Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Altar Boy - A Reflection

Various items concerning the LMS Local Representative's job were passed on to us and amongst them was a small notebook in which our predecessor, Christine Ackers (RIP) had made a collection of writings that had obviously moved or inspired her. It wasn't clear what she intended to do with them, but we felt they deserved a wider audience so will share them with readers of this blog over time.

The Altar Boy

We had a rapid advance across Northern France from the Normandy beachhead. (Historians say it was the fastest opposed advance in the history of modern warfare.) Now, our 105-millimeter howitzer battalion was bivouacked in an abandoned castle on the outskirts of a small Belgian town. The exact locations of occupied and unoccupied territory were not well known, and due to an error in map reading, we learned at daybreak that we were close to a German infantry unit. Watching our battalion attempting to act as infantry was laughable, but we had no choice. Using our pieces at close range with time bursts, we caused the enemy to retreat.

Later that morning, I ventured away from the Castle and observed the local townspeople walking to the centre of the village to the sound of church bells. I realized it was Sunday and people were on their way to a Catholic Mass. I followed them.

Inside the church, when the priest appeared from the Sacristy, I saw that he was without an altar boy. I was only nineteen years old, not too far away from own altar boy days Philadelphia. So almost by rote, I went onto the Sanctuary, knelt down next to the priest and, still in my uniform, started to perform the normal functions of an acolyte in Latin. The priest and I went through the whole Mass as if we had done it together many times before, through Epistle, Gospel, Consecration, and Final Blessing.

As prescribed, I preceded the priest into the Sacristy and, as is the custom, stood apart from him with my hands in the prayer position while he divested. He removed the Chasuble, then the Cincture. When his arms lifted the Alb, I saw that he was wearing a German uniform. My heart stopped: the priest was a German officer!

The man was a German chaplain and though he had realized immediately that he had an American sergeant as an altar boy, during the entire twenty minutes of the Mass he had given no outward sign of recognition.

My German was rather rudimentary and the only thing I could put together was "Gut Morgen, Vater" (Good Morning, Father). Evidently his English was non-existent, for somewhat flustered, he only smiled at me, Then we shook hands and I left.

I walked back to the castle strangely exhilarated. Two strangers, enemies at war, had met by chance and for twenty minutes, without any direct communication, had found complete unanimity in an age-old ritual of Christian worship.

The memory of this incident has remained with me for over fifty years. It still brings the same elation, for I know first-hand that, even in war, our common humanity, under the same God, can triumph over hatred and division.

Richard H Kiley

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