Yesterday, while lost in the drudgery of work, I started to make free associations in my mind. These associations set my flux capacitor in motion, and allowed me to traverse to my distant past. Such flights of nostalgia are a regular occurrence for me when I need to escape the current landscape and its inhabitants.
Where did this journey take me?
It brought me to the wilds of my youth in Charlestown, MA, circa 1983. I was a third grader at St. Francis de Sales Parochial School, and I had just affirmed my “Catholic Card Carrying Status” a year prior by becoming a novitiate in the sacraments of Penance and First Holy Communion.
These developments were significant, because it allowed for me to participate in the fellowship of Altar Servers.
I was very fortunate in my experience of being raised Catholic. I can thankfully say I was not involved in the surrounding controversy that overshadowed the Archdiocese of Boston, or the entirety of the Roman Catholic Church in those days. To my knowledge, none of those atrocities occurred in my parish over those years in which I or my contemporaries participated.
We were allowed to explore the tenants of our imaginations as directed by learning within the framework of a parochial education and the insularity of a community that had suffered significant economic (the closing of the Charlestown Navy Yard in 1974) and educational (Boston Busing Desegregation) changes in the decade prior to this period. We were children of a generation that followed in the footsteps of our parents, taking the long walk to the top of Bunker Hill to attend St. Francis de Sales. We learned about God and life.
My trip down memory lane was entirely apropos, as it focused on the importance of Holy Week. Holy Week, is significant in the Catholic Church because it marks the culmination of the Lenten Season, which is typically a time spent in prayer and introspection, in which we choose to make a small behavioral sacrifice to symbolically honor the sacrifices Jesus had reportedly made in the period prior to his death.
My inner clock must be finely attuned to the past as all memory and subliminal forces converged to help me to remember these things during the current Holy Week of this Liturgical Year.
I recall with fond feelings all the wonderful things that would transpire during this most holy of weeks. Being an altar boy gave me a bird’s-eye view of the rites and pageantry of the celebrations that took place from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday. Our parish Pastor, Fr. Daniel J. Mahoney, was the Master of Ceremony, and he deftly brought the production to the standard of an upper echelon Broadway show. Albeit, with more precision and a lot more solemnity.
The first year as an altar boy was mostly a year of passivity. You learned the ropes and patiently waited in the wings for the older altar boys to hand down the duties as they advanced. When I started altar boys in 1983 we had upwards of 225 altar boys on the roster. Each boy was assigned a numerical position on the list. It denoted hierarchy and respect. If someone was above you on the list, you were compelled to follow their leadership.
As beginners on our altar boy journey, we quickly learned of the advantages of membership. The vast undertaking that we came to know as Holy Week, stole us away from classes and our school responsibilities. It placed us in the upper church and downstairs chapel for mass and processional practice. We would enter the darkened church in those early AM mornings with sparse rays of light shining through the stained glass windows and the singular flame of the “God” candle sitting atop the altar in a red receptacle. The “God” candle is the indicator that God himself is present in the church, and it must never go out. Ever!
We would trudge through the dimly lit church, a legion of lads, with just barely enough space for a yawn between us and the people in front of us. We’d be paired up, reminded to fold our hands appropriately in the praying position, and to above all else, remember our place in the queue. We would practice the procession out of the sacristy, onto the altar, down the side aisles of the church, up the middle aisle, and finally with uniform precision split off and genuflect before entering into the appropriate benches. We were then tasked with uplifting our thoughts and voices in prayer in order to lead by example, or more accurately to inspire the parishioners to attempt their hands at gaining God’s Grace.
My best friend at the time was Tommy Macneil, he and I were a pair of gigglers. We laughed at almost anything that happened. We pretended that the rice bowls that were relegated for money donations at the back of the church, were puke buckets. Naturally, we would exaggerate our motions and make grand gestures of faux sickness as we passed by. We also made fun of others in our class, in other classes, as well as the stable of aging priests. Tommy and I had become fast friends during out time together in grades 1-3, but the new adventures at church further cemented our friendship. It allowed for us to share new experiences and fashion the few blocks between our apartment homes on North Mead and Belmont Streets as a universe of which we believed ourselves masters. I’m quite certain that there was a song making the rounds back then, sung by classmates. It went along to the G.I. Joe cartoon theme song, and it also involved our friend Jeff McCabe. It went something like:
G.I. Jeff, Chris, and Tommy, fighting to save the day!
Those were the “Stand By Me” days, and being altar boys, we got to see plenty of dead bodies at funerals. As for that, I digress. My main aim here is to talk about the period of time that celebrates the triumph of Jesus over death, Holy Week.
So, our Padawan Altar Boy training began in earnest on Holy Week, with a sharp focus on the series opener, Holy Thursday Mass.
Fr. Mahoney embraced the baseball metaphor in likening our five masses in four days to a World Series of sorts. This metaphor was wholly embraced by the collective, it was easy to grasp, most if not all of us were in little league, and were ardent fans of George Brett, Wade Boggs, and Jim Rice. Fr. Mahoney would even walk along the periphery of the church pews with a clipboard in hand with all of his signals and master plans. We never saw what was on it, but now when I think of it, I like to think it was blank, and that Fr. Mahoney just kept all the information in his head, using the clipboard as a prop for effect. On time in a Fitbit anger he smashed the clip board into half a dozen pieces. Lifelong friend Joseph Walter Krol was near enough to pick up the pieces and hand them back to Fr. Mahoney.
We practiced, and practiced, and practiced, until we had it down. We were as precise as the Drum Corp of Majestic Knights marching through the streets of Charlestown in the Bunker Hill Day Parade.
All we had to do was show up to church, in our black cassock, and white surplice, ready for the show.
Such a time…such a life… we held little or no responsibility, and the world seemed an ordered place that was overseen by an omnipotent being, whom we were readily appeasing with our preparation, prayers, and actions. The celebration of the holiest week of the liturgical year became an event that was looked forward to annually for me from 1983-1988.
While sitting at my desk in work yesterday, this mountain of memory washed over me. I was electric, paralyzed. I immediately called the parish rectory at St. Francis, and inquired if there was a Holy Thursday Celebration scheduled for the evening? To my delight an answer came, “Yes, starts at 7pm.”
I texted my wife to beg her to take on all of the night-time responsibilities of my house: putting the kids to bed, walking dogs, etc.
I explained. She agreed. I soon found myself traveling to Charlestown on the 93 Bus. It became another time machine for me, as many things remained the same, but a lot had changed. I was in the present, in the past, and in the future all at once.
I rolled off the bus at the corner of Pearl Street and Bunker Hill Street. It wanted to walk to St. Francis by going up Bunker Hill Street, as my parents had done, as their parents had done, as I had done all those years ago. The streets seemed more narrow, the houses smaller. The audacity of my youth allowed for the space of Charlestown to measure a world. Living outside of Charlestown for a number of years, humbled my perspective, and afforded me a deeper appreciation for just how precious the confined space of the one square mile truly was.
I continued on up the hill, sidewalk panel after sidewalk panel. It started to mist, and then rain. I was coming home to a flood of emotions, and the sky shed tears for my boldness. I approached the top of Bunker Hill Street and held St. Francis in my view, as if it were the first and the last time I would ever see it.
I had to experience it, and know it was real, as if that action would constitute a line of connection to all of the shadows of the past, that quite frankly to my recent mind of interminable doubt seemed an illusion.
Did all of that really happen?
I crossed the street, and ascended the stairs to look inside the well-lit church. I felt a tug of a spirit, and noticed movement in my periphery. A hatted figure strolled by and took notice of me, he wasn’t a ghost, and neither was I…
My lifelong friend, Dan Marcella, as chance would have it, was walking by the very spot I had just been standing on prior to crossing the street.
I went back across the street and we shook hands and embraced. Dan, a well-timed messenger sent to validate the life I left behind, a life I treasured for its foundational importance to me.
Dan and I parted with a promise to get together at a later time to swap storied memories of mischief and meaning from our formative years. After all, a rambling stone gathers no moss.
I returned to the entrance of the church and then the inner foyer:
Then I used the holy water in the wall dishes to bless myself, and proceeded through the swiveled doors. The sound of which is so unique to me, that I would be able to identify it blindfolded.
Before me, rolling out from back to front, was a familiar sight.
Despite a few superficial changes, it seemed as if time stood still. I recognized the space, and at once understood the importance of having such a space.
I started to see other parishioners trickle into the church pews. Some I didn’t know, many I did. Community giants of my youth appeared loyally in the benches familiar to them. Looking perhaps a bit more frail, and with a little more white on top. I could see my future in their forms.
I took great solace in their participation. It was active, yet of a comfortable grace that belied any doubts. Actually, no doubts. Just a fierce love of the experience.
Prior to the service, Joan Rae passed by my pew and gave me a wonderful welcoming smile and hug. She is one of the church giants, always a fixture in the community and serving for years as the parish liaison and primary assistant to Fr. Mahoney.
It was exactly what I had been looking to find. A bridge between the nostalgia of youthful experience and acceptance of the adult reality that weighs heavily on youthful imagination.
The grace of it seemed certain to me. I felt changed, but unchanged. The world can do with me what it will, but when in Rome…
The familiarity of the mass was reassuring. Most of the rites were the same. I remembered all the readings.
An added bonus, Fr. Mahoney was still there.
A miracle of age and faith. Probably, the greatest Giant of my youth, outside of my Parents and Uncles. He was still presiding over Holy Week. I got there early enough to watch him give guidance to the current batch of altar servers, not quite 225 strong, but a modest retinue wholly devoted to insuring that the services came off well.
I didn’t spy a clipboard, but I imagined one to be there.
The mass went well, they hit all the points.
Two points of particular note:
1. During the Eucharistic prayer there are intervals when the main celebrant offers the gifts up to God for consecration. During these intervals, outside of Holy Week, a tree of handbells are rung to indicate the gesture and the transubstantiation of the gifts of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. On Holy Thursday, this ringing of bells does not happen, but is marked in substitution by the clapping of two wooden boards (imagine two cribbage boards laid out together and then a hinge affixed to them so they could loudly clap together). In respect to being a man-child, I recalled all those years ago, in 1983, when Tommy Macneil and I kneeled side by side in our respective pews and this event was fresh to us. Naturally, we giggled, and not the kind of giggle that leaves shortly after it begins, but rather the kind of giggle that turns into a loop of giggles during what can seriously be argued the most important part of the mass. Well, I would be remiss in not telling you the reason behind our giggles. What Tommy and I would do, prior to the loud board clap, we would suppose the bare ass of any of our friends or perhaps the bare ass of Fr. Coakley or Fr. Duffy being caught in between the clapping pieces of wood and their subsequent reactions. It was too much to handle for 9-year-old boys. And Tommy, if you’re reading this, it was too much for a 44-year-old man child last night. I giggled for both of us, you were there in spirit, Brother.
2. At the culmination of the Holy Thursday service, the transubstantiated host is taken from the main altar, and placed in a satellite altar, for a period of adoration. This occurred last night with the main celebrant bringing the chalice containing the transubstantiated host from one altar to the other, while walking under a special awning, carried by four parishioners. This abbreviated action struck me as bittersweet, as it was in the past the main feature of the night (to my mind) as all 250 altar boys moved in procession around all the aisles of the church do all parishioners would be able to share proximity to the body of Christ. When the main celebrant grabs the chalice containing the transubstantiated Christ, he does so with the aid of a garment that when worn gives the priest the appearance of a bird of prey with a substantial wingspan. Which he securely wraps around the chalice for safe transportation.
Last night I made a pilgrimage to a fixed point in time. Along with the ghosts of my past, a giant of a man, and the embrace of a community, I discovered that they had not forgotten their prodigal son, I can now say with great faith, that what I thought was interminable doubt, ended up being a heart that needed to remember that you can always find a sacred space to return home to.