By Ted Furlow
Back in the dark ages of the Latin Mass, I was privileged to be an altar boy. While I have very fond memories of the liturgy in those days, I have very limited enthusiasm for the priest facing the wrong way and using a language that no one understands. That said, I must confess to be a “Smells and Bell”s guy, and I do miss the theater of the pre-Vat II liturgy.
I continued to serve with delight through my college years, and I never saw anything as “high camp” as Catholic rituals… great memories, great experiences.
As an altar boy in the day, you had to learn the Latin responses, be able to fake them when necessary, and understand the ritual and movement of the altar. Serving Mass, you were either the “book” guy or the “bells” guy, and each was carefully choreographed with its own risks and challenges. If you did the book, moving it from one side of the altar to the other, your timing had to be spot on, the placement of the book specific, and you had to avoid tripping on the hem of your cassock - it was considered bad form to face plant in front of God and everyone. If you did the bells, they had to be melodically rung at the proper time, and you had to avoiding spinning the little bell clapers which killed the tone and made it sound like a bad bearing in your Dad’s ‘59 Chevy. In addition, there was the risk of bumping or kicking the bells during the Mass, and since we were on the steps of the altar, the result was a cascading, catastrophic interruption to the sacred nature of the Mass. I did them all in my career as an altar boy, Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa.
A particular challenge was the ringing the bell at the Epiclesis. For the liturgically confused, the Epiclesis is the moment when the celebrant extends his hands over the species to be consecrated and invokes the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is an important moment in the liturgy, and back in the day it was the first ringing of the bells. Many priests would belly up to the altar and devoutly, but not clearly, extend their hands. Since we were kneeling behind the celebrant, you often had to guess the right moment. If you missed ringing the bell, you got the death stare on the altar followed by a strong dressing down in the sacristy and a solid knuckle thump on your head. In retrospect it was not only an honoring of the Holy Spirit, but an alert to the faithful in the pews to pay attention. Something important was about to happen, face forward, consecration to follow.
How appropriate it is for the Holy Spirit to be the harbinger of the sacred presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The Holy Spirit is referenced numerous times on the Old and New testament as the one who proceeds or the one left behind. Generally, we no longer ring the bell at the Epiclesis, and while we regularly pray to God the Father, or Jesus Our Lord, the Holy Spirit is often overlooked. In a March 2019 National Catholic Reporter article on the Holy Spirit, Father Daniel Horan asks where the Holy Spirit factors into our lives? He questions “do we really believe in the Holy Spirit?” He reminds us that the Paraclete of Pentecost, left behind for us by Jesus, is the ongoing presence and action of the Church. It is the gift of baptism, and the reminder that God alone is the single operative within the Body of Christ. Jesus left us the Holy Spirit to be the unifier and energizer of life in his Kingdom on Earth. Fr. Horan reminds the faithful in his article, that the Church is not just up to us, and that we should seek the continuing action of God in our lives by seeking and listening to the Holy Spirit.
I no longer worry about ringing the bells, but my experiences as an altar boy gives me pause at every Mass to be attentive to the moment of Epiclesis. The Holy Spirit, the “Lord and giver of life” whom we “adore and glorify,” who has spoken in our lives through the prophets and continues to do so today.
Ted Furlow is a retired former Director of Pastoral Planning for the Diocese of San Bernardino and continues in marriage preparation ministry in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.