I made one great blunder when I was an altar boy, and I was afraid it would be the end of my altar boy career. One morning I was serving the children’s Mass, and it was during the distribution of Communion when I did the unthinkable.
To receive Communion, the congregation formed a line down the center aisle of the church, and then waited for their turn to go up to the communion railing and kneel. There, they waited for the priest to pass before them and place the Communion wafer (called the “host”) on their extended tongues.
My job was to move along next to Father, walk backwards, and hold the paten, a silver-plated disk about the size of a salad plate, under the chins of each communicant. It was so I could catch the sacred host in case it fell off anyone’s tongue and keep it from landing on the floor. The paten had a narrow handle about ten inches long that I held in my hand to maneuver it into place. This was a very important job, because absolutely no person was ever, ever, ever allowed to touch a consecrated host at any time for any reason. A consecrated host was transformed into the “Blessed Sacrament.” Only a priest could touch the hosts. A regular person touching a consecrated host was akin to reaching out and grabbing the breast of an old nun and squeezing. It was completely unthinkable and undoable.
Occasionally, we altar boys had a little fun with the paten, and the priests never seemed to catch on, or if they did, they didn’t react because they may have pulled this prank when they were altar boys. On this particular morning, one of the class bullies was kneeling at the railing waiting his turn. “Oh, boy,” I thought, here was my chance to get back at him, at least a little bit. Father Welsh paused to give him Communion, and as I placed the paten under his chin, I swept it in fast and close and smacked the edge into his Adam’s apple. Usually when we altar boys did this, the other kid got startled, tried not to laugh, and we tried hard not to laugh back. However, this bully didn’t do that. Apparently, I whacked his apple way too hard. His eyes became big and bugged out, and he quickly pulled his tongue back inside his mouth just in the moment Father was trying to put the host on it.
Sure enough, the sacred host fell. I caught it on the paten, but it landed on its edge and started circling like a dropped coin. I deftly swung the paten around in all directions trying to keep the host from falling off, but I couldn’t stop the inevitable. The thin host rolled off the edge and fell to the floor. Fearful that Father Welch would discover my little faux pas, I quickly went down on one knee and picked up the host with my fingers. Instantly, I realized what I had done. In my mind, I heard the powerful, opening notes to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—bah-bah-bah-bummmm—signaling that fate, knocking at my door, had come to collect me in death. I imagined a lightning bolt bursting through the ceiling of the church to strike me dead. I feared Jesus would come down from the giant cross over the altar, admonish me for my excommunicable offense, and condemn me to hell.
None of that happened. What did happen was worse. As I looked up from my kneeling position, the paten in one hand, and the Blessed Sacrament held tightly between the fingers of my other hand, Father Welsh glared at me and gasped. He reached down and grabbed my wrist, pulling me up like a marionette on a string.
“Come with me—now,” he said in a loud, rasping whisper.
He pulled me across the width of the sanctuary and into the sacristy. He took me to the special sink used for cleaning the chalices that held the consecrated wine and the ciboriums (untouchable by mere mortals) that held the consecrated hosts. This sink was special because its drain didn’t empty into the sewers as other sinks did. This one emptied directly into the blessed ground deep, deep beneath the church. The consecrated host couldn’t be thrown away, so he took it from my fingers, and placed it in his own mouth. He stood for a moment, praying. Then, he turned on the hot water, grabbed the soap, and started scrubbing my offending hand. As he scrubbed, he scolded me for daring to touch the Blessed Sacrament.
“Ricky, you know better. You know you can never touch the Blessed Sacrament, but you did it anyway. Why?” (Shame 103.)
I had long since stopped thinking this was funny when the host was spinning out of control. I was terrified I would go to hell for touching it. Catholics believe with absolute certainty in transubstantiation—the doctrine that says when the priest consecrates the hosts during Mass, Jesus actually becomes physically and spiritually present in each one—it was no, mere symbolism. I was afraid I might no longer be allowed to be an altar boy. Only God knew what the nuns might do when I went into the school building later.
“I know I’m not supposed to touch it, Father, but when I saw the Blessed Sacrament fall, all I could think of was getting Jesus off of the dirty floor.” It was an honest response, but I also thought it sounded plausible and might steer him away from what really caused it. I knew it was a good answer, too. I was proud of that one. I was learning to think on my feet. You had to be quick if you attended discipline-rich Catholic school.
I was quickly drying my hands with a towel now, filled with fear and the now-familiar jolt of shame, as a tear ran slowly down my cheek. Father looked at me and then smiled, and he placed his hand softly against my cheek and wiped away the tear. “All right, Ricky. It’s okay now. In the future, if it ever happens again, you let me bend over and pick up the Blessed Sacrament. Okay? Now, let’s go back in and finish Mass.”
Again? In the future? That meant I would be serving Mass again. I was saved! Surprisingly, the nuns didn’t say anything, because they weren’t sure what happened. I never told them, and I knew Father wouldn’t rat me out either. Priests were good at keeping their mouths shut. After all, they, too, had memories of angry, frightening little nuns for teachers.
When I went to class, as I walked down the aisle to my desk, the bully whose Adam’s apple I crunched kicked me hard in the shin when I walked past him. As I limped the rest of the way, I smiled and realized all was right with the world.