I Was the Worst Altar Boy Ever

I come from a family that went to Mass every Sunday. No questions. And it wasn’t like school where you could complain of a stomach flu and maybe get to stay home. To get out of going to Mass, you had to vomit up a spleen at least. We were hardcore Mass goers every Sunday. My Mom even shockingly went on other days (gasp!) when it wasn’t even a law that you had to go.

When I did something wrong, my mother dragged me to confession. I was dragged there a lot—so often that I think some of the priests started scheduling it into their day.

As unlikely as it seems in such a family, I had my very first crisis of faith when I was only eight years old while training to be an altar boy. A little young, you might think, but I was always advanced when it came to tearing things apart. It occurred mainly because I was the dumbest kid to ever become an altar boy.

After Mass one Sunday, my two older brothers and I were deposited into the front pew and my mother sat in the back pew to pray. I had no idea what to expect but I figured it was bad. My Mom dragging me to church usually meant I’d been caught starting a fire, putting frogs in the milk box, or plucking every apple off the neighbor’s apple tree just to throw them at some other neighbor’s kids. But that day didn’t have a “Matt’s in trouble” vibe so I sat there. (I knew that it’s always smart to remain silent.) I still don’t know if anybody told me why we were there or I just wasn’t listening. I just knew my two older brothers, Pat and Kevin, didn’t seem surprised to be there, so I just went along figuring that we were where we were supposed to be.

Our parish priest came out and started talking to us about the Mass and cassocks and surplices and responsibility. Ah! We were becoming altar boys. At first I was just happy not to be in trouble, but as the priest went on and on and on and on I started thinking this sounding suspiciously like school, so I raised my hand and asked to go to the bathroom. When I passed my mother she looked at me with her maddest face possible. But I knew she could only get so mad at me IN CHURCH and with the priest only like 20 feet away. So I went to the bathroom and I took my time coming back. I even washed my hands. About 10 minutes later I sauntered back into the pew next to my brothers who simply shook their heads at me when the priest wasn’t looking.

I still wasn’t really paying all that close attention to the priest because I figured my brothers were paying enough attention so that they could just tell me what to do when the time came.

And then it happened. The priest taught us to ring the bells as he raised the Eucharist. Now, this was a catastrophic moment because up until that very moment I’d assumed that God himself made the bell ringing noise to signify the miracle of transubstantiation. I mean, every miracle deserves a little soundtrack, right? It was a terribly disappointing Wizard-behind-the-curtain moment for me. I was stunned. Heartbroken.

I remember glancing over at my brothers in alarm, but they seemed to have no reaction at all. I figured that they hadn’t heard that the priest essentially just said, “THERE IS NO GOD. WE RING THE BELLS!!!!!!!!!” It’s a sham. A con! I silently thanked God that my poor stupid and naive brothers hadn’t heard. I could still thank God for that, as I was and remain almost uniquely equipped to hold two mutually exclusive ideas in my head at the same time without any issue whatsoever.

This went on for weeks. During Mass, I raced down to the bells to make sure that I was the one ringing them. They probably just thought I was an idiot who liked the sound of bells, but in my head I didn’t trust them to pull off the con. I figured they’d be seen, noticed by everyone. If there was anything I was good at—even at eight—it was subterfuge.

And I made darn sure nobody in the pews could see the bells when I rang them. I’d hunch over them and ring them with only a slight swing of my hand so that even the people on the side would hardly detect any movement. There I was, trying to protect all the stupid parishioners from the awful truth that it wasn’t God at all ringing the bell; it was the little fat kid in the cassock. I couldn’t let them see. I thought of all those little old ladies who practically spent their lives at church—EVEN ON WEEKDAYS! I thought of my poor little brother and sister. I thought of my Mom, who went to confession all the time even though she never did anything wrong.

I don’t remember if it was weeks or months later when a priest asked me to ring the bells louder than my subterfuge would allow. He said “a little oomph” was what was needed. He said offhandedly and jokingly that we have to wake up the people in the back row to tell them that the transubstantiation has occurred and that the Body and Blood of our Lord is truly present on the altar. Something like that is certainly worth a bell ringing, isn’t it?

Aha! Yes, I told him. I believe it is. And I still do. That’s when it hit me. I realized to my surprise and great relief that I wasn’t hoodwinking everyone. I wasn’t the miracle after all. I was just a witness to the miracle and maybe drawing a little attention to it with the bells. Waking up the people in the back row and all.

So there it was. Problem solved. Now mind you, I’ve had many many more crises of faith since. But as I’ve grown older I’ve realized a little more with each passing day that I’m not the miracle. I just hope to bring a little attention to the miracle. And maybe that’s what I try to do with my writing here. It’s my own little way of ringing the bells. Just loud enough to wake the people in the back row.