Growing Up Catholic: Part Six "Incense"itive Alter Boys

GROWING UP CATHOLIC:  PART SIX - "INCENSE"ITIVE ALTER BOYS

Stephen Arch                              sparch@comcast.net              www.sparch@facebook.com

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LIGHTED-HEADED, READY TO PASS OUTBUT STILL ON THE JOB.  THE ALTER BOY MUST PRESS ON WITH HIS TASK OR LEAVE HIS POST IN DISGRACE

The glitz, the glamour, the robes, the gold.  Ah, the life of an alter boy.  And, NO GIRLS ALLOWED.  Hey, that's a pretty cool thing for a sixth grader.  Yes, that is a political statement that I do not agree with, but it was what it was back in the sixties, those turbulent years for alter servers.

Being an alter boy meant something.  Even if that meaning of something usually either made one extremely nauseous, on the brink of blacking out.  

THE INCENSE.  THE SMELL.  To the "normal" church goer, incense reminds one of the glory days of mass.  Incense used for special circumstances.  But Father Feldmeier, yes, Father Feldmeier used incense ALL OF THE TIME. He literally blessed everything with incense.  The pungent aroma wafting throughout the church.

Now, if you were sitting in the 20th row at St. Mary's, you were ok.  Incense smelled decent, smelled of majesty and praise to God.  

However, if you're a 13 year old boy, and Fr. Feldmeier's motion to you to get the incense burner, it wasn't the most majestic time in my life.  Incense, you see, smells.  Smells really bad.  If you are away from the smell, it's really not a problem,  But if you are standing directly over the hot piece of coal and watching Fr. Feldmeier scoop golden spoonful after golden spoonful after golden spoonful (to myself:  "Hey,  go easy on the incense sir.  I feel like I'm going to throw up."  But alter boys didn't throw up. We plugged along, being the loyal servants we were. Yes, we were serving God, but my experiences including being THE SERVANT OF FATHER FELDMEIER, and I could tell he revelled in his role of big chief at the mass. 

To the uninitiated.  Imagine standing directly over burning coals at a barbecue.  Imagine the smoke from the coals rising directly up to your face, surrounding you, embracing the very core of all of your senses.  Now, imagine a priest not putting one little scoop of incense over the hot coal.  Imagine it appearing as if he is dumping an entire front loader of pungence into the THURIBLE (the incense holder that the priest swings to spread the smoke all over the church).  

Don't get me wrong.  I like incense. But it really smells.  Smells very bad.  But why did my priests always have to use so much.  A simple scoop would go a long way.  It's not as if were planning a trip around McKees Rocks to sprinkle incense on every living and inanimate object out there.  It was only used for a short time during the mass, particularly High Mass, Holy Days and Funerals.  Why incense?  I know.  The use of incense is to honor God.  It is part of the majesty and the decorum that surrounds the Catholic church.

According to Matthew D. Herrera in the February 2012/Vol XVII, No. 10 edition of Adoremus Bulletine entitled "Holy Smoke - The Use of Incense in the Catholic Church:

"IN THE OLD TESTAMENT GOD COMMANDED HIS PEOPLE TO BURN INCENSE (E.G., EXODUS 30:7, 40:27, INTER ALIA). INCENSE IS A SACRAMENTAL USED TO VENERATE, BLESS, AND SANCTIFY. ITS SMOKE CONVEYS A SENSE OF MYSTERY AND AWE. IT IS A REMINDER OF THE SWEET-SMELLING PRESENCE OF OUR LORD. ITS USE ADDS A FEELING OF SOLEMNITY TO THE MASS. THE VISUAL IMAGERY OF THE SMOKE AND THE SMELL REINFORCE THE TRANSCENDENCE OF THE MASS LINKING HEAVEN WITH EARTH, ALLOWING US TO ENTER INTO THE PRESENCE OF GOD. THE SMOKE SYMBOLIZES THE BURNING ZEAL OF FAITH THAT SHOULD CONSUME ALL CHRISTIANS, WHILE THE FRAGRANCE SYMBOLIZES CHRISTIAN VIRTUE.

Incensing may also be viewed in the context of a “burnt offering” given to God. In the Old Testament animal offerings were partially or wholly consumed by fire. In essence, to burn something was to give it to God.

In his monograph Sacred Signs, Monsignor Romano Guardini (1885-1968), who greatly influenced the writings of Pope Benedict XVI, had these beautiful words to say about the use of incense:

THE OFFERING OF AN INCENSE IS A GENEROUS AND BEAUTIFUL RITE. THE BRIGHT GRAINS OF INCENSE ARE LAID UPON THE RED-HOT CHARCOAL, THE CENSER IS SWUNG, AND THE FRAGRANT SMOKE RISES IN CLOUDS. IN THE RHYTHM AND THE SWEETNESS THERE IS A MUSICAL QUALITY; AND LIKE MUSIC ALSO IS THE ENTIRE LACK OF PRACTICAL UTILITY: IT IS A PRODIGAL WASTE OF PRECIOUS MATERIAL. IT IS A POURING OUT OF UNWITHHOLDING LOVE.

Incense and the smoke of burning incense have been offered as gifts to God and to others since ancient times. In a more practical visual sense as the fragrant smoke ascends it also symbolizes our prayers rising to heaven."

"INCENSE, WITH ITS SWEET-SMELLING PERFUME AND HIGH-ASCENDING SMOKE, IS TYPICAL OF THE GOOD CHRISTIAN'S PRAYER, WHICH, ENKINDLED IN THE HEART BY THE FIRE OF GOD'S LOVE AND EXHALING THE ODOUR OF CHRIST, RISES UP A PLEASINGOFFERING IN HIS SIGHT (CF. AMALARIUS, "DE ECCLES. OFFICIIS" IN P.L., CV). INCENSING IS THE ACT OF IMPARTING THE ODOUR OF INCENSE. THE CENSER IS HELD IN THE RIGHT HAND AT THE HEIGHT OF THE BREAST, AND GRASPED BY THE CHAIN NEAR THE COVER; THE LEFT HAND, HOLDING THE TOP OF THE CHAIN, IS PLACED ON THE BREAST. THE CENSER IS THEN RAISED UPWARDS TO THE HEIGHT OF THE EYES, GIVEN AN OUTWARD MOTION AND SLIGHTLY ASCENDING TOWARDS THE OBJECT TO BE INCENSED, AND AT ONCE BROUGHT BACK TO THE STARTING POINT. THIS CONSTITUTES A SINGLE SWING. FOR A DOUBLE SWING THE OUTWARD MOTION SHOULD BE REPEATED, THE SECOND MOVEMENT BEING MORE PRONOUNCED THAN THE FIRST. THE DIGNITY OF THE PERSON OR THING WILL DETERMINE WHETHER THE SWING IS TO BE SINGLE OR DOUBLE, AND ALSO WHETHER ONE SWING OR MORE ARE TO BLESS WHAT ARE GIVEN. THE INCENSE-BOAT IS THE VESSEL CONTAINING THE INCENSE FOR IMMEDIATE USE. IT IS SO CALLED FROM ITS SHAPE. IT IS GENERALLY CARRIED BY THE THURIFER IN THE DISENGAGED HAND."

Wait.  Sweet-smelling perfume?  No.  It was neither sweet smelling nor was it perfumatic.  Incense is pungent. And, excuse my verbiage, it made us "gag."  Yes, to the point that we almost had to leave the mass and throw up.  I am sorry for the word choice above, but the incense we used was called Prinknash.  And it smelled just as the name sounds. Prinknash, the substance that Father Feldmeier poured onto the burning coal in the thurible, shooting straight toward my face, my nose, my senses, really sickened me.

Now remember, as an alter boy, one had to be on the ball 100 percent of the time.  Had to know what was going on during the mass, and had to get the priest everything he needed at the exact time.  I notice now when I go to church that the servers take cues from the priests.  Priests seem so patient now.  Telling servers what to do and when to do it.

Not so during my era of alter boy status.  Remember Sister Christina? Well, she made sure that the moment I stepped foot on the alter, I KNEW the mass inside and out.  I knew when to get the wine, when to ring the bell, when to get the water, when to get the cloth to wash his hands, when to do this, when to do that.  I was turned into a robot.  No time for dress rehearsal.  There was no dress rehearsal.  According to Sister Christina, I either knew it or didn't.  No gray areas existed.

 

But when it came the time to use the incense, it was horrific. I am not being overly dramatic here or stretching the truth.  I hated the smell of Prinknash.  Still do. Well, during funerals when the priest blesses the coffin of the deceased, he uses incense, and it is still the same incense used when I was a server.  It still smells horrible to me, but at least I don't have to stand over it and suck all of it into my face at one time.

Now, after being an alter boy for several years, I got all the great gigs.  I was seasoned, and I was the kind of kid who would never say "no" to a nun or a priest, or to any authority figure, for that matter.  Because I was always willing to serve mass at any time of the day (and even during the summer and our days off), I was respected enough by Sister Christina that I would always show up on time, do a good job, and make sure the priest was happy.

So, I did indeed get all of the weddings and funerals, which were cool (well, funerals weren't cool), but they were great because I would actually get "paid" by the family members at the event.  Yes, I received pay for funerals as well as weddings.  This is where I had my "modification of belief's" - a metamorphosis - if you will, pertaining to priests and nuns.  Well, the nun issue will come later, but the priest issue - particularly Father Feldmeier - did change my attitude.  

  Father.  When am I going to get paid for this wedding?

Father.  When am I going to get paid for this wedding?

You see, we were paid pretty well (at that time, probably somewhere between $10 and $20) for serving a funeral or wedding. For a very short while, I was able to sneak outside of the sacristy where Father Feldmeier was usually hanging out before and after the wedding, and make sure I got the envelope in my hands before Father Feldmeier saw this.  One day, before serving a wedding, Fr. Feldmeier asked me if I was taking money for serving weddings and funerals.  I DID NOT WANT TO TELL HIM THE TRUTH WHATSOEVER.  I knew that I couldn't lie, and I also knew that telling Father Feldmeier the TRUTH would NOT SET ME FREE.  But, I did - I couldn't lie - that I would take money from the best man or family member for helping out.  At that time, it was traditional to get paid for my service.  To me, I was extremely appreciative of the act, and to the family, I know that it made the feel good helping out a poor alter boy.  I AM TELLING YOU.  IT WAS A TRADITION. And that is why I liked weddings and funerals so much.  They were an easy $15.  I never earned any money for serving daily mass (EXCEPT FOR MY PLACE IN HEAVEN.  RIGHT GOD?)  

When Fr. Feldmeier asked me that question, I knew my "jig was up."  No, it didn't matter that traditionally servers were paid for their service.  But it mattered to Father Feldmeier.  At this point, I want to explain that I know that all priests, most priests, were not like my Father Feldmeier.  He was stern, strict, outright mean, obnoxious, hated kids, and treated us like the peons we were.  No doubt about it.  I was Father Feldmeier's tool.  

I remember the following conversation so very vividly, as if it happened yesterday:

HE THEN ASKED ME STRAIGHT OUT:  "HOW MUCH ARE YOU GETTING PAID FOR DOING THIS?"  

ME:  "WELL, FATHER" (WHAT DO I SAY, PLEASE, GOD, HELP ME. WHAT DO I SAY?  IT WASN'T JUST ME, MIND YOU, I WAS SPEAKING FOR ALL OF THE ALTER BOYS WHO SERVED MASSES.  I KNEW MY ANSWER WAS GOING TO BRING DOWN THE PARTY. 

FR. FELDMEIER:  ANGRILY, "HOW MUCH DO YOU GET IN THE ENVELOPE?  ANSWER ME."

ME:  "WELL, FATHER, I WAS PAID $20 FOR THIS WEDDING."

FR. FELDMEIER:  EXTREMELY RED IN THE FACE, ANGRY THIS TIME "WHAT?  YOU WERE PAID $20?  WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH THAT MONEY?"

ME:  "I DON'T KNOW. SPEND IT I GUESS."  (I WAS NOT A WEALTHY BOY FROM A WEALTHY FAMILY.  I BOUGHT MY OWN SCHOOL CLOTHES, MY OWN BIKE, MY OWN EVERYTHING).  I COULDN'T GIVE THIS UP.

FR. FELDMEIER: "YOU DO KNOW THAT YOU ARE SERVING THE LORD, DON'T YOU?

ME: "YES"

FR. FELDMEIER:  "YOU SHOULD FEEL HONORED TO SERVE THE LORD.  YOU SHOULDN'T BE GETTING PAID FOR THIS."

ME:  THINKING TO MYSELF "CRAP. THE CAT'S OUT OF THE BAG."

FR. FELDMEIER:  "THAT MONEY BELONGS TO GOD AND TO THE CHURCH. YOU KNOW THAT, DON'T YOU?"

ME:  "YES SIR."

FR. FELDMEIER:  STICKING OUT HIS HUGE HAND (HE WAS A BIG GUY) "HAND IT OVER."

ME: HANDING THE ENVELOPE TO THE PRIEST.  THERE GOES 20 BUCKS.  MAN!

FR. FELDMEIER:  TAKES THE ENVELOP AND LEAVES.  JUST WALKS AWAY.

ME:  SAY NOTHING, SEE NOTHING, HEAR NOTHING.  DO NOT ARGUE WITH A PRIEST.  NEVER.

Well that was the end of making any money.  Each and every time I served a mass, I served for the Lord because I wasn't getting paid. Turns out that after every special mass - funeral, wedding - that I served Father Feldmeier, the envelope containing MY money would go from the best man's hands directly to God's hands (well, Father Feldmeier and then to God).  But it didn't end there.

After Fr. Feldmeier knew we were getting paid for serving these masses and actually taking the money, he HAD to rat us out to Sister Christina, which meant I was in a whole heck of a lot of trouble the next school day.  I had to stand and be lectured too about how "serving God as an alter boy was a privilege and not a right. That serving was enough.  I need not take anymore money.  If I did get money from anyone in the families of the deceased or the newly weds, the envelop had to go right to Father Feldmeier so that he could give it to God. So that the church could use it to help others out."  Now, I am not in any way against helping others out, helping the needy, and if I knew that money was going to help someone less fortunate, that's a good thing.  But I knew the money wasn't going to God or the homeless.  The money was going into Father Feldmeier's pocket.   Such accusations, you might ask?  Such disrespect.  

  Father Feldmeier's "Ride" helped financed by my alter boy fees.

Father Feldmeier's "Ride" helped financed by my alter boy fees.

WELL, MY ANSWER TO THAT IS THAT YOU DIDN'T KNOW FATHER FELDMEIER LIKE I KNEW FATHER FELDMEIER.  At that time, he drove a huge cadillac, and I know the diocese wasn't always paying his gas bills for that huge behemoth.  It really steamed me as a 12 year old to know that MY MONEY was helping God put gas in Father Feldmeier's car.  That stung.

Boy, those were some touch times being twelve or thirteen and going through those emotions.

However, we, the little scamps we were, always found a way to have fun with each during mass. Obviously, if we screwed up any part of the mass, Sister Christina would be there to met out the discipline.  We had to be holy, and never, ever smile during mass.  Well, tell a thirteen or fourteen year old boy he can't smile during something solemn, and you know what is going to happen. The other alter boy and I would spend the entire mass trying to make each other laugh.  It became our mission. Get Jim to smile.  No, not smile, laugh.  If I could get an alter boy to laugh during a mass, it was worth the punishment and the "not being paid" crisis.

I remember one time service a funeral. I knew the deceased because he was from my hometown. Everyone buried from St. Mary's was someone from my town.   The mass and it was "game on." Get the other kid to laugh. At one particular funeral, the other alter boy and I got into a staring match, kneeling on either side of the alter. Yes, I took the bait.  The alter boy serving directly across from me wouldn't blink, wouldn't smile, wouldn't anything - he just stared at me.  I started to giggle and really tried to hold my mouth shut.  I was howling inside. I began to laugh, and I laughed so hard I had tears running down my cheeks.

Fortunately, Father Feldmeier didn't see me laughing.  However, someone at the funeral mass must have seen the tears.  After the mass was over and I went home, my mother was so happy with me. One of the people in attendance had told her that I was such a good boy that I was crying at the funeral.  My mother was so proud of me.  No, I wasn't crying, but no one would ever know the true story.

Finally, Father Feldmeier made many mistakes - he always seemed to forget what he had said a moment ago during the mass.  One could see that he would fumble through the pages of the bible, and he became frustrated.

One day, during a funeral, a very sad, pious event, Father Feldmeier continued to ask the congregation to pray for the soul of our lost son John.  "Poor John.  He is in heaven now. I know you as family and friends are sad that John has left us.... John this and John that. Halfway through the mass, I looked up and saw Sister Christina standing in the door or the sanctuary.  She was summoning me over quite energetically and in a state of panic.  I slowly got up, walked over to her, and she told me "Please tell Father that this funeral is a mass for a WOMAN - NOT A MAN - and HER name is Gladys.  Father Feldmeier was saying a funeral mass for a man who actually was a woman.  How embarrassing.  I often wonder how the family felt about this.  

But it was MY job to go to Father Feldmeier and break the news to him.  How in the world was I going to get his attention and how in the world was he going to respond to me.  So, I slowly, very carefully, walked up behind Father Feldmeier, tugged on his vestments, and told him the "bad" news.  Wouldn't you know it.  He didn't break stride in his mass whatsoever.  Never apologized to the family. He just kept going asking the families to pray for the soul of GLADYS (he was a pro - could continue the mass without flinching).  To me, it was a miracle.  One of the many miracles that changed my life forever and formed my childhood.

The Point

The political structure that makes up the fraternity of alter boys at that time was extremely strong.  Once you were chosen, you couldn't quit, and there were many hoops one had to jump through.  I feel that being an alter boy helped learn to be humble as well as hone my people skills.  Also, the idea of compromising meant that each and everyday, I had to do things I didn't necessarily want to do, but did them anyway - in many cases, just to get back at the priests and nuns who were very cruel at times.  It sort of was like a bootcamp in a way - do it or die trying.  I feel that my exposure to those people I mention above was a gift because I never knew that I would be facing the Sister Christina's and the Father Feldmeier's all through my life.  It also gave me the sense of humor I have today. It gave me material for being snarky and telling jokes.  All of the above had a profound effect on me, and it make me the person I am today.