For the most part, my childhood in Catholic parochial schools was a nightmare.

I was a shy, artistic, and introverted kid. I was woefully uncoordinated and completely disinterested in the typical games other boys would play during recess. And I was bullied mercilessly.

Lost and adrift, I finally found the male camaraderie I needed in my fellow altar boys – until, that is, it was taken away by the inclusion of women. It was many wounded years before I finally found my way back. This is my story.

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Of my earliest memories, I recall being alone a lot: occupying myself with drawing little pictures, making believe that my backyard was some faraway land, or endlessly daydreaming about being somewhere else.

This unconscious inwardness made me uncomfortable around other children. I kept my face pointed downwards and continually stared at the floor. At times, I couldn’t speak. When a noise did come out of my mouth, it was usually a high-pitched and effeminate voice. Instinctively, other boys picked up on my apparent weakness and girlishness, making me the focal point of schoolyard bullying.

It’s become a rather sad cliché among those who later become “gay,” but I loathed PE as I was always the last one picked for a team. Even the girls were preferred by the athletic boy team captains. At those moments, I wanted to disintegrate into the ground beneath me. I became obsessed with the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” and with the notion of going “over the rainbow.”

My incipiently small circle of male friends consisted of other social rejects: a kid who was too fat, another who was too short, and a hyperactive skinny boy bordering on psychopathic. As we reached puberty, our one pivotal common interest was raiding and stealing pornographic magazines from either our fathers or our older brothers. In middle school, when my friends became more fascinated with living girls than static images, I remained hopelessly stunted. For, my feelings of rejection began to turn towards the boys who hated me. I wanted them to like me more than anything.

My minuscule band of misfit brothers moved on, but I didn’t. Some girls sensed my pathetic isolation and neediness and they took a liking to me, often inviting me into their chatty lunch-time conclaves. Since their conversations spun about the most popular male TV and movie stars, namely Don Johnson – who I idolized – I felt right at home.

And, in a sense, I felt further insulated from the world of males. Deeply setting within my mind that I was somehow different; not that I was a girl, as I was not like them. But I was also not like the other boys. After all, I was sensitive, creative, and intensely perceptive. I told myself that I was better than them and didn’t need their camaraderie or their friendship – but I did need just that.

The Male World of the Sacristy

Unexpectedly, the rather churlish priest at the school parish demanded, not requested, that all of the middle-school boys sign up to be altar boys. The priest, an incredibly diminutive man who weighed less than 100 pounds, exemplified the fact that true masculinity has nothing to do with physical strength or bodily proportions, but in an inner certitude and a deliberate and thoughtful courageousness that is more often unyieldingly quiet than violently blustery.

Right away, at the thought of being an altar boy, I was terrified. My parents and family were erratic attendees at Sunday Mass and, since boyhood, I always thought of the priest in the sanctuary as a sort of sacred male space. During my early years in Catholic school, this was exaggerated by the often whirling flurry of activity by the wildly gesticulating unfrocked religious sister from our school, who, right off stage, hurriedly organized the liturgical music, lectors, and gift presenters. But the priest and altar boys usually entered and exited from the mysterious room known as the sacristy – and, that was a place I didn’t want to go.

Having no other choice, the parish priest, despite my attempts at an excuse, brow-beat me into becoming an altar boy. Instructions on the rituals, rubrics and church etiquette were brief and usually barked rather than spoken to us. His methodology of relating commands was more akin to a drill sergeant than a man of God, but, he caught our attention and immediately gained our respect.

We might not have particularly liked him, but we did as he said. Later, I will never forget getting a bit too fidgety during Mass, sitting to the side as the priest gave his homily, without missing a syllable, he shot a look at me and I knew what to do. From then on, I was militantly still.

During the entire training process I was ill-at-ease, for, beside me, were the same boys who taunted me – the same boys I often unconsciously desired. Yet, despite my past loathing and longing for these boys, little was said while under the direct supervision of the delicate looking but demanding little priest. We worked steadily, with me often following the leadership of the slightly older or more experienced boys. I liked what I was doing and I started showing up early.

Then the other boys sometimes talked to me, albeit with hushed tones, in the sacristy, about schoolwork or what they were doing after Mass. I suddenly felt less alone; and, the other boys, seemed less strange. As I got to know them they became far less attractive and more human. I idolized them less and the teasing, on their part, ceased. Then, one of the boy’s fathers invited the entire troop of altar boys on an end of the school year picnic. When I was invited to go along, I almost died.

A New Priest

Unfortunately, the following year a new pastor arrived at the church: a bigger guy, more convivial, and decidedly less scary. During Mass, things immediately changed. At a Sunday service primarily reserved for families, the new priest invited the children of the congregation into the sanctuary. Under the priest’s direction, the gaggle of squirmy kids linked hands around the altar during the Our Father. I found myself holding the sweaty palm of another altar boy and the hand of a little girl.

Back in the sacristy, before and after Mass, the altar boys were often crowed out by a throng of middle-aged female Eucharistic ministers. The priest was missing, usually bursting in at the last minute to throw on his chasuble, while the women, like an annoying and picking mother, endlessly directed our actions and took over what before was our sole responsibility, e.g. preparing the cruets and taking out the altar linens.

Rather quickly, with no priest requiring our involvement and after the invasion of the women, the altar boys began to drop out. Soon, I was the only one left. The male world I longed to be part of, and was for a memorable year, vanished forever.

Afterwards, all of us moved on to high school. Most of the boys I got to know while an altar boy I never spoke to again. They did, however, leave me alone and never bullied again. Instead, the older male students at my new school, and those that I didn’t know, began to mercilessly taunt me. Again, I shrunk back into myself and fetishized my persecutors. After graduation, I literally ran to San Francisco’s “gay” Castro District – knowing that there, I would find the accepting all-male world I never felt a part of.

Over a decade later, when I got flushed out of “gay,” I hobbled back to the Church, strangely enough, first heading to the same parish that I once served as an altar boy. Since then, various pastors had come and gone. The pre-Mass preparations were a scurry of activity, mainly overseen by high-heeled women whose shoes jarringly and incessantly clicked against the church’s stone tiled floors. My heart sunk a little when the priest emerged, preceded by several altar…girls! I had no idea. What happened?, I thought.

But, in a way, I wasn’t surprised, because just the day prior I had spoken to the same priest, and, despite my blasted and bruised body, he recommend that I return to my old “gay” life. Although, I am sure he thought he was being incredibly charitable and sympathetic, I saw it as the ultimate rejection: that, on this planet, there was no other place for me, except in “gay.”

Not for a moment did I seriously consider his advice. After that Sunday, I walked out of the church, and believed, that I was walking away from Catholicism for the second and last time.

The Latin Mass

Out of nowhere, however, someone told me about a “Latin Mass” in a nearby city. I had no idea what they were talking about, but they knew of my experiences at the local parish and that I was about to give-up on the Church.

The following Sunday, having nothing else to lose, I showed up at a rather shabby and dilapidated church in a semi-sketchy part of town. When the Mass started, I was almost immediately struck by the presence of altar boys. I couldn’t believe it. There they were: the same cassock and surplice I had worn that year so long ago.

Yet, there was much that I didn’t recognize and much that confused me: the priest was facing away from us, and so were the altar boys. Some were older than I remembered and some were younger. And they were all curiously kneeling in front of the altar and responding, in Latin, to what the priest was reciting. I didn’t understand.

Later, I read and I studied: I found a handy pocket-sized translation of the Latin “Tridentine” Mass and endlessly poured over every word. My favorite part: a short set of statements and responses by the priest and the altar boy that almost immediately follows the Confiteor:

P. Show us, O Lord, Thy mercy.
R. And grant us Thy salvation.
P. O Lord hear my prayer.
R. And let my cry come unto Thee.

That was what I wanted to do: to cry out to the Lord. After reading this, I immediately built up enough courage to speak with the priest after Mass. I was somewhat trepidatious because, like the former pastor who drafted me as an altar boy, he was a short and powerful looking man, and his sermons, though never condemnatory, were filled with admonitions about how severely humanity had gone off course.

To my surprise, he was a remarkably kind and soft-spoken man. I went to Confession, and he became my father, and me his prodigal son. Then for about a year I huddled around him a lot. And, he tolerated my presence and incessant questions. It was a special time for me because I was reconnecting with God, the Church, with myself, and with men – now, in a very healthy way.

A Man of God

In a strange sort of twist, eventually I came full circle: I was asked to be an altar boy again, though this time as a server at the Latin Mass. For several weeks, I read and memorized the Latin “Ordinary of the Mass,” paying special attention to the pronunciation of the responses. Then, a kindly visiting seminarian from the same priests’ congregation coached me on proper stance (even my genuflections needed work) and the rubrics of the Mass.

When I finally served at my first Mass, I suddenly returned to that initial failed and seemingly insignificant moment of genuine masculinity from my boyhood. Whatever effeminacy of voice that still lingered disappeared when I spoke the Latin, and any lilt in my walk or effervescent gestures vanished as I concentrated on serving God at His Altar.

In a sense, I finally became the man God created me to be.

Originally posted on Joseph Sciambra’s blog

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