One revealing reminiscence of the late Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle goes back to the time when he was a new archbishop and Washington was a new archdiocese. Unlike other cities, Washington had no place at that time to house its Catholic bishop, so Archbishop O'Boyle simply became a tenant in a downtown rectory.

It was his custom to go next door to St. Patrick's Church each morning about 7:30 to say a private mass, while an assistant from the parish said the regular daily mass at the main altar at 8 a.m. for anyone who had time to stop by on the way to work. Then, as now, St. Patrick's had no school and no ready supply of altar boys, so the celebrant of the scheduled morning mass usually had no one to assist him at the main altar.

Not infrequently, however, those in attendance could witness the archbishop of Washington finish saying his own mass and then proceed to the foot of the main altar to assist the celebrant as an acolyte.

Years later, when controversy surrounded Cardinal O'Boyle and he was denounced by his critics as highhanded and overbearing -- because of his treatment of priests who were in need of discipline -- I could only reflect on the archbishop who frequently acted as altar boy at another priest's mass, and wonder who it was they were talking about. I still wonder.

WALTER H. MALONEY JR.

Beltsville