For a boy of fourteen, growing up in a lower middle-class neighborhood in the South Bronx, heaven was far from the young Wordsworth’s paean to the French Revolution. Closer to heaven were the World Champion New York Yankees, about to embark, in 1953, on their record fifth-straight World Series title.
Bliss it was to be alive and marvel at one of Mickey Mantle’s tape-measure home runs. And one no longer had to spend 50 cents on a bleacher seat at nearby Yankee Stadium. The eight-inch illuminated screen had finally made its way into most apartments of the five-flight walk-ups that housed Manhattan’s overflow.
But there was another bliss that even a fourteen-year-old intuited to be still more heavenly. It was summed up by the altar boy’s first response at the Tridentine Mass’s “Prayers at the Foot of the Altar.” To the priest’s proclamation, “Introibo ad altare Dei” (“I will go to the altar of God”), the server replied, “Ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meum” (“To God who gives joy to my youth”). Few were the boys who, at some point, did not envision themselves in the role of the priest, announcing: “I will go to the altar of God.”
Bliss even those early mornings, with the smell of incense and beeswax awakening the senses. In retrospect one can perceive a formative ascesis for the youngsters who served Mass. Memorizing the Latin responses, phonetically transcribed on the four-sided instruction card: “iuventutem—u ven to tem;” rising at 6 a.m. to arrive with time to spare for the 7 o’clock Mass in hope that the old sacristan with gnarled hands would let you toll the monumental bell; struggling to light the silver candlesticks perched high above the altar, wicks stubbornly uncooperative; even sacrificing Captain Video and the Video Ranger on Monday evenings to serve Benediction at the Miraculous Medal Novena.
Our small “national” parish had three priests, the pastor and two “assistants.” And though there was no parish school, there was an abundance of funerals, baptisms, weekly Masses, catechism classes, and hospital visits to keep them busy. One, recently arrived from Italy, used his “day off” to work, over many years, toward a doctorate at Fordham University. He became a mentor and friend, plying this high-school freshman with books beyond my ability to understand fully, but which nonetheless enchanted and opened vistas. Even more significantly, he guided me into the worlds of opera and classical music that have delighted and sustained me for these nigh seventy years since he first gave me a two-volume set of 78-rpm records of Verdi’s Aida.