Growing up Catholic in Gray’s Ferry also meant for young boys at Saint Gabriel School the responsibility of serving as an altar boy. While not everyone in the school was chosen to be an altar boy, those of us that were, like the Marines, the few the chosen, took the responsibility quite seriously. We were required to learn the nuances of the Roman Liturgy memorize the Latin responses to the prayers and like the priests of the period, contend with the increasing flow of changes that resulted from Vatican II.
Altar boys were of course the norm in those days. Today, the politically correct term is altar server, which permits the inclusion of young girls into the service at the altar as assistants. While it is permissible for young girls to assist in the celebration of the sacred liturgy, my sentiments are still rooted in the all male tradition of altar boys. Their essence and existence are firmly rooted in the traditional role of acolytes as a preparatory step towards Catholic priesthood. Additionally, the role of gradeschool boys as substitutes for the Order of Acolytes in itself was a great boost towards fostering vocations to the priesthood. Anyhow, the exception to the norm today is to be inclusive, and well for better or worst, that’s where we are.
After assisting as altar boys at Saint Gabriel, serving at Mass, preparing the sacred vessels and getting ready for the steady stream of Masses on (only) Sunday mornings, we were rewarded with the Altar Boy Picnic to Dorney Park outside of Allentown, Pa. I remember quite fondly, Father Samuel Shoemaker (now Monsignor), gathering all of the Gray’s Ferry Altar servers onto the bus for what seemed to be an eternal bus ride to the newly formed borders of the Diocese of Allentown. In the 1960’s and 1970’s there were just the usual rides at Dorney Park, an old wooden roller coaster, a seal pond and all of the usual carnival rides associated with an amusement park of the day.
Regardless of the limitations of the amusements, we wandered through Dorney Park, fed the seals, rode the rides, ate hot dogs, popcorn, peanuts and spent the day just enjoying the adventure of being out of the city and being well….boys.
All of those memories came flooding back to me yesterday as I accompanied my daughter and other altar servers from Saint John the Beloved School in suburban Wilmington, Delaware for the annual excursion to Dorney Park. Besides the obvious change of having both girls and boys as altar servers on the trip, Dorney Park well was not quite the same either. My memories of a quaint amusement park were shattered when I realized that the altar server of the 21st century is very high maintenance and requires in addition to an amusement park, a wild water park at which to engage in all sorts of precarious water fun, in order to celebrate the day. Water, water, water everywhere at Dorney Park and none available to drink without purchasing a bottle for $4.99! Wow! What a change of perspective. I remember wandering through the park all day with perhaps $10.00 dollars in my pocket. Father Shoemaker and the dads from Saint Gabriel cooked out and provided hot dogs, sodas and all types of other foods at our picnic at Dorney. Today’s Dorney Park, doesn’t allow any foods other than what is purchased at the park. While the hot dogs are still there, the popcorn, peanuts and water ice is gone, replaced by chicken strips and French fries for $9.99, pizza slices for $6.00 and improvised examples of water ice concoctions for $9.99 ( with a commemorative cup)!
Everyone on the trip enjoyed the day at Dorney Park, altar servers fell asleep on the bus and we got back to Saint John the Beloved about 7:30 pm. One thing however, I could not forget were all of my fellow Saint Gabriel altar boys, singing songs like, 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall while gliding down the Pennsylvania Turnpike to and from the annual excursion to Dorney Park. In striking contrast both male and female altar servers of the 21st century were either asleep, plugged into their I-Pods, texting on their cellular phones just talking on the same phone with people far away and not on the bus.
While the generations are indeed different from the Gray’s Ferry altar servers, I still prefer the hot dogs, the singing of songs and feeding the seals at Dorney Park…even though these things are a historical memory of my childhood. The water park and the $4.99 Coke aren’t really as much fun…