Monday, May 2, 2011
Remebering my First Holy Communion
Thirty five years ago, I joined about 20 other second-graders to receive Holy Communion for the first time. While I don't remember much about the homily nor about which Eucharistic Prayer was used, I do remember how happy I was that the event that my classmates and I had prepared for had finally come.
Back in 1976, we weren't able to receive Holy Communion with our fellow Catholic school classmates. We were required, instead, to receive the Sacrament at our individual parishes. My maternal grandfather dutifully drove me to my Saturday morning classes in his old purple truck. Grandpa Andrew still saw it as his grandfatherly duty to ensure that I would make it to class and any other related event. A product of the Catholic school system, Grandpa would quiz me every week to see if I had learned anything. During the 15-minute ride, we went over the prayers and the Commandments. When he would come to pick me up, he would ask me what I learned that day and if it was different than what the nuns were teaching us. The CCD coordinator told my parents that she did not want me to answer too many questions (evidently, I hogged the Q and A sessions a bit too much) because she wanted to see what the other kids had learned. I suppose Grandpa's weekly questions were his way of making up for my forced silence.
The day finally came for the class to go to confession for the first time. Grandpa Andrew and Grandma Gloria came and picked up my mother and me. I was nervous as I had to face Fr. Henry (the pastor) for the first time. Luckily, the novelty of face-to-face confessions had not really caught on at the time and I knelt behind the screen. I don't remember what I said, but, I do know that I felt cleaned out. Fr. Henry did not yell at me. The sins of an eight-year-old girl were not enough to phase him. At his age, he had probably heard every sin imaginable.
Later on, he heard the confessions of those parents who wanted to go. My mom went in and then, I was a little surprised to see Grandpa Andrew follow her lead. After a while, he emerged and Grandma Gloria followed. I was going to ask them something afterwards, but, mom told me to be quiet. After confession, Grandpa and Grandma took us for refreshments (coffee for them and soda for me).
When we got home, my mom told me that she was surprised that both of her parents went to confession. But, she said that since I was the oldest grandchild, they were going to be there for the Mass. Shortly thereafter, my paternal grandmother and my stepgrandfather had arrived from Austin, along with their neighbor, my Godmother.
Those of you who may have read my tribute to my Grandma Mary perhaps remember that she could not receive Holy Communion just yet because she was in an invalid marriage. Nonetheless, she still wanted to make the trip down to Laredo for my first Holy Communion, as I was her oldest grandchild.
The next day was the day. I fidgeted while Grandma Mary was trying to get my veil on my head. She told me that she was very proud of me and that this day reminded her of when my dad received First Holy Communion. She said that she had been praying for me.
When we got to the church, my family went to their place in the pew while we were lined up. What I do remember of that day was what did not occur. We did not do anything hokey or strange. It was a regular Mass, as far as I could tell. We remained in our pews and only came forward when it was time to receive Holy Communion. When we did come forward, we actually knelt at the communion rail and received on the tongue.
Looking back, that is what struck me the most about that day. It is quite different from what I have witnessed in subsequent First Holy Communion Masses. On the Catholic Answers Liturgy and Sacraments forums, I read horror stories from folks who bemoan the fact that their children gathered around the altar for the Eucharistic Prayer, sang a cute after communion and pretty much had the focus put on them rather than on Who they were receiving.
Fr. Henry insisted that we receive First Holy Communion kneeling and on the tongue. I think that we may have been the only communicants doing so at the time. His admonishments helped us to concentrate and focus on the fact that we were receiving Jesus for the first time. It was not about us; it was about Him. After I had received Holy Communion and said my prayers, I looked up and saw my parents, my maternal grandparents and my Godmother approach the communion rail. I felt badly for Grandma Mary because she stayed behind, kneeling in prayer. She told me that she would be praying for me that day.
After Mass, we gathered around for the requisite picture-taking. Fr. Henry patiently obliged as he posed with each of us and our families. Then, my stepgrandfather said that we would all be heading out to my favorite restaurant for lunch. I asked my dad if we could make a small detour and drive out to my school. I suppose my mom prodded him because he obliged. I had some fresh flowers that I wanted to leave at the foot of the statue of Mary Help of Christians in the school chapel. Somehow, I think that my second grade teachers, Sister Ofelia, must have had radar. She was there when we arrived. I impulsively gave her a big hug and she told me that she was proud of me. She walked with me up to the statue where I lay the flowers at Our Lady's feet and said a prayer of thanksgiving.
Some 35 years removed from that eight-year-old girl, I still think of her and of that day. It was not about novelty and cuteness. It was about a lot of preparation to encounter Jesus for the first time in Holy Communion. Sometimes, I think that in our efforts to try to make First Holy Communion Masses something for the kids, we forget that the greater emphasis should be on Who they will receive and on that particular initial encounter that these children will have with Divinity. Novelties wear off because they are fleeting. If we don't give children the proper perspective on meeting Jesus for the first time and how this encounter is one that will last a lifetime, then, it becomes just a ceremony, a rite of passage.
I will pray for the repose of the soul of Fr. Henry, my mom and both sets of grandparents and for my dad's and Sister Ofelia's continued health. Without the love, discipline and dedication that these individuals gave me in helping me to prepare for that day, I would not have had the foundation to build upon my faith.