The Christmas I am recalling here is that of 1945. I was in the seventh grade. Ours was a cathedral parish, so the Bishop customarily sang a Pontifical High Mass at five a.m. on Christmas morning. (Midnight Mass was "out of vogue" during that period. The bishops around the country did not want people coming from Christmas Eve parties to Mass.) I was one of the servers. My duty was to carry a candle (called the Bugie, pronounced BU-jee-a), with the missal the bishop used throughout the Mass. The Deacon and Subdeacon used a book called the Lectionary.
As one of the younger children in the family, I was expected to go to bed early on Christmas Eve, while the older brothers and sister stayed up. They stayed up "to put out the presents," as we used to put it. As there were nine of us and my parents, putting out the presents took some time, especially as there was almost always something that had to be assembled When they were finished, they came upstairs to wake us younger ones. We gloried in the plunder for an hour or so, then went to bed. That year, I totally forgot about Mass at five. Fr. McAtee, the Master of Ceremonies, called the house at about four-thirty, asking where my brother John and I were. He was the "mitre bearer." By the time we got to church, everyone else was ready and waiting for us two miscreants, who still had sleep in our eyes; we had kept Bishop Francis Cotton, his entourage of priests, and the whole congregation waiting for five minutes or so. We had been instructed most sternly to get to the sacristy and be vested by 4:30.
We entered the church at the front door. As he proceeded, the Bishop wearing his mitre, carrying his gold-colored crook, blessed the people, who genuflected. The choir began the Introit.
Our choir was nothing to rave about, but it was adequate. My Grandmother Richardson was the organist and director, my mother and older sister were among the singers. At the time, I thought it was lovely and impressive; without the organ and choir, the ceremony would have been sadly wanting.
I remember the scene vividly, as it was the same every year. St. Stephen’s was crowded with people, possibly a thousand all told. Some of the men had put out the uncomfortable and noisy wooden chairs in the side and main aisles. People were in the vestibule and on both stairs leading up to the choir. There was no padding either on the kneelers or the seats. Most people kept their coats on, because there was no place to put them. In the left corner of the church’s nave, very tall Christmas trees had been brought in and there was a large crib scene. The people were perfectly quiet and respectful. I think it safe to say that not one of them felt slighted or ignored throughout the ceremony, because the Bishop did not fawn over them, and make something big out of the fact that they had gotten up so early to come to Mass; after all, it was a Holyday of Obligation! Neither did anyone there feel slighted that a dozen or so people did not drop by at the Agnus Dei and shake his hand, to assure him that he was loved with true Christian charity. Apparently, nearly everyone in the church went to Holy Communion, for the Bishop and two priests took a long time distributing the Sacred Host. This was the way we considered it ought to be; the more Communions there were, the better it was.
It is also safe to say that everyone there believed firmly and loved truly the Doctrine of the Incarnation, and the story of Mary and Joseph looking for a place in Bethlehem to stay the night Mary’s Child Jesus would be born. We classed ourselves with the shepherds bidden by the angels to come and see the newborn King of Israel. I doubt that there was a single person there that morning who did not believe that the Child, Whose birth we were commemorating, was the true God, and He truly came to each of us in Holy Communion. The people genuinely respected and revered the Bishop and the priests there. They would have noticed and been pleased to see in the sanctuary certain less familiar faces, who were the seminarians home for the Feast day.
I performed my exalted duty well enough. It was not what you could describe as difficult. True be told, I was just an ornament. My assignment consisted in being the partner of the "Book Bearer," who, as I recall, was a classmate, Henry Clark, whose father was a plumber for the city water department. Henry and I approached the bishop's throne, bowed, and knelt on the steps, he holding the book so that the Bishop could read the various prayers and biblical selections of the Foremass, the Mass of the Catechumens; during the Mass itself, the Bishop was at the altar. The reason I was there hearkened back to the centuries before electricity, when the bishop would needed a candle to read by.
The year I am recalling I had a tiny accident. While the Bishop was reading the Epistle, he interrupted himself for an instant to brush his hand over my head. It seems that I had held the flame too near and set my hair on fire. The Bishop put the fire out, then went on reading. It was my moment aflame...er, I mean, my moment of fame. I was a candle! A Christmas candle! After Mass, the Bishop came to me in the sacristy, and said quietly, "From now on, be careful with the candle. You could burn yourself up."
This recollection is not about an inalert server attempting to immolate himself in honor of the Christ Child. It is about the Christmas liturgy in my parish church. It was a solemn Pontifical High Mass, which the priests had urged as many as possible to attend. The people complied. We liked the tradition; we liked the ceremony, the solemnity of it. We liked the special music which the choir had prepared, the very best they could do for the occasion. This was at a time before certain traditions were restored. The choir knew little Gregorian music, so the Gloria and Credo were a little suggestive of the opera, with solos, duets, and trios, etc. No matter.
What mattered was that the faith of the priests and people was in good order. The Mass was a ceremony of worship, not a show, nor an entertainment. Our attention was on the Mass in honor of the birth of Christ, the miracle of the Virgin Birth, and the joyful promise of the Redemption. On more than one day of the week preceding the Feastday, the priests had spent hours in the confessional. Hundreds of people found time to come to seek forgiveness of their sins. On one of the school days, the sisters brought all of us students to church for the same purpose.
The most important aspect of the Faith as it was practiced in those days was that the priests taught the people that they must work out their salvation "in fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). In the Catholic Church, one could truly save one's soul, but not without effort, not without prayer and moral living. All men were in danger of everlasting damnation. Catholics knew how to avoid the wrath that awaited others. It consisted of obedience to the Church, of believing the Church's teaching as to what was necessary, and making use of the means which the Church made available, prayer and the Sacraments. Catholics thought that salvation was possible within the Church, for which reason being a good Catholic meant trying to persuade those outside to become Catholics. Within the Church, we did not presume to say who was saved or who was lost, whether he was living or dead. But we thought we had a pretty good idea of those who were living their religion conscientiously, and appeared to be doing the things necessary for salvation. They were referred to as "devout Catholics."
We considered that those who went "into religion," whether into the diocesan priesthood, or into religious communities of priests, brothers, sisters, or monks, had an even better chance of Heaven, because they gave their lives to Christ and the pursuit of perfection. We respected them and the families of which they were members. The mothers and fathers of priests especially were highly regarded because they had given their sons to the Church.
This Christmas Eve, I wish to thank everyone who has continued to pray for me. There can be no doubt that I am still alive because of the charity of so many. I am especially grateful to everyone who has sent me Christmas cards and gifts. Please pardon my not making a proper return for this kindness. In union with Christ, the newborn King and Prince of Peace, I send my priestly blessing.