Saturday, November 16, 2002

My Altar Ego

When I was about eight years old in the 1950�s, I was fascinated by the Mass. I loved to play �church�. I had my own altar in our basement, complete with tabernacle, chalice, missal, altar cards, and cruets. My mother made vestments for me -- chasubles made from pillow cases split down the sides, veil and burse, the works. I said Tridentine Masses everyday � probably more than any real priest. Neighbor kids were my servers. They had to recite all the prayers � in Latin, of course.

I remember trying to duplicate the unleavened, pure white hosts for communion. I tried pressing white bread into flat little circles. Nobody would let me put it on their tongues after smashing it with my fingers. I remember saying Mass for my Methodist grandmother. I wonder what she thought! I really doubt that any youngsters do that today. As I look back on that time, I am trying to understand why I was so attracted to �church�.

First of all, the sanctuary in our church was very ornate at that time. There were carvings, fancy millwork, statues, and candles. It was brightly lit, and very colorful. The altar was painted a glossy white that gleamed in the array of fluorescent lights and incandescent flood lamps. Light switches all snapped loudly back then, but the lights in the church were operated by silent pushbutton switches in the sacristy. The darkened sanctuary would come to life in a crescendo of brilliance shortly before Mass was to begin.

The priest carried the veiled chalice out for each Mass, setting it on the center of the altar so the veil formed a perfect trapezoid with a cross on the front. He would remove the cloth from the burse and spread it neatly on the altar. One knew that something special was about to happen. The veil, burse, missal stand cover, and the tabernacle curtain all matched the color of the vestments for that day. I would check the curtain upon arrival to see which chasuble the priest was wearing that day, always hoping it would be red, my favorite.

The Mass was in this mysterious language called Latin. You had to get your own missal, one with colorful ribbon bookmarks, to decipher what was being said � much better than a Little Orphan Annie decoder ring. As a third grader, I had to memorize all of those Latin responses in order to be an altar boy. Some forty-five years later, they are still etched in my memory.

I was most fascinated by the tabernacle. In our church, hidden behind the small curtain was a figure of the face of Christ with eyes closed (if memory serves me correctly). Just looking at the beautiful countenance, one would not easily notice the small keyhole in the lower right corner. The figure was part of a wooden cylinder which could be smoothly rotated 360 degrees. At communion time, Father Krause would insert the key and spin the cylinder, passing more carvings of angels until an opening to the tabernacle appeared. Another white curtain inside was parted to reveal the ciborium. A similar turntable-type structure above the tabernacle displayed the cross and corpus which could be rotated to reveal the monstrance for Benediction. To a child, these seemed like secret compartments where someone would hide their most precious valuables, and in fact, that�s exactly what they were. The tabernacle is our own Ark of the Covenant.

When the sanctuary was remodeled post-Vatican II, the old tabernacle was removed � destroyed as I understand. It was replaced with a small wooden box, somewhat reminiscent of the one Senor Wences used in his ventriloquist act. Remember Pedro, the head in the box? S�awright? S�awright! I don�t mean to make light of the tabernacle. My point is that we went from something very special to something very ordinary, and much of the majesty was lost.

We show respect for a person by our behavior in that person�s presence. If we were to prepare a place for a king, we would spare no expense. In addition to paying homage to the king, our efforts would send a message to the unknowing, telling them someone very special is in our midst. We would not need to explain our regard to others. That we hold the person in the highest esteem would be readily apparent. We would wear our best clothes and be on our best behavior.

The post-Vatican II trend toward humble simplicity has had an adverse affect on reverence for the Eucharist. The tabernacle no longer looks like a place of honor, yet a king still resides inside. The constant awareness of one being in the presence the King is diminished. It�s not so much that the simple tabernacle sends a message to the unknowing of indifference, but perhaps that it sends no message at all. It no longer seems to command respect. Not surprisingly, much of the respect has been lost.

Some people no longer genuflect in front of the tabernacle. In many Catholic Churches today, the tabernacle is even difficult to find. It may located in a chapel separate from the main sanctuary. People often seem unaware of its presence or absence. They wear clothes to church that they would never wear in the presence of earthly royalty because it would be considered disrespectful. Remember when ladies always kept their heads covered in church? Some today can�t keep their navels covered. They seem to be completely unaware of the fact that Christ is physically in their midst. How much we have lost.

I wonder also whether the lack of priestly vocations today can in part be blamed on the simplified church. You often hear holiest priests say that they wanted to be a priest as long as they could remember. How many of those vocations were sparked by a boyhood fascination with a beautiful tabernacle and a play church in the basement?

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