Break out the bells for Easter SundayI learned every word of Latin I know in the basement of a modest house on the banks of the Missouri River next to the Highway 16 bridge. That’s where the Rev. T.J. McPhillips used to gather grade-school guys and turn them into altar boys.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
I learned every word of Latin I know in the basement of a modest house on the banks of the Missouri River next to the Highway 16 bridge.
That’s where the Rev. T.J. McPhillips used to gather grade-school guys and turn them into altar boys. In those days, girls didn’t have a chance to be altar boys, which is what everyone called us back in the 1950s. Father Mac sometimes called us servers, which has a sort of neutral ring to it, I suppose. Everyone else, including me and my classmates, used the term altar boys.
In those days before Vatican II, the Catholic Mass was said in Latin. The priest had his back to the congregation, lay ministers didn’t exist and nobody, but nobody, touched the host except the priest in charge. It was a time of high ceremony on holy days such as Christmas and Easter Sunday, and the kids serving the Mass were expected to be able to recite the proper Latin phrases perfectly, in cadence and pronunciation.
I confess that I didn’t for one minute understand most of the phrases we learned in Latin. Father Mac never asked us to understand it. He just expected us to learn it, remember it and repeat it when the right time came during the Mass.
I remember the first Saturday afternoon my group started working on the responses for the Mass. It was as confusing a thing as I’d ever done in my life. We had classes Saturday after Saturday, and for a while, I despaired of ever learning my part.
About the only thing that compares with that experience for being absolutely lost, befuddled and panicked was registering for freshman courses at Creighton University. In those old days, we used IBM cards to register. Each section of a course had a certain number of cards. Once the cards were gone, the section was closed. If your name started with, oh, say, “W,’’ you spent several hours running around the gymnasium, making a schedule, finding a section closed, revising the schedule, finding another section closed, and so on. By the time I staggered from the gym late in the afternoon of registration with a scratched-up course plan and a blue-and-white beanie, I was ready to drop out of college and go home.
That’s how I felt as a kid when I started on the Latin. Perhaps it would have gone easier if I’d known what we were saying. That didn’t seem to be an option, and I wouldn’t in a million years have suggested it. Instead, I struggled, sounding out a phrase at a time, being corrected on the pronunciation and repeating it half a dozen times until Father Mac nodded — not pleased, necessarily, maybe not even satisfied, but at least convinced he’d gotten all he could out of me on that particular response.
As he worked with individuals, the rest of us would silently mouth the sentences we’d just learned, worried that we’d forget an accent syllable or a long “E’’ or something. We vaguely understood the gravity of being a Mass server, and we certainly didn’t want to be the first kid in the history of Catholicism in Chamberlain to mess it up.
As time went by, we became more comfortable with the Latin, and we became familiar with the duties of the Mass server. As more time went by, we became more than a bit competitive over the various tasks of a server, rushing to beat the other kid to the table to grab the wine and water. It was cool to be the one carrying those things up to Father Mac at the altar.
The best job in the world came on Easter Sunday. That was when Father Mac broke out the industrial-strength bells. Daily masses, we used a single bell to mark certain actions. Good Fridays, a wood block sounded, dull and empty. Easter Sundays, we got to swing a group of four or five bells. The sound filled the church and its echo came back from the highest reaches of the choir loft.
As long as I live, I’ll remember those bells on Easter Sunday.