We live about four blocks from a large Catholic Church. The outside of the Church of Good Shepherd looks stunning, though the inside decorations remain only a rumor to me. Wednesday night I walked past and saw the masses on the street with the familiar ashes on their heads, the instantly recognizable mark Christians carry around on Ash Wednesday.
Lent has arrived. Today that means, well, whatever it means to lapsed Catholics everywhere. Growing up, that meant fish on Fridays and double-duty as an altar boy during the week, as the Wednesday shift followed the inevitable Sunday outing. I became an altar boy in the fifth grade. I stayed in the service much too long, into high school, well past the normal expiration date for servers. By the sad end, the white robes barely came to my knees, a comically absurd look that surely damaged the prestige of the position.
During my reign, I often had to handle all the serving duties alone, especially on those Wednesday nights in the winter. Boys who routinely skipped out on school littered the altar boy roster, so what were the odds they'd fulfill their Sunday morning and Wednesday evening obligations? At that time girls weren't allowed to be servers. Wish they'd been around during my years up on the altar. Girls are more responsible at that age. It would have been a new thing, something exciting. My appearances would have been sliced in half.
My parents, meanwhile, carried a Gehrig-like streak of consecutive Sunday appearances at the local church, which was located only a block from our house, eliminating the weather-excused absences so many others relied on. Week after week, I'd walk in and John - our kind, patient, beloved assistant - would ask me if I could serve, since the scheduled ones hadn't arrived. How do you reject a church worker, especially while your parents are standing a foot away?
During Lent Wednesdays, the routine repeated itself. Wednesday Mass flew by, as it never lasted an hour. It usually lasted about 45 minutes, sometimes not even that. Unfortunately, Wednesday nights were open gym night at the Janesville High School, the night over-the-hill has-beens and those who never were ran up and down the basketball court for a few hours. I tagged along with dad, to play or just practice, except during Lent, which landed right in the middle of basketball season. God trumped hoops. Now, more than 20 years later, I'm the middle-aged guy running up and down the court on Wednesday nights. And, god forgive me, now hoops trumps the big fella.
I often flew solo. It was better to have no second server rather than a bad one. A below-average server dragged down the whole proceedings, a teenage version of the incompetent office worker everyone covers for by working twice as hard.
Back then we had less duties than the servers of today, judging by my occasional visits to the Janesville church during trips back home. Now they have to hold up the Bible while the priest reads, something we never did. They now ring a bell while down in front of the altar, another supposedly traditional act that we managed to avoid. Do I thank Vatican II for that? I was self-conscious enough in my ill-fitting robe, never escaping the feeling that everyone was watching as I sat on the altar. I could feel my classmates's eyes on me, or at least the eyes of the ones who weren't napping. Acting like a Salvation Army volunteer would have only made things worse.
The actual Mass was always a breeze. Light the candles before service. Walk up the aisle, take our positions at the rear of the altar, standing guard like Secret Service agents (at least that's what I sometimes pretended. Like, if someone tried bum-rushing the altar, would I be charged with tackling them? Would I conk them on the head with a chalice?). Handle the water, accept the gifts - graciously. Put everything back in its place. Walk down the steps, kneel, rise and repeat during the Eucharistic Prayer. The Eucharistic Prayer. That's sometimes where trouble started.
Stifling temperatures crushed souls before they could be saved during the summer months. The environment weakened everyone, but only two or three people in the church were outfitted in suffocating robes designed to keep heat in. On a couple of occasions I had to walk out into the little sanctuary, just outside the main area of the church, as I'd feel myself growing faint. No one really cared, though surely everyone noticed. A few years after my time in the service had ended, another altar boy did pass out a handful of times, usually while kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer. And it might have been my imagination, but it seemed we often had the longest Eucharistic Prayer - Four, perhaps, though I'm probably just making that up since I know that one's rarely used - on the hottest days, as if the priest wanted the congregation to really feel the heat. The kid simply toppled over, like a mannequin falling over in a store. His dad walked up, scooped up the body and the service continued with barely a disruption.
Communion was the highlight of any Mass, an up close look at the dental work of Janesville's proud Catholics. We took our patens - that's what the gold discs are called - out of their protective coverings and stand by the priest and the other Eucharistic ministers. Mostly the patens collected dust, perhaps an occasional crumb. I have to believe the highlight for any altar boy would be rescuing a host in mid-air. In all my years I never had to do that, an unfortunate circumstance because I'd like to think that with my hands and hand-eye coordination, I could have made a spectacular grab. I see the replay in slow motion. The horrified priest watching with wide eyes. The terrified parishioner with bad hands watching in silence, wondering if dropping a host means a stay in purgatory. Then I stick the paten out while falling down, nabbing the host just inches from the carpet. Murmurs of "great catch" would ripple through the congregation. To drop it was unthinkable. It'd be an offense against god, or at least his son's representation in breaded form.
Occasionally we had to help with the incense - not a favorite - or the water the priest threw on the congregation with unusual force. People always blinked their eyes in anticipation; some cowered, helpless.
It all took about an hour and then it was back to the outside world, until the following Sunday or Wednesday.
They were good years and made me feel like a good Catholic youth, even if there were a few too many shifts and too many years of service.