What being an altar boy – once meant to a former gay man

2018-03-24T04:50:39+00:00May 5th, 2016|Blog, Christ, Our Lady & the Saints, The Church|

For the most part, my childhood in Catholic parochial schools was a nightmare: almost from the get go – I was a rather shy, artistic, and introverted kid; I was woefully uncoordinated and completely disinterested in the typical games other boys would play during recess. Of my earliest memories, I recall being alone a lot; occupying myself with drawing little pictures, making believe that my backyard was some faraway land, or endlessly daydreaming about being somewhere else. This unconscious inwardness made me uncomfortable around other children: I kept my face pointed downwards and continually stared at the floor; at times, I couldn’t speak – when a noise did come out of my mouth, it was usually a high-pitched and effeminate voice. Instinctively, other boys picked up on my apparent weakness and girlishness – making me the focal point of schoolyard bullying; it’s become a rather sad cliché among those who later become “gay,” but I loathed PE as I was always the last one picked for a team – even the girls were preferred by the athletic boy team captains; at those moments, I wanted to disintegrate into the ground beneath me; at the same time, I became obsessed with the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” and with the notion of going “over the rainbow.” My incipiently small circle of male friends consisted of other social rejects: a kid who was too fat, another who was too short, or a hyperactive skinny boy bordering on psychopathic. As we reached puberty, our one pivotal common interest was raiding and stealing pornographic magazines from either our fathers or our older brothers; in middle school, when my friends became more fascinated with living girls than static images – I remained hopelessly stunted; for, my feelings of rejection began to turn towards the boys who hated me; I wanted them to like me – more than anything.

My minuscule band of misfit brothers moved on – I didn’t. Some girls sensed my pathetic isolation and neediness and they took a liking to me – often inviting me into their chatty lunch-time conclaves. Since their conversations spun about the most popular male TV and movie stars, namely Don Johnson – who I idolized, I felt right at home. And, in a sense, I felt further insulated from the world of males: deeply setting within my mind that I was somehow different; not that I was a girl, but that I was also not like them – not like the other boys: after all, I was sensitive, creative, and intensely perceptive; I was better than them and I didn’t need their comraderie or their friendship – but, I did need just that.

Unexpectedly, the rather churlish priest at the school parish demanded, not requested, that all of the middle-school boys sign up to be altar boys; the priest, an incredibly diminutive man who weighed less than 100 pounds, exemplified the fact that true masculinity has nothing to do with physical strength or bodily proportions, but in an inner certitude and a deliberate and thoughtful courageousness that is more often unyieldingly quiet than violently blustery. Right away, at the thought of being an altar boy, I was terrified; my parents and family were erratic attendees at Sunday Mass and, since boyhood, I always thought of the priest in the sanctuary as a sort of sacred male space; during my early years in Catholic school, this was exaggerated by the often whirling flurry of activity, often overseen by the wildly gesticulating unfrocked religious sister from our school, who, right off stage, hurriedly organized the liturgical music, lectors, and gift presenters. The priest and altar boys usually entered and exited from the mysterious room known as the sacristy – and, that was a place I didn’t want to go.

Having no other choice, the parish priest, despite my attempts at an excuse, brow-beat me into becoming an altar boy. Instructions on the rituals, rubrics and church etiquette were brief and usually barked rather than spoken to us; his methodology of relating commands was more akin to a drill sergeant than a man of God, but, he caught our attention and immediately gained our respect; we might not have particularly liked him, but we did as he said. Later, I will never forget getting a bit too fidgety during Mass, sitting to the side as the priest gave his homily, without missing a syllable, he shot a look at me and I knew what to do – from then on: I was militantly still.

During the entire training process, I was ill-at-ease, for, beside me, were the same boys who taunted me – and, these were the same boys I often unconsciously desired. Yet, despite my past loathing and longing for these boys, little was said while under the direct supervision of the delicate looking, but demanding little priest; we worked steadily, with me – often following the leadership of the slightly older or more experienced boys; I liked what I was doing and I started showing up early. Then, the other boys sometimes talked to me, albeit with hushed tones, in the sacristy: about schoolwork or what they were doing after Mass. I suddenly felt less alone; and, the other boys, seemed less strange. As I got to know them – they became far less attractive – and, more human; I idolized them less and the teasing, on their part, ceased. Then, one of the boy’s fathers invited the entire troop of altar boys on an end of the school year picnic, when I was invited to go along – I almost died.

The following year, a new pastor arrived at the church: a bigger guy, more convivial, and decidedly less scary; during Mass, things immediately changed. At a Sunday service primarily reserved for families, the new priest invited the children of the congregation into the sanctuary; under the priest’s direction, the gaggle of squirmy kids linked hands around the altar, during the Our Father; I found myself holding the sweaty palm of another altar boy and the hand of a little girl. Back in the sacristy, before and after Mass, the altar boys were often crowded out by a throng of middle-aged female Eucharistic ministers; the priest was missing, usually bursting in at the last minute to throw on his chasuble, while the women, like an annoying and picking mother, endlessly directed our actions and or took over what before was our sole responsibility; i.e. preparing the cruets and taking out the altar linens. Rather quickly, with no priest requiring our involvement and after the invasion of the women, the altar boys began to drop out; soon, I was the only one left. The male world I longed to be part of, and was for a memorable year, vanished forever.

Afterwards, all of us moved on to high school. Most of the boys I got to know while an altar boy, I never spoke to again; though – they decidedly left me alone and never bullied or name called. Instead, the older male students at my new school, and those that I didn’t know, began to mercilessly taunt me. Again, I shrunk back into myself and fetishized my persecutors. After graduation, I literally ran to San Francisco’s “gay” Castro District – knowing that there, I would find the accepting all-male world I never felt a part of.

Over a decade later, when I got flushed out of “gay,” I hobbled back to the Church, strangely enough, first heading to the same parish that I once served as an altar boy. Since then, various pastors had come and gone. The pre-Mass preparations were a scurry of activity, mainly overseen by high-heeled women whose shoes jarringly and incessantly clicked against the church’s stone tiled floors. My heart sunk a little when the priest emerged, preceded by several altar…girls! I had no idea. What happened? – I thought. But, in a way, I wasn’t surprised, because just the day prior I had spoken to the same priest, and, despite my blasted and bruised body – he recommended that I return to my old “gay” life. Although, I am sure he thought he was being incredibly charitable and sympathetic, I saw it as the ultimate rejection: that, on this planet, there was no other place for me – except in “gay.” Not for a moment did I seriously consider his advice; after that Sunday, I walked out of the church, and believed, that I was walking away from Catholicism for the second and last time.

Out of nowhere, someone told me about a “Latin Mass” in a nearby city; I had no idea what they were talking about, but they knew of my experiences at the local parish and that I was about to give-up on the Church. The following Sunday, having nothing else to lose, I showed up at a rather shabby and dilapidated church in a semi-sketchy part of town. When the Mass started, I was almost immediately struck by the presence of altar boys. I couldn’t believe it – there they were: the same cassock and surplice I had worn that year so long ago; I remembered back, after the arrival of the new pastor, he put us in a thin white (alb) bathrobe, telling us to tie a colored yarn rope around our waist – they were embarrassing to wear and semi-infantile and peculiarly gender-neutral. Yet, there was much that I didn’t recognize and much that confused me: the priest was facing away from us, and so were the altar boys; some were older than I remembered and some were younger; and they were all curiously kneeling in front of the altar and responding, in Latin, to what the priest was reciting. I didn’t understand.

Later, I read and I studied – I found a handy pocket-sized translation of the Latin “Tridentine” Mass and endlessly poured over every word; my favorite part: a short set of statements and responses by the priest and the altar boy that almost immediately follows the Confiteor:
P. Show us, O Lord, Thy mercy.
R. And grant us Thy salvation.
P. O Lord hear my prayer.
R. And let my cry come unto Thee.
That was what I wanted to do: to cry out to the Lord. After reading this, I immediately built up enough courage to speak with the priest after Mass; I was somewhat trepidatious because, like the former pastor who drafted me as an altar boy, he was a short and powerful looking man; and, his sermons, though never condemnatory, were filled with admonitions about how severely humanity had gone off course. To my surprise, he was a remarkably kind and soft-spoken man; I went to Confession, and, he became my father and me – his prodigal son. Then, for about a year, I huddled around him a lot – and, he tolerated my presence and incessant questions. It was a special time for me: because I was reconnecting with God, the Church, with myself, and with men – now, in a very healthy way.

In a strange sort of twist, eventually I came full circle, when I was asked to be an altar boy again; this time as a server at the Latin Mass; for several weeks, I read and memorized the Latin “Ordinary of the Mass;” paying special attention to the pronunciation of the responses; then, a kindly visiting seminarian from the same priests’ congregation – coached me on proper stance, even my genuflections needed work, and the rubrics of the Mass. When I finally served at my first Mass, suddenly, and explicably, I returned to that initial failed seemingly insignificant moment of genuine masculinity from my boyhood. Whatever effeminacy of voice that still lingered – disappeared when I spoke the Latin, and any lilt in my walk or effervescent gestures vanished as I concentrated on serving God at His Altar; in a sense, I finally became the man God created me to be.

17 Comments

  1. Lisa May 6, 2016 at 7:02 pm

    excellent story. Thank you for sharing

  2. […] Originally posted on Joseph Sciambra’s blog […]

  3. Josefina May 7, 2016 at 5:33 am

    Joseph, you are very strong and brave. Thank you for baring your heart for the world to see and to be transformed by your story and perspective. The world needs more people like you. May God bless you. May Jesus Christ inspire you and the Holy Spirit strengthen you. May our Blessed Mother Mary lift you up, wrap you in her mantle and comfort you. May the Holy parents of our Lord Jesus Christ, St. Mary and St. Joseph, protect and pray for you as they one day did for Him.
    Thank you, brother. Keep on keeping on, in Christ! And bring as many along with you into God’s Holy Militia as possible. You are in my prayers, as well as, those who you left behind. Don’t look back. March forward in the love and compassion of Christ for Christ. Your reward will be great and ineffable in this life and in the next.

  4. D. K. May 7, 2016 at 8:12 pm

    Beautiful and honest writing. Thank you.

  5. David May 8, 2016 at 7:23 am

    Joseph, thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this. I know we would be good friends. You have tapped into something very deep and very real about masculinity and linked it to the Mass in a way that this culture of today might understand. That is serious Kingdom work and I am going to have to read more of your blog. Keep pressing on! (Phil. 3:13-14)

  6. Craig May 9, 2016 at 4:06 pm

    Great job, my friend. Stay with Tradition. Pax.

  7. Michael May 17, 2016 at 8:15 pm

    I would have been one of your misfit friends that became a Marine to work out my problems at 18. Thank you for sharing this.

  8. Br. Christian May 25, 2016 at 9:17 pm

    Thank you, Joseph, for this beautiful story that so concisely and eloquently teaches the value of tradition. Would that all Catholics would read this and understand! Our Lady of Good Success, pray for us. St Joseph, pray for us.

  9. Barbara June 16, 2016 at 1:34 am

    Thank you for allowing Christ to work through you. This is a very special piece. God bless you and please continue. You can say say the truth that many need to hear.

  10. Anthony Duk, MD July 7, 2016 at 5:50 am

    Wonderful and inspiring story Joseph. As a psychiatrist and traditional Catholic I would have been blessed to help you had I known you back then. Thank you for your incredible website. Keep up the saintly work.

  11. Kelly March 6, 2017 at 12:29 am

    Thank you for your courageousness. This is a truly beautiful account.

  12. Joe Bollig December 12, 2017 at 1:02 am

    So powerful. Thank you fo sharing what so many of us have also experienced. A blessing and a treasure are your words.

  13. Roger Agness May 5, 2018 at 4:15 pm

    Though I do not have the Catholic altar boy experience, I can relate to not fitting in with the other boys. I never hung out with the girls but I definitely did not feel part of the boys and thus as a grown male adult find myself still looking for those boy-friends to hang out with and build relationships. Finally now I understand those dynamics and victory is mine.

  14. Ed Rehrig August 8, 2018 at 4:17 pm

    Your story is incredibly powerful. Thank you for Sharing it. God bless.

  15. Lorraine Ortego August 8, 2018 at 6:39 pm

    Joseph I am so proud of you for sharing this wonderful incredible part of your deepest hurts growing up.Thank God HE pulled you out by your booth straps.God had you in the palm of his mighty hands the entire time ,and you followed HIS lead.God Bless you on your journey

  16. Kellie August 13, 2018 at 11:46 pm

    Beautiful writing. Thank you so much for sharing your story. God bless you 🙏🏻

  17. alice September 16, 2018 at 8:53 pm

    Thank you for this beautiful piece! The loneliness of a man, so powerful!

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