The Catholic Church Crazies Have Been Out All Week

A full moon was seen this week and there’s no doubt about it.  This week alone these stories emerged:

Bill Donahue of the Catholic League said that the Parisian Terrorists were provoked by Charlie Hebdo. And that the Muslims have a right to be angry.

Fr. George Rutler, long a champion of the Catholic right, said that Deacons shouldn’t preach.

And finally, the biggest cranky pants of all of them, Cardinal Raymond Burke, blamed the vocation shortage on altar girls–which is an old note, but he’s gotten the most attention for it.

Some thoughts on all three:

Bill Donahue’s comment is one of the most anti-Catholic comments I’ve ever witnessed. Our religion never allows violence to be an appropriate response to violence. He did point out that violence can never be appropriate, he at least leaned towards saying that retribution here was somewhat justified.  I can understand what he meant, in saying that cartoonists shouldn’t make fun of an entire religion based on a select few that do horrendous things and maybe even that profaning the Prophet Muhammad is disrespectful, at minimum . But saying that Charlie provoked people is just not compassionate in any way, as if anyone deserves death.

Fr. Rutler’s comments about diaconal preaching are some of the most clerical comments I have ever heard.

“While Church law permits deacons to preach by exception during the Liturgy, diaconal preaching is essentially non-liturgical and catechetical.  As a deacon, St. Francis would never preach in the presence of a priest.”

Glad to know that he knows the mind of Francis.  And Deacon Greg has pointed out many flaws in his misnomer of canon law.

And lastly, Cardinal Burke, blames the presence of altar girls, for the shortage of vocations, or at minimum the shortage of priests.

Here’s the pull quote to end all pull quotes:

“Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural. The girls were also very good at altar service. So many boys drifted away over time.”

Um, as a former young boy, I had plenty of female friends and we played together often and it didn’t seem unnatural at all. Then there is the incredibly stupid comment where he blames the girls for being TOO GOOD at serving at the altar. I want to say, “Maybe if the boys upped there game at serving, the girls wouldn’t show them up.”

Now look, I was an altar boy and it was in fact, a formative experience for me.  It was more like a youth ministry for boys; a society where we didn’t just serve at the altar, but we had a Saturday recreational program, an annual trip to Six Flags’ Great Adventure, full days of reflection and retreat and a bunch of other activities.  Girls would not have damaged that experience. I could see where there might be times when we would want to separate the two sexes for a variety of activities outside of the altar serving and maybe offering something that the girls might have been interested in, that perhaps the boys were not.

Kerry Weber had some good thoughts on her own experience as an Altar server in America Magazine this week as well.

I did at times feel “important” while serving on the altar. But most days I simply felt grateful to be part of something more important than myself. I was humbled every time I held the book aloft to be read, carried the unconsecrated hosts to the altar so they could be transformed, poured out the water that washed the priest’s hands, rang the bells at the consecration. I grew in my faith as I learned about and participated in the many small, sacred actions that surrounded and celebrated this banquet.

Amen, Kerry.  Altar serving needs not be restricted because of gender.  We have four acolytes at Canisius, two men and two women and they equally are wonderful and prayerful students who provide a needed service at the altar. They make me proud and are amongst my favorite students and have taught me a thing to two as well.

So, here’s my word of advice to all three of these men.  Keep talking, folks.  It’s the best thing you can do for progressive Catholics because now they’ll know that you’re nuts!

Tales from the Sacristy: Gaffs and Blunders

Altar Boys and Girls make tons of the mistakes. The secret is to not let anyone know that this happens by making your mistakes small and not so huge that the entire church ends of staring at you.

Most of the time, “mistakes” are really accidents. Like the time the processional cross slipped out of my hands in the sacristy and banged onto the sink not only eliciting a loud crash but also sliding the corpus of Jesus from an upright to sideways position! (Fortunately, we were able to slide it back to the upright position).

Or the time when Timmy Robinson’s shoe got caught in the church carpeting and he flew off of the altar down the center aisle. (Think curling rock in a surplice and cassock).

For those of us who were little when we started…I had to carry the cross which was way too heavy for me, but I did it. Only then, I wasn’t able to place it into it’s holder which was a pin raised off the ground nearly at my waist, that the hollow end of the cross would slide into. I would try and stumble backwards, losing my balance and nearly crashing into the nearby altar. Finally, Michael Margiotta came to my aid and helped me save at least some dignity.

One of the most bizarre stories…
Alphonse DiLello was one of the older Altar Boys (probably late high school) was quite confused when people started screaming at him during a Holy Thursday mass when he was lighting high candles on a side altar. People were screaming, “It’s on fire!” There were curtains next to the tabernacle and he thought that was what was burning and looking upwards he couldn’t see anything that was on fire at all.

And that is because what was on fire was him. His surplice actually caught fire while lighting candles by the tabernacle. He wacked it out with one firm blow of his left hand, luckily. He escaped with just a burned left pinky. As a sign of a good liturgist, Al, as he was known simply went into the sacristy, ran cold water on his hand, took off the burned surplice and returned with a fresh one as if nothing had even happened. This all happened during the communion procession and our pastor restored order rather quickly with a “OK, he’s fine. It’s all over now. Quiet down please.”

Lastly, two of my all time favorites was when during a funeral, Fr Dominc Russo was presiding and the pascal candle was behind him. One of the servers hit it and it tumbled right down bonking Fr. Russo in the noggin. He didn’t get burned fortunately, but hot wax was everywhere, in his hair, over his glasses, on his vestments. A mess, to be sure, but hysterical mess.

I mentioned in an earlier post about the garb that the younger altar boys had to wear. A white hooded alb with a pectoral cross hanging around the neck and a white cincture. We went out for an evening procession on the streets of Yonkers and I saw at least 5 African-American people start to run. They thought we were the Klan and we were actually all very upset about this. We were trying to be signs of Jesus in the world and we ended up being mistaken for a sign of hatred. Sad.

What crazy stories do you have about serving mass? Post them here or send the more lengthy ones to me at

Tales from the Sacristy: LOL

A visiting priest once forewarned a group of us altar boys:

“If I see any of you laughing on the altar, I will throw you off of the altar and you will not be allowed to serve again!”

Yikes! The strange thing was that it never occurred to me that there was anything funny about serving mass. Others would say that because mass could sometimes be a drag, that they’d have staring contests across the altar or make funny faces at one another. Perhaps that’s what the old man was referring to.

But just putting that thought in our heads was enough. And then the giggles ensued in the sacristy amongst some of us. Contagious giggles…that nervous laughter that nobody really wants to participate in, but does anyway.

We were laughing before we even rang the bell for mass. A weekday mass, which meant few people, usually a bunch of Italian old ladies. But the old priest wouldn’t stop.

“There is nothing funny about this. Look! You are already laughing before you even get out there.”

Ramon Guzman and I were convinced that this priest meant business, so we confidently made a pact not to stare at one another or make faces or in any way provoke laughter out of one another. We were going to be good altar boys.

That was until we reached the foot of the altar.

As any good altar boy knows, you bow at the altar with the priest. So here we are two altar boys and the old priest and we reach the altar and begin the profound bow to start mass.

And Father let out one of the loudest farts as he bent forward. And all hell (perhaps literally) broke out. I laughed, Ramon laughed and the old man might have actually allowed himself a snicker as well.

You can’t make this stuff up. Can you?

Altar Boy Humor: Tales from the Sacristy #1

So I’ll share some of the more funny experiences I’ve had as an altar server. Some happened at mass itself and others were in preparation for mass and others even farther removed from the experience on the altar altogether.

Here’s my first one and it comes from the first mass I ever served and the second comes from the first mass I ever served with a friend.

So one of the duties of the altar server is to light candles. So one needs to be comfortable with fire and lighting matches and generally speaking one needs to be comfortable enough with fire so as not to burn the church or themselves down.

So at my first mass, Henry (Enrico) Di Lello and Dominic Finouli were the two “Senior” altar boys assigned to train me. They were allowed to wear cassock and surplice but I, a Junior, was only to wear a white alb with a hood and a cross around my neck and a white rope tied around the waste to cinch the alb up a bit.

I always thought it looked a little too Ku Klux Klan (more on that in a later post).

Regardless, Henry lit a match for me and lit the taper on the long-handled “candle reach”–so one could light those really high candles–and proceeded to push me out the door to light the altar and tabernacle candles.

It’s harder than it looks. Candles can be testy and some don’t light with an easy touch. Tapers are also very temperamental. They burn quickly, but they are thin resulting in long burned ends of taper remaining and more importantly resulting in long flames if left burning too long.

So the first candle was up high and wouldn’t light and so the taper was burning…and burning and soon I had a flame on the edge of the candle reach that was probably (I’m not exaggerating) the length of my forearm.

Dominic saw that I was about to set the church ablaze and came running over and pulled the lever on the candle reach down to completely snuff out the flame.

I was all of 9 years old. Not exactly the start I was hoping for, but the candle was twice my height. I nearly fell over twice just trying to reach it. My early thought was “If I become a priest, I’m never going to have candles up this high in MY parish.”

My second experience was when Billy Butler (you just can’t make these names up can you?) and I were alone in the sacristy with nobody to light the match for us to start the candle lighting process. No sexton, Larry and Charlie were two older retired men who were always in the church prepping priests for mass.

No Larry, No Charlie, No priest. No mom or dad outside either. It was a Saturday mass and we had walked to church together from our houses. We were afraid of two things:

1) Msgr. Troy would come down and find that the candles hadn’t been lit yet.

and 2) In order to avoid situation #1 above, we’d actually have to light a match ourselves.

So attempt after attempt of us nervously trying to light a match by barely touching the flint strip on the back of the book of matches proved fruitless. Finally I had seen people fold the matchbook over and trap the match between the cover and flint strip to provide enough friction to create the spark that one would need.

So I tried it myself. Viola! I struck my first match.

The problem was that it scared me so much that I jumped, throwing the match out of my hand and landing on the cloth counter. I slammed the match with a book to put out an ensuing fire. That worked, but it also made a small burn mark on the cloth cover, not really enough to notice, but one that Monsignor would surely see.

Monsignor Cajetan J. Troy was our pastor. He was well-respected in the Archdiocese and often travelled with Cardinal Cooke to see the Holy Father. When the Pope visited New York, Msgr. Troy was enlisted to go with Cardinal Cooke and bring the Pope back to New York. Msgr. Troy was a great man. I loved him but we also respected him and even feared him a little. I’m not sure why…he was a gentle man of great compassion and would only get angry when we made too much noise in the sacristy. He came down and I told him about the burn mark and about how we were really trying to just prepare the altar for mass.

Msgr. Troy looked at the burn mark and then at us and replied, “You kids shouldn’t be lighting matches anyway! But here, let me light the taper for you. Now go light the candles and don’t worry about this little mark. I’ve made the other three marks in it myself spilling coffee and such on it. But you boys need to be more careful. Don’t worry about the candles until the last minute. It doesn’t take very long to light them.”

Whew! And in hindsight, there was really never any reason to fear our pastor. He served as my confessor for years and was always so compassionate and understanding. I cried when he retired and was annoyed when the new pastor forbade him from coming to visit the parish once.

His brother was a Paulist and I had served my first mass with him. Fr. Joe Troy, CSP was also a very compassionate man and was great with us kids. It was these two men who helped me love serving mass and I owe them a great debt of gratitude. It was quite ironic that I ended up working for the Paulists for nine years after serving my first mass with one of them.

So what altar boy or girl stories might you have to share? You can post comments or send me the lengthier ones to

Altar Girls and the Priesthood Shortage

Dedicating this week’s post to discussions on altar servers has proved to open the floodgates. As the first post to the first discussion claims “Altar girls are an abomination and have repressed priestly vocations.”

Now at first blush I want to dismiss this comment, because the word abomination is outrageous. Altar girls may not be your cup of tea but to call these young ladies a word like that is simply stupid and mean!

But as you know, dear readers, I am King of Fairness, so I also want to think about the second part of this statement in a wider way. And also to talk about a second element–are there more altar girls because the boys simply stay away now?

“To say that these adolescents and young teen have been the cause of the repression of priestly vocations since 1995 gives these girls a whole lot of power that they probably don’t know they have. That’s quite a statement!” said one pastoral associate I know. I think that’s one accurate way to look at it. The decline in priestly vocations come from a wealth of sources and I don’t think we can pin in on the rise of altar girls or even female lay ministers for that matter.

However, my own altar boy experience cautions me a bit. Not because I don’t think girls should be on the altar as servers but because the experience beyond the altar was a bonding experience for us boys. We were more than just altar servers we were a church organization that engaged in service, recreational activities (especially) and trips. I don’t think I would have had a problem with girls being along for the ride on any of these (in fact, often we would have girls join us for the trips to Six Flags, etc.) but it may have changed the group dynamic a bit and thus it may indeed have soured some of the guys on taking part.

So my thought is the following: all should be invited to serve at the altar. All should be invited to social activities beyond that service at the altar as well. But we also should take some time to encourage activities for single sex groups that’s appropriate as well.

Lastly, I had the pleasure of serving mass with Cardinal O’Connor, who was a proponent of girls serving at the altar, as a young man. He always greeted his servers and he would even remember names if you were there a second time. He also would encourage boys to think about becoming priests and young girls to consider lives as sisters. That indeed is important for both to hear and more importantly, it’s important for the women to have models of Sisters in their lives that they can emulate. Otherwise, it can become the bait and switch where girls may think that they can become priests. And as open as many of us are to that idea, it doesn’t seem to be on the horizon just yet, if at all. Therefore, we need to give them trusted mentors who they can look to and who they might wish to become more like as women.

But to shun girls from the altar because they’re more eager to help than the boys are, or the boys want to use the altar boys like the Hee-man woman haters club is just not a great idea.

And just look at the way that this young lady to the left of John Paul II is looking at him…is that worth 1000 words? Is she not going to be moved by that moment to be closer to God and the church in her life?

I have a call into CARA to see if they have any data on Altar girls and will look online later to see what I can find.

A Server’s Prayer

I was talking with a parent recently about altar servers and recalled that before I served mass as a young man we had posted in the sacristy a prayer that we were supposed to recite both before and after mass. I haven’t seen this done anywhere else and I know it often centered me. I still say them as best I can remember them before I attend mass, especially when I lector or do a reflection or am an extraordinary minister of the eucharist.

I tried to recall both from memory so here’s my best shot. If anyone can remember where they came from, please let me know. I can’t seem to find them anywhere. I still love these prayers although the first one seems a bit penitent in places. Yet for young people maybe that’s kind of good.

A Server’s Prayer Before Mass
Open my mouth, O’ Lord
To Bless Your Holy Name
Cleanse my heart of all evil
And distracting thoughts
Enlighten my understanding
Enflame my will
That I may serve worthily at your Holy Altar

O Mary, Mother of Christ the High Priest
Obtain for me the important grace
Of knowing my vocation in life.
Grant me a true spirit of faith, and humble obedience
So I may ever behold the priest as the representative of Christ
And willingly follow him in the way and the truth and the life of Christ Amen.

I really love this prayer.

A Server’s Prayer After Mass
O Lord Jesus Christ, eternal high priest
I thank you for the privilege
of having served at your Holy Altar.

Now as I put aside the garments of that service
I ask that I may at all times think of you.
May I ever seek you and find you
May I always follow you.

Ever ready in your service may
I always come to do your will
in all things.

And by your grace
persevere until the end. Amen.

If anyone knows the author, I’d like to give them credit. So comment away.

Also, do you have an altar boy or altar girl story that you’d like to share? Send them on over. I’ll be sharing some of my favorites this week.