Traditional Latin Mass altar servers master more than ancient language

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By Kenneth J. Souza

Anchor Staff


ACUSHNET, Mass. — It’s appropriate that one of the key responses Dominic Correia first learned being an altar server during the weekly Latin Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church in Acushnet was “dominus vobiscum,” which translates as “the Lord be with you.”

Indeed, the daunting experience of participating in and serving a traditional Latin Mass required not only a bit of self-discipline but also faith in the Lord to see it through.

“I was a little scared when I first started serving the Latin Mass because I didn’t know if I was going to make any mistakes,” Correia said.

“It’s a whole different language and there are a few different parts to the Mass,” added his brother Joshua, who has been serving the Latin rite alongside his sibling for the past two months. “The priest is turned toward the tabernacle, but in the regular Mass the priest faces the people. I’m pretty much able to follow the Mass now, but sometimes I have trouble with the Latin.”

As the second anniversary of Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum decree facilitating the option of celebrating the traditional Latin Mass approaches July 7, local parishes throughout the Fall River Diocese have seen a steady increase in the rite’s popularity in the past two years. Three parishes currently offer the traditional Latin Mass in their churches.

According to Msgr. Gerard P. O’Connor, who celebrates the extraordinary form Mass at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Acushnet every Thursday at 5:30 p.m., he took it upon himself to train six altar servers once a week for 12 weeks for the Latin Mass so they’d be better prepared to respond and know what to do.

“For the first six weeks of training, we didn’t do anything but learn the Latin responses,” Msgr. O’Connor said. “I think it was only in the last two weeks that we moved into the church for actual practice … we didn’t want to be messing around in the Blessed Sacrament’s presence. There were some videos available to show the structure of the Latin Mass, but there’s nothing quite like just going through the experience firsthand.”

“We learned certain hand signals so we knew when to move and respond during Mass,” said altar server trainee Ben Reis. “We also learned how to respond in Latin.”

“There are a lot of different movements, because in the Latin Mass you mostly just stand at the foot of the altar, but for the regular English Mass you can go and sit down,” agreed fellow server Jordan Moniz. “It’s either kneel or stand in the Latin Mass — and there’s a lot of kneeling.”

Thirteen-year-old Tom DeSouza, a parishioner and altar server at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, said he finds the Latin Masses he’s served for the past few months not only more reverent, but they also force him to pay closer attention to what’s being said.

“You have to hear what the priest is saying and pay more attention,” he said. “We have a book to follow along during the Mass. I also have a book of Latin, so I know some of it by heart already, but I’m still learning other parts.”

“With the Latin Mass you have to pay close attention — you have to watch for the priest’s hand signals and you have to be ready to respond,” Msgr. O’Connor agreed.

While some may argue the value of learning a “dead language” like Latin, it remains an integral foundation for those studying English or other disciplines filled with Latin-based terminology such as the law and medicine.

To that end, Msgr. O’Connor noted, they will begin offering Latin as a language to eighth-graders at St. Francis Xavier School next year.

Most of the altar servers welcome the chance to study Latin and said they’ve already enjoyed picking up choice phrases to add to their vocabulary.

“Msgr. O’Connor taught us certain phrases that we use … one of our favorites is ‘salve plebs,’ which means ‘hello people,’” said altar server Jonathan Hamel. “We say that to each other all the time — it’s very fun to say. But then during the Mass, we have to make a conscious effort not to laugh when it comes up.”

“We learned ‘Kyrie eleison,’ which means ‘Lord have mercy,’” said 10-year-old John Martin of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, who has been serving the Latin Mass with his nine-year-old brother George for the past year.

“We both sat in the pew and watched the altar servers during the Latin Mass,” he said. “We have to respond to what the priest is saying during the Latin Mass.”

Although he noted attendance at his parish’s first Latin Mass was “phenomenal,” Msgr. O’Connor said they’ve since averaged about 30 to 40 people in subsequent weeks.

“I don’t think it will ever be hugely attended, but we didn’t have a Thursday Mass at our parish before we started the Latin Mass,” he said.

Altar server Isaac Laplante said that first Latin Mass was a bit unnerving since there were so many people present. But after going through the training with Msgr. O’Connor and a trial by fire, he’s become more confident in his ability to respond.

“The Latin Mass really forces you to pay attention, because you always have to focus on what you’re doing and what comes next,” Laplante said. “With the English Mass, you can relax a little bit more, because you don’t have to worry so much about when things need to be done.”

Traditional Latin Masses are held at the following parishes in the diocese:

— St. Francis Xavier, Acushnet: every Thursday at 5:30 p.m.;

— St. Francis Xavier, Hyannis: every Sunday at 1:00 p.m.;

— St. Anthony of Padua, New Bedford: the first Saturday of every month at 8:00 a.m.


© 2014 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing, Fall River, Mass.