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The Secret Lives of Altar Boys

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Not sure where this one goes, or if it's worth continuing, but the pretense sprung into my mind, so I thought I'd run it up the flagpole...


I walk into the dimly lit sanctuary of the church.    I go through the motions I learned long ago, ingrained in my muscle memory.   I can’t walk past the tabernacle without genuflecting.    I move into the pew and kneel down.   I feel the bulk of my diaper between my legs.    I’ve tried to stay away from the church over the years, but I still return, always diapered.    Not because I have an allegiance to the church, or perhaps even a belief in God, but due to the memory of long ago.

I attempt a silent prayer.    The organ starts to play, and my mind wanders.     I think back to my childhood.    An altar boy enters and genuflects and goes about the business of lighting the altar candles.   Was I ever that young?    He finishes, and soon the organ starts into another piece.    People rise, and the processional begins.    It’s a lovely ritual that is playing out.   More than anything I love the ritual.   It’s what started me on the path.

I remember growing up Catholic.    I went to CCD and prepared for the first sacraments, reconciliation, and Eucharist.    I  loved what was going on before me on the altar.    Some of it I had been educated about, some was a mystery.   The priest, the lector, the boys, not much older than I was, all in this fantastic ritual.    I was enthralled.

I asked my parents if I could be an altar boy.    They thought it was a passing desire, but I kept at it.   Finally, my mother told me I’d need to see a priest to find out what was involved.    I decided to go to confession one Saturday, and after getting my absolution, I waited in the church for Father Murphy to come out of the confessional.    I nervously moved to meet him.

“Father,” I said to him.

“Hello, my son.   Did you want to make a confession?”

“No, father.   I already did.   I wanted to ask you something else.”

“Go ahead.”

I took a deep breath and stammered it out.   “I want to be an altar boy.”

“I see.   Come with me, and we’ll talk about it.”

We walked back to a small office.   He impressed on me that it was a lot of work just to get to the point where I could be ready.   Then it would be a time-consuming responsibility going forward.    I  just nodded.   When he had finished, I reiterated.   “I want to become an altar boy.”

“OK,” he said.   “Here’s our altar boy handbook,” he said pushing a mimeographed document towards me.    “Learn everything that’s in this.   That’s the first step.    When you think you know it, come back, and we’ll talk.”

“Thank you, father.”

I took the document home.   It must have forty pages.    It started with the admonitions of the responsibility and piety required.   That I was to be neatly dressed and conduct myself with decorum.   It then went on to the rituals which I relished studying.     It started with the prayers.   I hadn’t realized there were so many prayers.   Prayers for putting on the cassock, prayers for putting on the surplice, prayers to say before the mass, after the mass, and to the patron saint of altar boys.    I knew I was going to have to know the liturgy of the mass by heart.    I read through these several times and knew I’d have to come back and study them more.

The next section was more interesting.   It was all the things had to be done during the mass.   I had seen the rituals, but they were more involved than I had realized.   Still, I went over and over these again.    The next morning I showed up for weekday mass, which I rarely did just to watch and follow what I had read about carefully.

Then there was the terminology; it wasn’t just a plate it was a platen.   It wasn’t just a wash bowl but a lavabo.   The urn with all the hosts in it was a ciborium.   The priest's napkin was a purificator.   The thing that spread incense was a thurible.   Another piece of cloth was the corporal.    The cover over the paten I had seen was called the pall.   I memorized all this.

A week later I was back in front of Father Murphy.   He started asking me questions, and I answered without hesitation.      “Do you know the vestment prayers.”   I wasn’t exactly sure what he was asking.    Then I knew.   I launched into the prayer for the cassock.    “Prayers before the mass,” he added, and I started reciting these.

He then led me to the altar.   Crossing I remembered to genuflect, even before he started to do so himself.   He led me to the altar asking me the names of things.   He opened the tabernacle, and I identified the things there.     He then took me back to the rectory.

“I’m going to ask one of the knights,” he paused.  “One of the older boys, who wears the red cassocks, to mentor you further.   When he believes you’re ready, we’ll test you out on a weekday mass.”

So a few days later Mike came to me.   “Father Murphy tells me you want to be an altar boy,” he said with a smile.    Mike was great.   We went through every step of the mass.    We practiced in an empty classroom.    Mike had a box with a bunch of makeshift items:   a chalice, platen, ciborium, pall, purificator, cruets, and the like.    We practiced the entire ritual with Mike playing the role of the priest.    We went into the sanctuary, and he taught me how to ring the bell at the appropriate time in the service.    We practiced walking graciously around the altar performing our duties.

We met every other day.  I’d have loved to do it daily, but Mike had other responsibilities.    One day, Father Murphy interrupted our practice.   “Is he ready?” Father asked Mike.

“Yes, he is.”

“Be here at seven tomorrow morning.   We’ll give you a test run.”

I was there fifteen minutes early.    At seven, Mike showed up and opened the vestry.   “We’ve got lots of time.  Mass is at 7:30.   We usually only need to be here fifteen minutes early, but Father wanted to give you extra time.”

We went in, and Mike gave me my vestments.   I said the prayers and put them on.   Mike handed me the wand to go light the candles while he dressed.    I entered the sanctuary.   I was wearing the uniform of an altar boy performing my first official act, even if it was just lighting the candles.    I did so, remembering to genuflect when crossing the tabernacle.   I finished and extinguished the flame in the wand and went back into the vestry.   Mike and Father were there waiting.

“Are you ready?” Father Murphy said.   I rasped out an affirmative answer.     We headed to the back of the church.    Mike handed me the large red book the Sacramentary.   I’d used a phone book for practice, but this was even heavier.    Mike picked up the crucifix, and we marched up to the altar.    The congregation was sparse as it usually was for the weekday masses.    A few older people and a dozen or so nuns.  

I was trying to avoid shaking with the nervous anticipation.    Mike leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Try not to wet your pants.”  I thought this was a snide comment, but then he followed it with “Not yet.”   I had no idea what he meant by that.  We ascended the altar, and I stood and opened the book and held it for Father as he did the opening benediction.

I made the appropriate responses and then set the book on the lectern.    Things moved quickly, and the rest was a blur.   Soon we were walking back out of the sanctuary and were back in the vestry  “Sit down,” Father told us, and we all took seats.

“You did well,” Father said to me.   “Don’t you think, Mike?”   Mike agreed with him.   It was discussed that the next day I’d serve mass and I’d do everything.   Mike would be there just to cover me if I messed up.   I got to the church early and set about getting the altar ready, setting things out, lighting the candles.     This time I carried the crucifix and Mike carried the book.   After the processional, I did all the altar boy duties without much prompting from Mike.

Afterward, Father Murphy asked Mike if I was ready to go solo and Mike stated yes.    Mike would come in one more time for tomorrow’s mass and make sure I was ready, but he would sit in the congregation.

I got to the church and again made sure everything was ready.   I prayed to the heavenly father to make sure I was ready and that I didn’t mess up.   Things went well.   I was perhaps a beat too late ringing the bells thrice when the host was consecrated, but I got it done.    After Mass, I went back to the vestry and returned the cassock and surplice to the rack.

At this point, Mike and a few other of the knights that I had noticed in the congregation came in.   Mike introduced me to the other boys.

“Well, Joe,” Mike began.  “You did well.    You can consider yourself an official altar boy.     You were given a scapular after your first communion, right?”   I had been.   I fished the little plastic medallion out from under my shirt.

“That one’s not appropriate for a person of your standing.”   He handed me a little box, and I opened it.    A chain and a medal with the face of a man on it.   It was quite an improvement over what I had been wearing.

“That’s Saint John Berchmans.   He’s the patron saint of altar boys.   You are now a squire of the saint as were we,” he said indicating the other knights.  “We have progressed to knights of the order.”    I beamed and put the medal around my neck.

“Now, that it’s official, there’s one last part of the vestments that we need to discuss.   I should let you know that this is a very private and holy matter.   You should not discuss this outside of the vestry.”

I vowed that I would not.   “Let’s remove our outer vestments.”    The knights started taking off their clothes.    I was surprised, but I followed along and took mine off as well.    I was standing there with my underpants and my new medal around my neck.   The other boys had more ornate medals and odd underwear on below.

Mike went to a cabinet and pulled a few items from a drawer and returned to me.   The top item was a large piece of cloth.

“This is called the purificator magnum,” he said.   I knew the purificator was the towel the priest used during preparation of the Eucharist.     We wear this during Mass.   He held up the other item.   It was clearly a pair of briefs, plastic.    “This we wear over it so that we do not have leaks.”   I thought about it, and then I looked at Mike and knights.   They were wearing a diaper and plastic pants.    I started to realize what Mike was getting at the other day when he told me not to wet myself, YET.

“You really wear a diaper during Mass?”

“Purificator magnum,” Mike corrected.   And we do.    And you’ll find it handy to use it as well.    My head spun.   “All the boys in the order wear them.   You’ll get used to it.”

Mike had me remove my pants and lay down on the floor.    He placed the diaper under me and did it up.    He then pulled the plastic pants up.    “Good, now you try it yourself.”    I couldn’t see the point, but I did it.    OK, see you tomorrow.

The next morning we went to the vestry, and I put the diaper on.   Mike checked it and then I got into the rest of the vestments.    I served the Mass and returned to the vestry.   Mike was waiting as I disrobed.   He came and patted my rear and then tapped the medal on my chest.

“These two things are the sacred mysteries of our order.    They will become very important to you over time, and I stress the importance that you maintain the secret of the order.”

I was proud to belong to the order.    The medal was a badge of honor.   I wasn’t sure about the diaper, but I got strange feelings wearing it.    I promised to Mike that I would maintain the secret.

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Interesting story. Not what I wore when I was an alter boy 55 years ago.

I enjoyed your writing will there be more. :)

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I thought that was very interesting. I liked it and would have given it a like but ran out. I hope to read more of it. 

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