It was the summer of ’56 and I was learning how to be an altar boy – it was a time when girls were still consigned to the pews. The Latin was hard but Father Shine, a newly minted Irish priest from the Auld Sod, was patient and kind. A group of us met with him on Saturday mornings as he drilled us in the Latin verse of the Mass and walked us through the motions of the liturgy. “Stand here, move there, ring the bell now, walk slowly, don’t drop the cruets, hand me the Beretta with the tab facing, don’t trip on your cassock,” were the weekly metrics of altar boy pedagogy.
One Saturday he took us to the church and stood us around the altar. It was a massive marble form which faced the wall under the crucifix, and raised up on a three step platform. I recall that he took the altar cloth off and showed us the altar stone containing real relics of a saint. He explained the consecrated nature of the altar, and traced its roots from the moment as we were watching; back through the Old Testament to the altar that Abraham built to sacrifice his beloved son.
He reminded us that we should never forget to reverence the altar, as it is sacred space on holy ground. The altar is not just church furniture, it is blessed and consecrated by the Bishop with holy oils, it is one of the focus points in the Mass. As the altar of God it is the Table of the Lord upon which the priest celebrates the Mass, and consecrates the Eucharist to become the food for our journey.
It was heady stuff for a ten year old.
I began serving Mass that fall and continued to do so through high school, college, and into my adulthood. There is a present memory of standing close to the altar and watching the priest breathe the words of consecration into the host and the cup. It is more visceral than theological, but standing there I would have a sense of God’s presence, and feel a tingle of transformation. I was no longer just that boy, that teenager, or that adult, as an altar server I was someone being swept into a unique participation in the mystery of the sacrifice on the altar.
Last Sunday at Mass, I noticed six Boy Scouts in full uniform kneeling in the front pew with their leader. As we left the church, I chatted them up and discovered that they are working on their Ad Altare Dei award. As a group, they had decided to attend Mass together each Sunday in solidarity with their quest. We talked about scouting, the meaning of being an Ad Altare Dei recipient, and it put a smile on my face.
It made me feel young again, and in my mind I too reflexively responded, Ad Deum qui laetificat juventum meam.
Ted Furlow is Director of Pastoral Planning in the Diocese of San Bernardino.