbreviation, but we’d chuckle when imagining folks up on the roof chanting away, losing heart if a cloud should block the light.

Like I said, nine- and ten-year-old boys.

The heart of the operation was a man named John Henry. That was his name: Specialist 4 John Henry. He was the “Chaplain’s Assistant,” which meant he was essentially the go-to guy for everything that went on at that chapel. He made sure we altar boys knew when to show up and what to do when we got there. He took down the gold crucifix and removed the gold candlesticks after the Roman Catholic mass and replaced them with more a more modest plain cross and candlesticks in silver for the Protestants who were up in an hour. He even ran two enormous Christmas plays and a Passion play during my tenure there.

John Henry always warned us about the  Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. These had become optional under the changes in the Mass under Pope Paul VI, but as John Henry reminded us, “Some of the older priests still like to say them, and so you’d better learn them.” These prayers were, back in the day, quite lengthy and in Latin, and required the altar boy to resond a few times in Latin.

Fortunately, the version they were using when I was an altar boy were in English, and consisted of three statements by the priest, each having a response from the lad in question. I would like to tell you now how those went:

But I can’t. I tried Google, but all I could find was an older Latin Version, the English translation of same, and all of that on Websites about the Roman Catholic Tradition, which seems to belive the Mass was perfected about 1570 or so. There’s also a lot of stuff about home-schooling one’s children and impeaching Obama.  I am not making this up!

I can’t tell you much about the version we used, because I never bothered to memorize it. I know, three sentences. Well, it was difficult because:

  1. They were three sentences of Biblical language unlike any I spoke normally, and…
  2. I was too busy slacking off to bother sitting down for the time it would take to remember them.

Like I keep saying: nine- and ten-year-old boys.

My ne’er-do-well peers were all similarly unconcerned about learning those three responses. As far as we could tell, when John Henry said, “some of the older priests,” he meant Father Bolenciwicz, and old Polish priest who muttered the Mass with a very heavy accent.

I knew that the schedule, being somewhat unpredictable, meant that I would end up serving for Father Bolenciwicz sooner or later, so i would have to memorize those Prayers at the Foot of the Altar sooner or later.

Guess which I chose.

Finally, I made a half-assed stab at it, and to this day it is as clear in my mind as it was back then:

Priest: Something. Something. Something.

Me: Something else. Something else. Something else.

Priest: Something. Something. Something.

Me: Another something. Another something.

Priest: Yadda Yadda Yadda.

Me:  And your people shall rejoice in you!

Yes, all that time and I had only one line of three memorized. I was pathetic. But time was on my side, I felt.

But one day time ran out.

It was a afternoon Sunday mass. These were not as busy as the 9:00 AM Mass, but there were a number of people who went to that mass. The chapel tended to be about a quarter full. So I hustled up the hill from our house on Larkin Street to the chapel. I got there in plenty of time, only to find out that the Celebrant that day was—and this wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise—Father Bolenciwicz!

I was doomed. Unless I could wrack my brain and remember the first and second responses. I slipped on the old cassock and surplice, all the while thinking of two things: what were the responses, and what would happen when it became obvious that I did not know them? It would be very embarrassing.

Father Bolenciwicz came in in plenty of time, donned his vestments, mumbling the prayers that accompanied each item, and then sat down. He was quiet and did not say anything. We had a while before Mass was due to start. I went out to light the candles on the alter and by the lectern. I was a real whiz with the cable lighter/snuffer. I sometimes cringe when I see people today smushing the candles out–one should be able to snuff a candle *without touching it!*

I went back in, and then it was time to go. Father Bolenciwicz took up the chalice, topped with the cloth like a stole, the small dish, the folding envelope that held the host, all of these covered with the cloth that matched whatever color of vestment the liturgical calendar called for. I took up a small cruet of wine and one of water. We went out a side door, walked to the steps leading up to the sanctuary, and we knelt.

It was time!

And then Father Bolenciwicz mumbled—he was a mumbler—the first line of the dreaded Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. Any hope that I might get cued disappeared. So I did the same. He mumbled and I mumbled. It sounded like this:

Father B: Mumble Mumble de Mumble.

Me: Mumble Mumble Mum.

Father B: Mumble mumbledum mummus mumble.

Me: Mumble mumble mumblety bum.

Father B: Mumble mumble Mumble…

Me: And your people shall rejoice in you!

Hey, a clear strong finish. And on to the Mass, which I knew well.

After Mass, Father Bolenciwicz said, “Come here. I need to tell you something.”

I approached, my heart in my throat.

He lifted his hand and placed it on my shoulder. “You are very good altar boy. You are the only one who knows his Prayers at the Foot of the Altar.”

I never think of that incident without mixed feelings of pride and guilt. I went on to bigger and worse sins, and I no longer follow the Catholic—or even the Christian—path, but I still feel bad about faking it with Father Bolenciwicz. I am sure he went to his Master many years ago, and was rewarded as the good man he was.

As for myself, I feel that the incident may have taught me the wrong lesson.

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