We are practicing Catholics — which means that we are still working at getting it right – but we try our best. Part of that practicing is that we educated our children to be Catholic also – which meant that we expected them to participate in the Mass in some sort of fashion when they were old enough — such as being altar servers on Sundays. For those of you who are not Catholic — let me explain this position — it is a chance for young people to help the priest perform his duties during the Mass. This entails holding the prayer-book, making sure the priest has what he needs during the preparation of the Eucharist (the sharing of body of Christ) and helping clean up after the Eucharist. The altar servers wear robes and walk in with the priest at the beginning of Mass and walk out with him after Mass. They sit at the front of the congregation (usually facing the congregation) and their actions are watched by everyone — sort of like being a fish in a bowl! It used to be that only boys were allowed to be altar servers as a way to prepare them for the possibility of being a priest — but in the last approximately 20 years – girls were also allowed to be part of this great tradition.
It’s not only the children that become altar servers — but also their parents — because we watch every move our children make and try to keep them from tripping over each other, tripping the priest or forgetting what they are supposed to be doing. Sometimes this involves gestures and loud whispers from the front pew — and I was no exception. My two boys, Bob and Tim usually served together – and as many people have told me, it was much like watching an Abbott and Costello movie. The two of them never seemed to get it right — and you would think between the two of them, there would be at least one brain cell working — but that was never the case! When it was time for the opening prayer, I would have to start pointing wildly and mouthing the words “The Book — it’s time for the Book.” over and over again, until one of them caught sight of me, looked at me as if I were insane and then the light would go on and he would grab the book. These gestures went on throughout the entire Mass – no wonder my arms were tired by the time Mass was done — I had done a lot of ‘directing’ during the hour!
The boys were always on the verge of disaster and the congregation waited on the edge of their pews to see what the Gurnett boys would do to entertain them. One Christmas, Bob picked up the unblessed hosts (for those of you who are not Catholic, these are the wafers which are given to the parishioners at Communion) and started towards the altar. To this day, we are not quite sure what distracted Bob — did his blood sugar drop suddenly after having so much candy from his Christmas stocking that morning – did he forget where he was–did he forget how to walk? We are not sure — but the outcome was that Bob dropped all of the hosts on the floor. There was a great gasp from the crowd, followed by a few giggles as they watched Bob move faster than they had ever seen him move to scoop up the hosts and lay them on the altar before the priest realized what had happened. Then Bob stepped back with this silly grin of relief on his face and the crowd let out a sigh. No one was worried about germs — once they were blessed, they would be just fine!
The biggest disaster came when Tim was asked to serve for the Archbishop (the head of our churches in the area) for a TV program for people can’t make it to Mass due to being ill — named appropriately Mass for Shut-Ins. This is a great honor for an altar server — although Tim didn’t see it that way. His first chance to serve for this program went unseen because the Gulf War broke out — so he was asked to come back again– and that’s when Tim was almost condemned to Hell. He asked his sister, Becky to serve with him since another server was needed. So this meant that the two servers would be a young man who was already about 6’1″ and a young woman who was about 5’9″ — and they would be serving the Archbishop who was about 5’5″ — an odd-looking group. This would have been fine — but there came a point in the service when the Archbishop zigged and Tim (apparently forgetting where he was, much like his brother had a tendency to do) zagged – and almost knocked the Archbishop out. I’m pretty sure there are rules about taking out a leader of the church — I may only be a ‘practicing’ Catholic — but I think it’s a fair bet that you are not supposed to knock him on his butt during a Mass! Thankfully, the Archbishop was a forgiving man and understood that most teenagers don’t remember instructions from their own parents, much less from a TV producer — so Tim was not condemned to Hell or even a short time in Purgatory!
It became apparent that being an altar server taught our children many things — how to focus for an hour, how to receive forgiveness for just about anything, how to play charades with their mother during Mass – but most of all that God has a sense of humor and apparently likes a good giggle during Mass just like the rest of us!