A new generation of young altar servers captivated by the solemn rituals of Latin Mass is mastering the traditional rite in growing numbers in the Boston archdiocese as the liturgy makes a comeback after a four-decade hiatus.
“It’s really reverent. That’s why I like it,” said altar server Brendan MacKenzie, 12, of Marshfield, as he readied for the Tenebrae, or “Spy Wednesday,” service at Mary Immaculate of Lourdes in Newton during Holy Week. “It brings you closer to God.”
Since April, the number of young boys trained to perform Latin Mass in the Boston area has more than doubled, from eight to 18 servers, said the Rev. Charles J. Higgins, pastor at Mary Immaculate, where the old-style Mass is celebrated every Sunday at noon.
There are an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 altar servers throughout the Boston Archdiocese, a spokesman said. Keeping with the tradition, only boys serve at Latin Mass.
Higgins, 46, who is self-taught in the Latin liturgy, said the increase in boys studying the traditional Mass has more to do with his repeated appeals for volunteers than last year’s “motu propio” from Pope Benedict XVI. The Vatican order reversed 43 years of near banishment of the worship service by allowing priests to perform the liturgy without the authorization of a local bishop.
The devoted altar boys agree with this interpretation of how the pool of servers took on a more youthful look after years of just adult men on the altar.
“As Father Higgins says, he wants an army of servers,” said Stephen Farynaz, 12, of Lunenberg, who has been serving at Latin Mass since he was 7 years old.
A minimum of nine servers is needed to perform the highly choreographed rite, which can be traced to the sixth century and is referred to as the Tridentine Mass. The training takes weeks and entails memorizing Latin responses and learning the ceremony’s many rubrics, such as how to walk, genuflect, hold your hands, stand and carry objects.
Frank Doyle Jr., 43, of West Roxbury, a veteran master of ceremonies who has been serving Latin Mass for 17 years, trains new servers in the nuances of the Mass while conveying that they need not be Thomas Aquinas to get the hang of it.
“When in doubt, genuflect. That’s an old MC’s joke,” said Doyle, who studied the work of English priest Adrian Fortescue to learn the Mass.
To teach some details, Doyle conjures up some fire-and-brimstone mnemonic devices. Take how to kiss the thurible, which contains incense.
“You kiss the top of the chain where there is a disc or you will be like the Prophet Isaiah and know what it’s like to have coal purify your lips,” Doyle said.
Angelus Davulis, 13, of Dorchester was first exposed to Latin Mass at age 7 when his uncle, the Rev. Dominic Gentile, performed a High Solemn Mass. Since the 1990s, the Boston archdiocese has offered Latin Mass at Holy Trinity Church in the South End. The Mass relocated to Mary Immaculate last year.
Davulis studies from a booklet titled “How To Serve Low Mass and Benediction” to learn the difficult Latin. He said he prefers serving at Latin Mass to serving at the Novus Ordo, or modern Mass, because he feels more involved.
“I just want to learn it now before it’s too late,” said Davulis.
MacKenzie’s older brother, Cameron, 14, said he resisted when his parents urged him to serve.
“I guess the first time when I served I realized I was serving God. I guess it just took me away,” he said.
Higgins said he is heartened by his new flock of servers and is training five priests to say Latin Mass.
“They have an openness to the religious practice, which is very refreshing,” said Higgins. “I see it as a hopeful sign that when they come of age, that whatever stage of life they choose, that they will be strong Christian men whether as priests or family men.”