The Courier & Advertiser (Angus and Dundee)
The Serial: Wee Georgie Day 40
Even at the age of nine, I remained holy little Georgie, still fascinated by the atmosphere of the various churches we went to.
I was still comfortable around statues and pictures (except that one of the Sacred Heart that I shot), still considering fulfilling the dreams of Mum and Dad and all my aunts and uncles by becoming a priest.
I really didn’t mind kneeling down by the side of my bed to say my night prayers, or going to mass every Sunday without fail, or saying a decade of the Rosary every day through personal choice.
So I guess it was a natural progression to sign up as an altar boy at the newly-built St Clements’s Church only a couple of hundred yards from our house.
I had already become a member of the choir, mainly thanks to my teacher from St Mary’s, Mrs. Balbirnie, who happened to be the organist at the new church.
From up there beside her in the gallery I would join in the descant to the various hymns.
While up there, I would watch the altar-boys perform on the far side of the altar rail patterns of movement that were as yet a mystery to me.
Strain my eyes
I’d strain my eyes to identify the strange objects they were carrying about, and what exotic substances might be in them.
But most of all, I listened to the foreign babble coming from them as they responded to the priest at various points throughout the mass.
I was already acquainted with some random bits of Latin.
The motto of Lawside Academy, Joe’s secondary school, was “Laborare et Orare” and this was written on the badge of his school blazer.
I knew what “Ave Maria” meant because I sang the hymn most Sundays and I was intrigued by its mention of someone called Benedict Tattoo.
I had learned about the “Magna Carta” in history and Joe had taught me something in Latin he’d learned from his Latin teacher Mr Campbell.
He told me “Sic transit gloria mundi” meant “Gloria was sick on the bus on Monday,” but he fell about laughing after he said it. I didn’t get the joke.
The booklet I was given to learn off by heart at my first altar-boy class contained the Rite of the Mass in Latin, with both the priest’s lines and my own.
It proved really difficult to learn, simply because, with the odd exception, I had absolutely no idea what the words meant.
One of these exceptions was the Our Father or “Pater Noster” in Latin.
I soon noticed that by comparing the two versions I could get an idea of the meanings of certain words, although it seemed that the words weren’t in the same order as in English. Even the Our Father was Father Our! The rest of my training slowly unravelled all the mysteries of what happened on the altar.
We had to take different books open at the correct place to the priest, and then take them away again.
We had to bring him water to wash his hands with and a cloth to dry them.
We had to bring him the little jugs of water and wine to mix and turn into Jesus’ blood.
I never saw it change into blood but kind of felt it, and Father Page told us it happened every time.
As he was a priest and obviously never told lies I had no reason to doubt that this extraordinary change was happening.
He told us it was called Transubstantiation, and that was the biggest word I had ever heard.
In the beginning, the duty I wished for most was to be the bell-ringer.
That was a job I considered made you extra holy and set you up for the plum position of swinger of the smoke ball.
It truly seemed a miracle that all the priest did was sprinkle some ash into a metal ball full of holes and out would come the smelliest smoke in the world: not bad smelly, just strong smelly.
The boy who had that job said he loved being able to make so many people cough.
However, the bit I came to like best was accompanying the priest along the altar rail as he gave out communion to the people. This gave me the opportunity to make an extensive study of people’s tongues as they had to stick them right out to get a host put on them.
It was my job to hold a gold plate below each person’s chin to catch the host if it fell off his or her tongue.
That was because only the priest was allowed to touch the host with his fingers once the bread was changed into Jesus’ body.
I discovered during my extensive research that quite a lot of people had furry tongues.
Others had extra long ones like spaniels’ and there were quite a lot who had a cross-shaped groove right in the centre of theirs.
I guessed they were the especially holy folk of the parish although my friend’s dad had one of these crosses on his tongue.
I knew for certain he smoked cigarettes, told dirty jokes and swore.
I was soon able to tell Mum and Dad stuff they didn’t know themselves about Mass and this gave me a feeling of importance.
They didn’t know that the priest kept his robes on models like you saw in shop windows and they didn’t know the altar wine came in bottles in cardboard boxes.
They didn’t know there was a hot water bottle in the pulpit for the priest to keep him cosy while he was giving the sermon.
Another thing they didn’t know was that the priest did the crossword between confessions.
And they had no idea that the priests used a toilet just like ours!
I’m sure that Mum genuinely believed that the clergy were spared the most indelicate functions of humankind as a sort of a reward for being good all the time.
Well, I knew the truth because the toilet in the church not only looked like the one at home, it even smelled a bit like ours did.
They didn’t know there was a hot water bottle in the pulpit for the priest to keep him cosy while he was giving the sermon