Monday, January 09, 2006

Thrilling WWII story- the transcendence of the Mass

The Altar Boy
By Richard H. Kiley

We had made 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 artillery 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 center of the village to the sound of church bells. I
realized that 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 my
own altar boy days in Philadelphia. So almost by rote, I went into the
sanctuary, knelt down next to the priest and, still in my uniform, started to
perform the normal functions of an acolyte:

"... Ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meam ..." [To God, the joy of my youth].
"... Quia tu es Deus fortitudo mea ..." [For Thou, O God, art my strength].
"Confiteor Deo omnipotenti ..." [I confess to Almighty God].

The priest and I went through the whole mass as if we had done it together many
times before: water and wine; lavabo (the ritual of washing hands after the
offertory); changing the book; suscipiat (a prayer of acceptance); and the final

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

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
nonexistent, 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 firsthand that, even in war, our common
humanity - under the same God - can triumph over hatred and division.


Madeline said...

If only the mass had been in the vernacular, this whole messy situation could have been avoided! The sargeant and the nazi would have identified each other as enemies, immediately. As it is, it was that pesky Latin thingy that blinded them to anything but the worship of the mass. Oh sigh (ROTFLOL)

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Anonymous said...

Madeline -- please don't refer to
all German soldiers of that time
as 'nazis'. Many German soldiers
fought for their country, and that
is all. Many of them also opposed
their country, hated Hitler, hated
the war, and fought only for their
brothers in battle. They are no
different than soldiers of any
other country.