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“Oppressive Splendor”: An Altar Boy Recalls a Moment of Pride and Mystery


Ernst Haas/Getty Images

1947: A little boy kneeling at the altar of a cathedral in post-war Vienna. (Photo by Ernst Haas/Ernst Haas/Getty Images)

Russell Shaw - published on 03/06/16

An old image draws a former altar boy into a moment of sweet reverie

[Aleteia recently published an article that mused thoughtfully on the image of an altar boy, standing in a rainy street and surrounded by clouds of incense. The piece rang a bell of memory for our friend Russell Shaw, who wrote this lovely note we share below.—Ed]

The photo somehow reminded me of my first service as an altar boy.

I was in fourth grade at the time, and my very first assignment was to kneel for half an hour before the Blessed Sacrament exposed on a side of altar of our church on Holy Thursday. This was before the liturgy got “reformed,” when the Holy Thursday rites took place during the daylight hours.

After Mass, the Host  was placed in a monstrance on the altar of a side chapel, where people came to adore and pray all through the day. The altar boys were there for … decoration, I suppose. The chapel wall was a solid bank of flowering plants — lilies, azaleas, others — and the air was heavy with the smell of incense and flowers.

I had little understanding of what it was all about, but I was stunned by the oppressive splendor of it all and by the awesome responsibility of somehow being part of it.

I suppose I have gotten more sophisticated about religion since then, but I doubt that the intensity of my faith has increased much.

Russell Shaw is the author or coauthor of 21 books and numerous articles, columns and reviews. He is a member of the faculty of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and former secretary for Public Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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