When I attended Our Lady of Grace Parish Grammar School in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago in the 1950's we started each and every day by attending 8:am morning mass. From the fifth grade on I was an “altar boy” and I often had the honor and the privilege of assisting the priest at morning mass in full view of my classmates. Sometimes I even had to assist at the 6:am mass and return at 8:am to attend mass again with the rest of my class. Getting up at 5:am and trudging through the snow of a Chicago winter to assist at the first morning mass must have been a character builder because most people who know me will attest to the fact that I am a real character. In those days the job of being an altar boy was quite special and it was usually offered to the boys whom the nuns and priest thought might have a priestly vocation. I actually did think about becoming a priest one time...for about ten minutes, and then I shrugged it off. Not long after the time that I became an altar boy I encountered puberty, and puberty is a powerful vocation killer.
In those days an altar boy, or “monaguillo” (mohn-ah-GHEE-yoh) as they are known in Spanish had much more to do that the altar boys or "altar girls" do now besides looking angelic. We had to act as the voice of the people and answer the prayers of the priest in Latin. I still remember much of the Latin and especially the beginning of the mass. The priest would begin by saying:
In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen. Introibo ad altare Dei.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. I will go in to the altar of God.
Then the altar boy(s) would answer:
Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.
To God Who giveth joy to my youth.
How beautiful that is! I still say that when I enter a church and walk towards the altar. It takes me back to the joys of my youth and brings peace to my heart.
To be a good altar boy you needed to be able to genuflect ramrod straight. The job demanded it and there was no getting around it. The nuns were always watching and woe to the altar boy who slumped or who didn't keep his hands with palms together and with fingers pointing directly to Heaven right over his heart. In order to genuflect properly you must look at what you are genuflecting toward, bring your the right knee all the way to the floor close to the heel of your left foot, keep your back and your neck straight, and then come back up...all in one fluid motion. If there are two of you side by side you must do it exactly together.
People don't seem to genuflect much any more. Nor do they bless themselves with holy water from the holy water font. In fact you don't often see holy water fonts any more, at least not with holy water in them. When I was a kid people even had holy water fonts in their homes (we had one) and whenever someone entered they would dip a finger in the holy water font and make the sign of the cross. In fact they used to tell jokes about Catholics entering a room and reaching automatically for the holy water or genuflecting in a movie theater before they entered the row of seats. Well, I still like to genuflect when entering the pew before the God of my joy and my youth. When leaving I usually wait, however, until most of the people have already filed out so I don't get trampled on. Besides that I am no longer ramrod straight in my execution and am a bit slow. In fact, the other day I went down on one knee like usual and then I had a hard time getting back up. This really threw me into a panic. Could I possible be getting old?
I decided that I needed to take some positive action and start working on my genuflection ability. I began practicing at home with the aid of a couple chairs going down first on one knee and then on the other. I decided that the two chair maneuver was not the answer and that what I really needed was a big stick that I could plant firmly in front of me and then if I needed help getting back up the stick would allow me to use my arms as well as my legs in a much more efficient manner than the chairs. I went to Home Depot and bought a section of banister railing that would do quite nicely. When my wife Gina saw it she asked me what it is for and in a moment of divine inspiration I told her that it is “Dickey the Stick”. Those of you who are old enough will probably remember the old Johnny Carson routine about “Dickey the Stick” and “Suzy the Rope”, the toys that never need batteries. Well, now I have one and it works very nicely. In no time at all I should be back in good altar boy form and this time I am going to stay that way. Dickey the Stick works just fine and it still doesn't need batteries. I highly recommend it!
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