When you enter your 77th year as I just have, indulgent progeny and rare tolerant friends will allow you the luxury of brief, occasional, preferably infrequent bouts of nostalgia. They will not allow your organ-recitals and accounts of your most recent operations, but if, in your incipient second childhood you want to talk about your first, they’ll give you five minutes. Tops.
Altar-boys may one day be the subject of anthropological research. Erudite scholars will ponder and probe the mystery of why, during the first half of the last century, otherwise normal, red-blooded boys of average intelligence, like me, were willing, sometimes eager, candidates for the red and white, somewhat effeminate get-up, and the complicated rituals involving changing the Missal from one side of the altar to the other, offering the right cruet of water or wine to the celebrant, ringing the bell at the right moments, respecting the necessary number of “ductus” and “ictus” when incensing with the thurible, and all the other arcane functions of the miniature cleric that was the altar-boy. Above all, the researchers will wonder why the lads would go to the trouble of learning the Latin responses in answer to the priest’s invocations, without understanding a word of what either was saying. But they will also note the inevitable extinction of the genus altar-boy, and establish graphs correlating their disappearance and the drying-up of vocations to the priesthood.
It was, after all, a shrewd idea, this incubator of future priests. We look back, but the Church must look forward. I wonder what it will come up with to replace the quasi-fraternity of preadolescent altar-boys, and the social cement-works which were the Catholic Youth Organizations. The former aimed at planting the seed of sacerdotal vocations, the latter at assuring the choice of a Catholic partner for marriage. Some of the Church’s strategists will no doubt endeavor to resurrect such dead institutions. Others will experiment with new approaches. They will have their work cut out. The Catholic priesthood has already begun its crossing of the desert, with fewer and fewer priests young enough to inspire youth to follow them into the ministry. But atheists would be foolish to expect the priesthood and the Catholic religion to disappear. Not only are both alive and relatively well in some developing countries, but even in developed countries believers will find ways of keeping faith alive. The Church of tomorrow will be the stronger for having faithful and clergy who believe and practise their faith, not as we did, by unquestioning acceptance of the beliefs and practices of our forebears, but by personal commitment. It will be harder for them without the help of the Catholic education system as we knew it and institutions like that of the altar-boys, but the surviving, more compact Church will be less vulnerable because it will have phased out many of the archaic beliefs, rules and practices which make it today such an easy target for ridicule. Atheists will have to come up with appropriate and effective ways of destroying the persistent illusions on which religion is founded. I would like to hope that at least some of the material in my book and this blog will continue to serve the cause :