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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 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 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.

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