Sunday, September 21, 2003

The Sacristan and the Altar Boys

His name was Stephen and he came from some mysterious section of an eastern European country. He smelled of garlic exceedingly and spoke with a kind of Bela Lugosi accent. He almost always wore a long black soutane with many food stains down the front. But most fascinating of all was his wig which was mouldy and old and seemed always to be askew and mismatching the natural hair on the back of his neck.

He was the Major domo of the altar, the sanctuary, the church and the sacristy. The linens were sparkling clean. The chalices glistened. The candles were "pruned" of wax. The choreography of assigning priests to the many side altars every half hour was his. And of course he RULED the altar boys.

He initiated us into the mysteries of lighting the thurible or tenser by swinging it in complete circles using the centrifugal force nature provided. He taught us how to ring the great bell used for the liturgical ceremonies-- a highly prized assignment for 11 year olds. He taught us how to pronounce the Latin responses, how to genuflect to the Lord in the tabernacle, how to fold our hands in the proper manner, how to handle the liturgical three pronged biretta or hat all priests used going to and from the altar. He was the Headmaster of a corps of kids who had a Marine-like pride in belonging. And he ruled by respect, fear and a touch of love.

One evening when a group of altar boys had gathered in what was called the altar boys’ sacristy, we engaged in a favorite past time. The lights were doused and we slugged whomever we wished. A kid named Hills was next to me and I delivered a beautiful right hand to his solar plexus in the classic Bob Fitzsimmons style. Hills was unprepared and he took my punch which almost killed him. He lay on the floor writing in pain, gasping for breath. With the lights now on and the kids all frightened at the sight of the pale body prostrate, Stephen arrived and demanded to know who was the assailant. I was too terrified to own up and I retreated into my cowardice. Stephen then with a real Dracula snarl announced that the boy who did this will have his right arm wither up from cancer which will drop off in three weeks. Each morning thereafter, I anxiously watched my ulna, elbow and wrist waiting for the inevitable because we all knew the power of Stephen’s curse. And after all, an eleven year near killer should pay for his misdeeds.

However, my reputation grew since at the next soiree when I began to mix it up with a bigger and stronger kid, he, having discovered his opponent to be "killer Lloyd", ran in panic from me.

When Stephen "trained" us for serving at the Holy Mass, he played the role of the priest. In so doing he amazed us. He didn’t walk. He glided. He didn’t formalize his genuflection. He seemed to pray it. Was it to impress us or did he really believe it? A rumor had it that he was an unfrocked priest from some tiny obscure rite. They rumored that he liked Girlie magazines. We didn’t know but we still revered and feared him. Some said that he "liked" boys. Once he hugged me VERY tightly and had aglazed, trancelike look in his eyes. I was neither frightened nor angry. I thought : "This guy is a kind of a nut." I just let it pass. We knew nothing of child molestation or sexual harassment. This was just Stephen.

He would take us in groups of four or five to Broadway plays--usually of a questionable nature, like The Dead End Kids. This was a bit racy in those days and afterwards Stephen would lecture us on the " social sins" and "whores". Neither of these topics could compare for interest with the fascinations of stickball or building model airplanes.

When I reached the street wise age of 14 and was graduating from Grammar school, I took my "autograph book" to Stephen to sign. This was a subtle but effective way for graduates to wring from adults some quantity of silver coins, preferably quarters. Stephen slipped a DOLLAR into my book saying: "Remember Lloydy (his name for me LloydY ) not everyone will be as good to you as is Stephen." His gestures were not unnoticed. We all knew his generosity and goodness--even, God help us, the priests. The Fathers would unhesitatingly seek his advice on rubrics, liturgy, art and theology. Everyone joked about him and his crazy wig but everyone valued him and in some strange way respected him.

How does one assess this strange and complicated man? From my vantage point of 77 years, I am most aware of the "Don’t judge" factor so strongly stressed in Scripture. Who knows how he stands before the Lord? He trained and influenced two generations of altar boys. This encompasses literally scores and scores of young men who are now senior citizens or themselves in the bosom of God. Whenever I meet old and former colleagues of the Altar boy fraternity (and they are of every level and attainment) inevitably they speak of Stephen with humor and fun but also with respect and gratitude. All of these men are men with deep feeling for the Eucharist and the Mass. This is certainly from family background, tradition, Holy Cross sisters and the like. But the icing on the cake, the formulation of external behaviour (for many of us) probably comes from Stephen. God rest you, Sacristan. May you be recognized in the Celestial sanctuary for all you have done for the dirty neck kids from the West side of Manhattan and beyond.

What does all of this say? It says that all people are broken in one way or another but brokenness does not preclude doing good for others or even being a saint. My friend Stephen to me is a beautiful example of an old Catholic principle. God DOES write straight with crooked lines.

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