I was an altar boy for a few years in the 1960s when I was about 11 or 12 years old. It was technically an interesting little job. It made you feel important and it was a bit like acting out a play on stage. Most of my altar boy peers were also school pals and we used to have fun. There was always something to have a laugh about, usually without the priests knowing about it.
When I was an altar boy it was just before full English mass so we had to know a lot of Latin responses etc. Priests were major figures of authority to us of course and they would often criticise us after Mass for little mistakes and we took it seriously but then got over it quickly.
However I recall one incident when I was serving at an early Sunday morning Mass. I was helping with Communion distribution. This involved following along beside the priest at the rails as he put Communion onto each person's tongue. My job was to hold a gold plate - called the paten - under each person's chin to collect fragments of Holy Communion particles which might fall as the priest delivered the Communion to the person's tongue.
After Communion I was also supposed to bring the paten up to the altar so that the priest could wipe the Communion dust from the paten back into the chalice. This normally was quite a routine exercise. However, on this occasion as I started to walk up the steps to the altar the priest gestured to me from the altar with his hands that he didn't want me to come up.
Strange, I thought. I was confused. I looked down at the paten in my hand and there were clearly some particles of Communion dust on the paten. Normally my next task was to put the paten into a padded cloth storage glove. However I had the dilemma of the Communion dust. I surely can't put this in with Jesus dust on it!!?? But the priest doesn't want me to bring it to him.
I felt I had to think fast and I made an executive decision. I dusted the Communion particles off the paten myself with the back of my hand! However just as I did it I felt that maybe I had been too hasty. I looked up at the altar to see if the priest had noticed.
Oh yes he had noticed - big time! There was absolute fury on the priest's face as he looked down at me and I froze in fear. I also felt that the entire congregation in the church was witnessing my error through the priest's visible wrath. It was like a judge handing down a sentence and the entire courtroom agreeing with the guilty verdict. I could almost hear ghostly words from the priest's facial expression....
Only an ordained priest handles Holy Communion! And YOU....YOU...YOU touched the sacred Holy communion and much more besides. YOU threw bits of Jesus Christ all over the floor!! YOU ARE CONDEMNED!!!
The mass was almost over and I was freaking in fear as we went through the closing formalities. Finally when Mass ended, myself and the three other altar boys marched with the priest in procession style off the altar and into the sacristy.
What would happen to me now? The priest turned around and calmly blessed us as he always did after Mass. Then he said to us warmly and softly "Thank you boys" as he always did.
I was starting to feel signs of relief. But then he suddenly walked to me and turned from a Dr. Jekyll calm to a Mr. Hyde rage....
What followed was a blur of loud verbal anger and major admonishment. It was severe, long lasting and terrifying. I can't even remember what he said...it was just a torrent of pure rage. We all had a huge respect for priests - they were like Gods, everything they said was absolutely correct. So a litany of abuse like this from a priest to a child was like being made more than worthless in the extreme. I would have much preferred if he had just hit me instead, as teachers did.
As we left the sacristy I do recall one of my pals saying to me - "Jaysus! That was rough, are ye alright?" The other two boys remained silent and it looked like the intensity of the barrage had shaken them up a bit too.
We went our separate ways and I remember running home full of guilt and fear. My mother turned white when she saw me coming in the door visibly very upset. She thought something terrible had happened. She had to hold me by both shoulders, eyeball me and talk assertively to stop me shaking. She tried to get sense out of me and halt my hyperventilating.
When she heard what I had done my mother was the parent of dreams. She was kind, helpful, played it all down, brought me back from hell. My mother was a very serious Catholic but her relationship with God was a soft personal friendship. She knew I was not evil and as I listened to her a calmness slowly descended.
But I never went back to the church as an altar boy. I never wanted to hear rage like that again from a priest.
As I write this and reflect also on other incidents, it helps me to clarify a few things in my head about myself. I think I grew up into early adulthood with some fear and discomfort towards people who had strong authority over me, especially if it seemed badly used and was accompanied by anger. I also had a few part time jobs in my teens with absolutely moronic bosses.
I think it all helped me to develop over time some goals. The initial and most basic goal was that I was determined to work in a carreer in which I was respected as a person. This, coupled with a natural interest in science and technology, helped to drive me forward educationally. When I eventually graduated and worked in various large companies things were good. However I still felt some imprint of unease in a general sense at authority. This would apply in a moderate level to either individual bosses or - in the case of multi-nationals - of faceless forces who could control my own and other's direction and fate. I suppose it was one factor in getting out of it all and forming my own company, although there were other better reasons. I find I can cope with and enjoy challenges, pressures and deadlines from customers and even worries of failure much better than dealing with powerful - and especially unpredictable - figures of authority.
So who knows - often dark clouds have a silver lining.