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That Fainting Altar Boy

At one time or another, every boy growing up Catholic wonders if God is calling him to the religious life. I know. I once considered whether I should enter the priesthood when I was in eight grade at St. Rose of Lima elementary school on the west side of Cleveland. I got the answer through the most embarrassing incident of my life.

When the school year started, I volunteered to become an altar boy. I figured this might give me an indication if God meant for me to become a priest. I have to admit, however, that my willingness to volunteer was not entirely a saintly inclination. Altar boys who were promoted to serve wedding ceremonies also got paid for assisting at the service. So there was also a more earthly-bound rationale for committing time to go through the process of altar-boying.

Sister Helen Mary was in charge of recruiting, training, scheduling and monitoring the group of altar boys who handled masses, and other services like weddings for our parish church. She took her responsibility seriously. She interviewed each candidate to determine their worthiness; designed and delivered the training, which required memorizing Latin; utilized a system of evaluation and promotion in which a new altar boy started with early weekday masses, progressed to the Sunday service and then earned the right to assist at the sacrament of matrimony. It was not an easy progression under her watchful eye.

Once I was selected, I underwent her religious bootcamp along with the other raw recruits. She showed us the fundamentals of altar-boying: how to kneel properly; the correct way to hold our hands in prayful formation; how to ring the bells before the consecration of the sacrament (just a quarter turn to the right, followed by a quarter turn to the left, with just a brief pause in between); how to present the cruets of the water and the wine; how and where to hold the plate under the chin of a person receiving communion; where to stand, sit and move during a particular ceremony; the list went on. The key part of the training was memorizing the Latin in order to respond to the priest's prayers and admonitions during a service.

Memorizing something came easy for me, and I excelled at mastering the Latin prayers and responses. I can still recall them:

"Confiteor Deo, omnipotente, et Beate Mariae semper virgini..." (I confess to Almighty God and to blessed Mary ever-Virgin...)

To the priest's "Dominus vobiscom," (The Lord be with you.), I would respond, "Et cum spiritu tuo," (and with you also, or and with your spirit also).

Of course at the time, I did not know any of the English translation. I did not have to. I just had to memorize the Latin and be able to respond at the appropriate time. I shot to the head of the class! Sister Helen Mary considered me a prized recruit, and I was quickly assigned to sparsely attended weekday masses. Because of my ready ability to spout the right Latin at the right time, Sister Helen Mary then bypassed the test of serving the crowded Sunday mass and assigned me to serve my first wedding. Was this, I wondered, a sign that I just might be cut out to be a priest...and be financially rewarded to boot?

On the Saturday morning of the wedding, I was so nervous that I did not eat breakfast. I got to the sacristy early for the 11:00 am service, donned my vestments of black cassock and white surplice, and then noticed by assigned role for the service. For every wedding, there were four altar boys. One was the ringer, which was a sought-after responsibility since ringing the bells during the consecration of the water and the wine was actually a fun experience. Two altar boys, usually the ones with the most experience, presented the cruets of water and wine to the priest. These were the plum jobs since they required that the boys get up and move around the altar. Then there was the kneeler, usually the boy with the least experience. All the kneeler did was kneel on the marble step on the left side of the altar as a kind of visual balance to the ringer on the right side. I was the kneeler that morning.

Wedding ceremonies are long affairs when one is kneeling on a marble step and unable to get up or even move. As the service went on and as I held my prayful position, my knees got sore, my stomach started to grumble and the altar began to spin. Then the entire room started to swirl. The next thing I knew, someone was tapping my face and offering me a glass of water in the sacristy. I had fainted, apparently just as the wedding couple had just completed taking communion. I was told that I had interrupted the ceremony and caused quite a stir in the process.

After I came to, I learned that once I had keeled over, two of the other altar boys had rushed over to me. Each grabbed me under one of my arms, and with my head bobbing between my slumping shoulders, dragged me off the alter into the sacristy with the toes of my shoes bumping along the marble floor. A embarrassing image that has stayed with me to this day.

After the service, the tradition was for someone in the wedding party to come back behind the altar and present the altar boys with a sealed envelop that contained a cash gift for their service at the ceremony. The four of us were then required to take the envelop to Sister Helen Mary who would open it, take a cut for the convent, and then distribute the rest to the boys who had served the ceremony. On the short walk to the convent, I begged the other three not to tell Sister Helen Mary that I had fainted.

As soon as Sister Helen Mary opened her door, the three of them rushed to expose my collapse. "Ray fainted," they all said, as if they were a Greek chorus chanting a downfall of epic proportions.

"What?" she said.

"Ray fainted," one repeated. "Just keeled over," said another. "Went down like a tree," a third told her. They seemed to be competing with one another to describer my swoon.

"Oh no. What a terrible thing to happen to that poor couple," Sister Helen Mary said. She did not ask how I was. She simply glared at me through her metal-rimmed glasses. Then she opened the envelop, took out some amount for the convent and divvied the rest among the other three altar boys. She then turned and closed the door. I never again served another wedding or mass at St. Rose of Lima church.

But what about my calling? I came to assume that perhaps this was actually a sign, that I was not really cut out to be a priest, which proved to be true.

I have sometimes wondered over the ensuing years what became of that wedding couple. I hope that they have had a long and happy marriage.

And I wonder what they came to think of that fainting altar boy who passed out during their marriage ceremony. In one imaginary dialogue, I hear the bride say, "That fainting altar boy ruined my wedding day." And the groom adds, "What a shame that that fainting altar boy had to mar our ceremony."

But then I consider another imaginary possibility. One that makes me feel better. I hear the bride say, "I hope that fainting altar boy is alright." And the groom adds, "I hope things turned out well for that fainting altar boy."

I reach out over time and space and answer them, "He is. They did."

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1 Comment

Feb 06, 2021

Likely they are reminded of what a great story they can tell all their friends about that fainting altar boy from their wedding. Great story Ray.

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