By Dr Anthony Esolen
“There is little need to underline the fact that the Church in our day is facing many and difficult problems of every sort,” writes Fr. George L. Kane. “Persecution has never been more intense or diabolical. Secularism is taking its toll of the attitudes and the ways of living of many of her members. Neo-paganism is ever devising new methods of breaking God’s commandments. Ignorance of religion is so widespread that it has been estimated that more than 90 percent of our people are insufficiently instructed in the Faith. The decline in Christian family life is almost everywhere evident.”
Fr. Kane is no doomsayer. The problems he lists are not insoluble. But they require that a different problem be addressed first—namely, “the acute shortage of priests, Brothers and Sisters.” You can’t run schools and hospitals without laborers, he says, and the soil in that field is growing thin. Hence he collects some of the best articles he can find on this topic in one volume: Meeting the Vocation Crisis. His hope is that “vocation directors and others charged with the responsibility of fostering vocations will find this compilation of some value.”
The book was published in 1956.
I’ll have a few things to say about Fr. Kane and the book I’m holding. First, I’d like to talk about one of the articles, “The Altar Boy Program” by the layman Paul Zimmerman. It will wring your heart. It comes from a world destroyed.
Zimmerman begins with an anecdote from 1775. That was a jubilee year, and the traffic of pilgrims to Rome was heavy. On the way, people stopped at churches for special prayers and solemn processions. There was one such procession in the village of Osimo, near Loretto. Two altar boys, Della Genga and Castiglione, were carrying brass candlesticks and walking on either side of the crucifix. Suddenly, they “got into an argument and before anyone knew it, Castiglione wielded his candlestick. A dull thud was heard and little Della Genga had a lump on his skull.”
Not an edifying anecdote—except that, on Christmas Eve in 1824, Habemus papam rang through the square of Saint Peter’s. The Cardinal Grand Penitentiary presented to the new Pope, Leo XII, the silver mallet with which to strike the Holy Door, “and with a twinkle in his eye the Pope whispered to him: ‘I wonder if you remember the day you presented me with a brass candlestick and a lump on the head?’” Nor does the story end there. When Della Genga died two years later, his successor was that same Cardinal Castiglione, Pius VIII.
“You never know,” says Zimmerman. “Those so-called ‘animated pieces of humanity’ known as altar boys may one day become priests, cardinals and even popes.”
❧Where does a scout look for baseball players? Where else but “on the sand-lots, the neighborhood, or school, or in small town leagues.” Where then should you look for priests? To the altar, where the boy “responds each day to ‘I will go unto the altar of God, to God who gives joy to my youth.’” Note that that psalm once so beautifully used as preparation for Mass has been relegated to a forgotten closet, with old missals that somebody was supposed to throw out a long time ago.
“From the natural standpoint,” says Zimmerman, “altar boys and the priest become the closest and best of friends.” It’s a male friendship built around getting important things done. This passage I must quote in full:
They see him at their recreation, at parties and picnics, and as the organizer and coach of their games. They see him at work when they watch him perform his duties as they help around the rectory. They see him as teacher as he takes them through their prayers and ceremonies. They know him in all his priestly work—they are closest to him while he offers the Sacrifice, while he gives Communion to the sick and well, or witnesses a marriage, teaches religion, rushes to the sickbed or buries the dead. They see him when they behold him kneeling in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament no matter how early they arrive, and again when they leave after Mass.Priests are now too old or too few to be coaches, even if you could find enough boys in a parish to make up a team. No one would trust a child alone in an adult’s house to help clean up. There isn’t much to learn anymore by way of “prayers and ceremonies”—and, in many parishes, even that little is gobbled up by the grownups, leaving the altar girls and boys sitting, bored, in their jammies. I don’t think you’ll see an altar boy accompanying a priest on a visit to the sick or the dying. Neither before nor after Mass will the server see the priest kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament.
❧What kinds of men appeal to boys? Heroes: the star pitcher, the quarterback, the ship captain, the explorer, the man who blasts a tunnel through a mountain. That’s who. “Theirs is a time of dreams,” says Zimmerman, “dreams in which the boy pictures himself performing great deeds, for himself, for his country and for his God.” Not comfortable deeds, complaisantly social deeds, mildly friendly deeds, safe and ordinary deeds, but great deeds, admitting of great risk and sacrifice and greater accomplishment and reward.
That’s to consider the matter “from the natural standpoint,” but “much more important are the supernatural opportunities which serving at Mass offers the altar boy.” I wonder how the sense of the supernatural can penetrate the fog of bonhomie and banality that has settled in the walls and pews and missals and hymnals of our churches. We have to try hard to imagine what Zimmerman sees as the drama of the Mass: “It is certainly possible that one who is so close to Christ truly present on the altar—there is none closer save the priest himself—should be enkindled by a spark from the infinite warmth of Divine Love.” It’s not only the proximity that moves the boy: “The altar boy plays a higher part in the Mass than the choir, the nuns, the laity—anyone other than the ministering priest himself.”
He grows used to “rising in all kinds of weather and enduring the tedium of long ceremonies,” building the virtue of self-sacrifice; his piety is enhanced by “close contact with the Blessed Sacrament, the altar and other sacred things,” and he learns “the manly traits of punctuality, neatness, reliability and responsibility, natural habits which can easily be converted by God into supernatural virtues.”
A different world.
❧If it was destroyed, it wasn’t because of Reverend Kane. He was an English professor at Saint Francis Xavier College, in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, when that school was the premier Catholic college in Canada—all male, flush with vocations, and the center of an international credit union movement based on Catholic social teaching. Fr. Kane established a college radio station, CJFX, to broadcast programs on religion, arts and letters, economics, and agriculture; it was a “college over the air.”
He got things done. Such a man was well chosen as the director of vocations for what was then a diocese with a worldwide reputation.
Nor would I blame the man who owned my book—a dear friend who died last year, Fr. John J. MacDonald. He was tall and strong: a farmer-boy in youth and, ever afterward by hobby, orthodox in theology, the founder of our community television station and our local hospital, and also an alumnus of Saint Francis Xavier.
Father J. J. was for many years the pastor on our island, with a large team of altar boys. They loved him. When he first arrived, he didn’t know a bit of French, but he studied the language right away for the sake of the Acadian parish, and became fluent in it. One day, he was in the car taking four or five altar boys up to the highlands for some fishing, when they were stopped by tourists asking for directions. Father J. J., with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, responded in French as if it were the only language he spoke… much to the hardly-suppressed hilarity of the boys.
❧I’ve also found a couple of memorial cards in the book. The front of the cards features Saint Joseph and the child Jesus. The back reads:
AVE MARIS STELLA!
et de ma
Premiere Messe Solennelle
16-17 Juin 1962
That is followed by the priest’s name. I won’t give it here. He, too, came to this island, and in the early 1970s he established, in the rectory, a boxing club for the boys. I think that a boxing club is a terrific thing, but this man was interested in more than boxing. He was tempted, and he fell badly, and did wicked things with some of those teenage boys. I don’t know the specifics. A reliable witness tells me that some—not all!—but some of the men who accused him lied, for the money. They were never anywhere near him.
But he was guilty, and he left Canada in disgrace, repenting of his sins, and living the rest of his years in seclusion—in a monastery, I believe—where, according to several other reliable witnesses, he died a holy death.
❧Then the volcano erupted. If only we had the vocation crisis that Fr. Kane and the others wrote about! Volcanoes are indiscriminate in their destruction. Humanly speaking, every facet of Catholic existence has been scorched or charred or burnt to cinders: the liturgy, parish life, parochial schools, Catholic colleges, wholesome boyhood and girlhood, manhood, womanhood, marriage, the family, the priesthood, religious orders—the very confidence that Catholics should have regarding the truth of the faith.
I’m not reminiscing about a golden age. There aren’t any of those. Man is a sinner, destined to die. But does he have to be crippled and addled, too? The old Catholic colleges were not always seedbeds of sanctity. But do they have to be garbage heaps? The priesthood sometimes attracted bad or dubious men. But can we not at least have a priesthood, and a lot of religious orders?
If we can’t even imagine ordinary human things—a priest taking a group of energetic boys fishing in the mountains—that says a lot about how dreary and narrow our lives have become, because of sin, our own sins and the sins of others. Time to repent and rebuild.