Midnight Mass was highlight of altar boy service

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By: 

Roger VanHaren

When I was a kid at St. Anthony’s in Oconto Falls, one of the positions that many of us aspired to was to become an altar boy. It was not an easy goal to attain because in those pre-Vatican II days, the Mass was in Latin. To become an altar boy, we had to memorize the prayer responses. We “answered” the prayers which the priest was saying, as though we were the stand-ins for the congregation.

We memorized the prayers phonetically – totally rote – because none of us knew any Latin when we were in fourth grade. So we were basically unaware of the meanings of any of the prayers we were regurgitating at the Mass.

My good friend Rick O’Neill and I were the first in our class to get the Latin prayers memorized, so we became the first in our class to actually get to serve at Mass after some rigorous training by Sister Mary David. And shortly after we started, my two cousins (and good friends) Johnny Konitzer and Doug Curran were admitted to our ranks. All of us continued serving until we graduated from high school.

In grade school, each of us would be assigned a week of morning Masses in the summer time. Johnny Konitzer lived on the next farm, so we would usually be assigned together, making it easier for our parents, who’d have to make a special trip into town — usually before the morning chores were finished — so we could serve. We didn’t get off the farm very much during the summer, so I thought it was cooler than the other side of the pillow to be able to serve.

There were lots of reasons why we liked serving Mass when we were kids, none of which had anything to do with being devout. For one thing, we got out of school to serve at funerals or special Lenten devotions. When there was a benediction, we got to feed the multi-colored little chips of incense onto the glowing charcoal briquette in the censer, making clouds of sweet-smelling incense smoke. We’d blow on that little briquette until it was bright red, pour the incense in, and swing the censer back and forth to create a draft to make the smoke billow out.

Serving at weddings was neat, too, because sometimes the groom would tip us after the ceremony.

We also got to “dress up” in long black cassocks with white surplices with fancy lace trim on the sleeves and bottom edge. During the Christmas season, we got to wear red cassocks. I’m sure we looked very “priestly” up there on the altar.

Since tradition tells us that Jesus was born at night, Midnight Mass was celebrated on Christmas Eve, traditionally at midnight, in commemoration of his birth. The idea of Jesus being born at night is reflected in the fact that Christmas Eve is referred to as Heilige Nacht (Holy Night) in German, Nochebuena (the Good Night) in Spanish and similarly in other expressions of Christmas spirituality, such as the song “Silent Night, Holy Night.”

Midnight Mass was the biggest prize for an altar boy because we got to stay up until 1:30 or 2 a.m. Midnight Mass was actually at midnight in those days. And we were the only kids there. There was a lot of “pomp and circumstance” at Midnight Mass, with lots of hymns and carols by the choir and many candles to light the darkened church. In addition to our red cassocks, we also wore red bows at our necks. It was something very special, and and to be assigned to serve at Midnight Mass was a special honor. Rick, Johnny, Doug and I were the youngest altar boys at my first Midnight Mass in 1949. We were basically “decoration” because the high school guys did all the regular duties of serving at the Mass. I fell asleep during the sermon.

As altar boys, we got to associate with some wonderful men. During my time as an altar boy, I served for three priests, Father Frank Francart, Father Joseph Labno and a very funny man whose name, I’m sorry to say, I can’t remember. He was at our parish for only a short time in the early ’50s. In the years just before the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, thousands of refugees left Hungary and came to the U.S. We got this wonderfully funny priest. He told us he’d learned his English by watching the classic movie “High Noon” over and over. We’d come into the sacristy before Mass, and Father would do his Gary Cooper impersonation. He was always quick-drawing his imaginary six-shooters, spinning them and putting them back into his imaginary holsters. Gary Cooper with a Hungarian accent! I’ve often wondered what happened to him.

Father Francart was a sports fanatic, and we always talked Packers and Cubs. We were all Cubs fans until the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee. Father Labno was a soft-spoken, gentle man. These men were very nice to us and always treated us with respect. I can’t remember ever hearing an unkind word from any of them.

Things have changed a lot since Vatican II. The Mass is in the vernacular now, and there are “altar girls” and “altar men and women.” There’s no more communion rail and we receive communion in our hands, so no one can bump the paten into my double chin. Several of my favorite serving partners, Dave Tisch, Jerry Meverden and his brother Greg, Bob McKeever, and my cousins Doug Curran and Johnny Konitzer have died, and for sure all the priests I associated with are gone, but I certainly have some fond memories of those days. And I can still say, in my head at least, some of the Latin prayers I learned way back in 1948! Amen. And Merry Christmas!

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.