In the summer of 2004, I toddled over to St. Peter's to celebrate a morning mass there. There is a school there – a pre-seminary they call it – and a large part of the boys' life is to serve masses at the various altars that are strewn about the massive basilica, and occasionally to serve at papal functions as well. They are pious, serious, and know their Latin. Priests who wish to celebrate in the basilica go into the sacristy and are assigned one of these angelic lads, who then leads them to whichever altar they are assigned.
Being that it was summer, the serious, angelic boys from the school were on break, and so other boys from all over Italy and Malta come and fulfil the tasks of serving. They're fine – they know where to go and what to say once they get there – but they're not quite as polished as the A-team players. If one shows up in the summer hoping to get the Michael Jordan of altar servers, one might have to content oneself with, say, John Paxson. He's a fantastic, solid player. But he ain't His Royal Airness, is he?
I was assigned a server named Angelo, whom I was told came from Basilicata in southern Italy – the arch of the boot, if you don't want to Google it (although some of you may have already Googled “Who is John Paxson” so you can probably check out Basilicata while you're there). I'd guess Angelo to have been about twelve, but he had the delinquent air of someone far older; I'd have not been surprised to hear that he shook down tourists for cash in his free time. His “coach” (I've used up all my sports references for the whole year now) introduced us, and said that I would be celebrating in Latin. Angelo – back turned to the coach, of course – actually rolled his eyes, whether because his Latin was rusty of because he was weary of Anglophone priests who murdered the language, I wasn't sure. He grabbed his kit and led me out into the basilica. Whereas many of the other servers seemed to positively glide over the ancient marble floors, Angelo seemed to clump, as if unaccustomed to wearing the black, formal shoes that he had to wear.
He took me to the altar of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, and I was over the moon. Gregorian chant is named after Gregory, of course, and I had spent a great deal of my life immersed in that type of music, so I found it particularly poignant that we would be celebrating there, under a giant mosaic of the good pope himself with the dove of the Holy Spirit humming lovely melismas in his ear. After celebrating the Eucharist, for which – in my opinion – Angelo made the responses without even trying to sound interested, I stood and looked up at Saint Gregory for some time. After a few moments of shuffling back and forth on his cloddy shoes, waiting to take me back to the sacristy, Angelo looked up at the mosaic himself.
“Who's the bird?” he asked me.
“It's not a bird; it's the Holy Spirit,” I said.
“Looks like a bird to me,” he said.
“Well, yes, of course it looks like a bird because the artist used the symbol of the dove to represent the Holy Spirit, which you can't really see.”
“So it's a bird,” he said – not asking, but stating.
“Sure, OK,” I said, “It's a bird. A symbolic bird.”
“You can't see the Holy Spirit,” Angelo said as if he felt I somehow needed a lesson in pneumatology.
“True,” I replied, already weary of the boy. “But that doesn't mean he's not there, does it? Like your name, like angels,” I said, pointing to him and then to another painting. “They're all around, but you can't see them.”
“That's because they're incorporeal beings,” he said petulantly, obviously quoting something he had studied. “Of course you can't see them. Angels!” he said dismissively as he turned to lead me back to the sacristy.
Later that day I was walking down the Via della Conciliazione when I ran into him once again. I almost didn't recognise him, given that he was now decked in blue jeans, a Bart Simpson t-shirt, and black Chuck Taylor sneakers. He did, however, recognise me, as he pointed at me and shouted, “Angel man!” I smiled. “You got a cigarette?” he asked me.
“They let you smoke?” I asked. I'm sure the first-team players' lives are rather regimented, but still I couldn't imagine that the Vatican wanted even the mid-season replacements bumming smokes in the shadow of the cupola.
“They don't know,” he said, jerking his head back in the direction of where they were. “They don't see me. I'm like the Holy Spirit. I'm an angel.” With that he mimicked the flapping of wings and ran off.
There's a rather obscure saint, a bishop whom they called Angeloptes, which means “sees angels.” The story goes that he wanted to celebrate the Eucharist once and, not having the factory-like setup at the Vatican at his disposal, is said to have celebrated with an angel as his altar ... boy?... girl? Let's say server. Remembering not-so-angelic Angelo's definition of an angel being a incorporeal being, one wonders how something without matter can, say, hold a cruet of wine, but I'll leave that to the philosophers to think about. Before we worried about such things, angels were simply messengers from God. That's it. And if God continues to send us messengers – and I believe he does – then we probably all ought to be Angeloptes. I guess everyone ought to be on the lookout for messengers from God.
I get that perhaps this sounds a little strange. I mean, if someone said “Alaric sees angels” many would think Alaric odd to say the least, if not downright crazy. But I guess it shouldn't be – not really. If God is active in our lives – and he is – and God wishes us to know him better – and he does – then he most certainly is going to send us messengers. They might not be soft and fluffy with downy wings and pre-Raphaelite curls, but these messengers do come to us, if we look for them, if we're open to what God might want us to know.
I think we all constantly need to be on the lookout. Knowing that God makes himself known to us in a variety of ways, we need to be open to that message and open to the messengers; and we should certainly never dismiss the message because we don't find the messenger to our liking in some way or another. That's not a bad way to live: being on the lookout for God in the world, and being open to anyone – anyone – who might be able to teach us something.
And, ultimately, everyone can teach us something about God, given that everyone is made in his image: you, me, that great pope with a bird cooing in his ear; that angel-seeing bishop; and young invisible Angelo, whom they don't see, but whom we should.