Especially where I live in Leeds 17 where Yiddish is the language of choice !
The thing is, I know all the words. The Latin words. You can't be brought up a Catholic in Norn Iron (Northern Ireland......as pronounced by the natives) without knowing the words of a High Mass or those of certain prayers said only in Latin. Usually these Latin words and phrases were just learned parrot fashion and could be trotted out like quotes from a Shakespeare play or a Wordsworth poem without having a clue what they meant.
Maybe that was just me, of course.
In my yute, I rarely knew what was going on during Mass. It was old school back then and even a normal daily Mass was said in Latin....and in black and white if I remember correctly. That was a shame as a Mass can be a very vibrant event with the bright red and gold vestments on display so I was glad when colour finally arrived in our town in the 60's and going to Mass became quite a sight for the young Silverback !
Like most Catholics, when the time was right, I became an altar boy. Despite the financial rewards (see later), I hated being an altar boy.
"But mum, do I have to ? "
"Yes son. You know it makes us so proud to see you up there on the altar in your freshly ironed surplice"
"But mum, I'm 37 !!"
It was also my introduction to the competitive world as we altar boys would fight over who got to serve at funerals and, to a lesser extent, weddings. These were events where we could actually earn some money for performing our duties and it was a sort of early acting gig as we could put on a pretend happy or sad face to increase our chances of receiving a generous tip. Of course this came with added responsibilities and woe betide anyone who mixed up the events. Many a confused altar boy got little or no tip for being a sourpuss at a wedding ceremony and similarly, any who committed the worse crime of being a beaming cherub at a funeral usually got a clout around the ear from the parish priest as well as relatives of the recently departed. Ironically the 'recently departed' cared not a jot and would've probably liked the idea of at least one smiling face at their send off. As usually happens, they weren't consulted.
At funerals, we always hoped that grief would play into our open hands and it often did. You see when grief is present, logic and clear thinking go out the window and protocol tends to break down. Unlike at a wedding, where one person is usually charged with paying us off (the best man), a funeral isn't often as organised and this worked to our advantage. After the graveyard burial (no one was cremated back then) and before everyone cleared off for the traditional meal, we altar boys would ignore all previous parental advice and hang around with these total strangers in the hope that many of them would take it upon themselves to be the one to slip us a tip. If we did it right and weren't too obvious, we could 'work the crowd' and make a tidy little sum from several mourners which we'd split between us.
In retrospect, this was not a good life lesson as we equated "cute" with "money" and would push the more cherubic boys forward to do 'do that thing with your big doe eyes' and thus rake in the dosh. Little did we know what we were setting some of these little angels up for in later life but that's another story !
I remember that, like many a restaurant waiter, we didn't take kindly to the crowd dispersing and leaving us penniless. This was just not on ! On these, thankfully rare, occasions, we'd pull back the doe eyed cherubs as their time had passed and instead, send in the big guns......literally.
Big Tommo or any other equally obese altar boy would be sent in to intimidate any lingering relative as we didn't really care if the tip was given freely or with some resistance. Resorting to Big Tommo came with a financial downside however as often he kept the bulk of money for himself so in every way, he was a weapon of last resort. Our last resort.
Despite what we're seeing in Westminster Cathedral today, the life of an altar boy is relatively short and few make it into their mid teens (so many jokes...so many.......). In my small farming town, newspapers were never delivered and so being a paperboy was never a career option. Once a new batch of clean faced yutes came along and we oldies were all going down with serial acne and wispy chin stubble, our time was up and most of us had to wait until after school, college or University to again make any money.
In my case, it was 8 years, although as I did keep my surplice when I stopped being an altar boy, I did pull off the funeral trick once when times were hard at college ! I can tell you now that a long haired, bearded 19 year old in a surplice and tatty jeans tends to stand out at a funeral but like I said before, grief does funny things to people - although I had to become more of a Big Tommo than a cute cherub to add to my student funds.
On a serious note if I may (and it's my blog so yes, I may), I think the Pope missed out on a great opportunity for cross faith harmony today. There is a part of every Mass where the priest, or in this case, the Pope, opens up his arms towards the congregation and says "peace be with you" and after the congregation answers with "and also with you", he adds "let us give each other the sign of peace."
At this point people turn to those around them and either shake their hand or, if a relative or 'good' friend they give a hug or even a cheek kiss and repeat the peace exchange. Putting aside the golden opportunity to snog the beauty two aisles away by climbing over a few people to get to her, I always feel this is a nice gesture and sometimes the priest will come down from the altar and shake hands with a few members of the congregation to show he's not above a bit of mingling himself. Email addresses can be exchanged and promises to write or ring.
Anyway, given that there were loads of members of other denominations and faiths at the front of the congregation in Westminster Cathedral this morning, I feel it would've been awesome if the Pope had gone and shaken hands with some of them and wished them a bit of peace. I noticed a few Greek Orthodox priests by their distinctive black headgear............
"Peace be with you, Stavros."
"Right back at you, Bene"
Now THAT would have made my day ! Pax vobiscum