One of the funniest chapters of Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt (Scribner, 1996) is the scene in which he describes his first communion. Now, since everyone on earth has read it and probably remembers the scene, I'm going to reproduce it here for no earthly reason than I know that it will make you laugh, and jayzus knows we need a good laugh before first communion masses this week.
First, McCourt has the awful thing happen that we all had nightmares about as second graders in the days of nuns before Vatican II: the dry host sticks to the roof of the mouth, and fear and fasting lock it there, and no amount of peridontal and lingual antics can dislodge it. And God help ye if ye chew the Lord's body...
It stuck.Then after breakfast, the poor Frankie has a little problem with the digestion, and his grandmother's worst nightmare ensues:
I had God glued to the roof of my mouth. I could hear the master's voice, Don't let that host touch your teeth for if you bite God in two you'll roast in hell for eternity. I tried to get God down with my tongue but the priest hissed at me, Stop that clucking and get back to your seat. God was good. He melted and I swallowed Him and now, at last, I was a member of the True Church, an official sinner.
The food churned in my stomach. I gagged. I ran to her backyard and threw it all up. Out she came.OK, curmudgeon alert. Now that we've had a laugh together (the part that kills me is that his grandmother sends him back into the confessional, and he says, "it's a minute since my last confession" - Hee hee) I have to confess: I have an ongoing love-hate relationship with first communion. Lovely children, of course. Lovely parents, of course. Lovely everybody. But we seem to be so lost in our cultural narcissism, our worship of our children, our loss of all sense of proportion in our liturgy, and our mistrust of transcendence and ritual, that the celebration has become an emotional and psychological free-for-all, an affirmation of "specialness" and individuality. Connection to the tradition, to the greater story, to the death and resurrection of Christ, and to a church that celebrates the Eucharist constantly, all over the planet, and has done so pretty much for twenty centuries is gone, exchanged for clericalistic niceties and "precious moments." Worship bartered for a photo op.
Look at what he did. Thrun up his First Communion breakfast. Thrun up the body and blood of Jesus. I have God in me backyard. What am I goin' to do? I'll take him to the Jesuits for they know the sins of the Pope himself.
She dragged me through the streets of Limerick. She told the neighbors and passing strangers about God in her backyard. She pushed me into the confession box.
In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's a day since my last confession.
A day? And what sins have you committed in a day, my child?
I overslept. I nearly missed my First Communion. My grandmother said I have standing up, North of Ireland, Presbyterian hair. I threw up my First Communion breakfast. Now Grandma says she has God in her backyard and what should she do.
The priest is like the First Confession priest. He has the heavy breathing and the choking sounds.
Ah ... ah ... tell your grandmother to wash God away with a little water and for your penance say one Hail Mary and one Our Father. Say a prayer for me and God bless you, my child.
Grandma and Mam were waiting close to the confession box. Grandma said, Were you telling jokes to that priest in the confession box? If 'tis a thing I ever find out you were telling jokes to Jesuits I'll tear the bloody kidneys outa you. Now what did he say about God in my backyard?
He said wash Him away with a little water, Grandma.
Holy water or ordinary water?
He didn't say, Grandma.
Well, go back and ask him.
But, Grandma ...
She pushed me back into the confessional.
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, it's a minute since my last confession.
A minute! Are you the boy that was just here?
I am, Father.
What is it now?
My grandma says, Holy water or ordinary water?
Ordinary water, and tell your grandmother not to be bothering me again.
I told her, Ordinary water, Grandma, and he said don't be bothering him again.
Don't be bothering him again. That bloody ignorant bogtrotter.
When my generation were children, there was no such thing as a church full of non-church-goers for first communion. It just didn't happen: Catholics were just barely out of the ghetto, numerous but still mistrusted generally, and sticking together culturally. A great number of the people attending First Communions, as often happens on days like Christmas and Easter, seem to have no idea what the shape or form of the liturgical gathering is, what their role in it is supposed to be. And these are the adults. How on earth can we imagine that the children are going to understand their role?
I'm willing to cut slack on all the bride-of-Christ dresses and mini-tuxes the kids are wearing these days. I mean, everybody always got dressed up for first communion. But there wasn't much in the church, during the liturgy, that was specifically geared to us. The celebration wasn't about making the Eucharist special for us, it was about making us special for the Eucharist. It was we who were being initiated into a new way of being Catholic. The church was there, the mystery was there, we were brought into it. There were parties and celebrations, yes, but it wasn't about how "special" we all were. It was about how special God is, who Jesus is, and how wonderful the Eucharist is.
It's not really fair, of course, to compare then with now...I wouldn't trade the church today for the church of the late 50s and early 60s in a thousand years. And we've done some things well, associating first communion with Easter time, for instance, adding the renewal of baptismal promises and the sprinkling rite. But there's something upside-down with the way we do First Communion. Over the years, I've seen occasions when each priest had to give the sign of peace to every child...what message is that sending? So often the cutesie, Linkletteresque dialogue homilies, why the conversation with every child and every family coming up to communion? Isn't it enough to receive the body and blood of Christ? Is that somehow improved by hearing how nice you look, or some other banality? Wouldn't it be better to help them connect to the wider story of the Christian journey of their families, their ancestors, Mother Teresa, Pope John XXIII, Oscar Romero, Francis, Claire, Dominic, Joan, Thérèse of Lisieux, all the heroes of the faith? Wouldn't their self-esteem be better served by showing them that they are part of something eternal and transcendent, and that none of it depends on their status, their clothes, or who they know, only that God has chosen them to be part of this people whose mission is to change the world?
That's it, I think. It's something about being part of something bigger than themselves. It's not equating doing good with obeying your parents, which I have heard unequivocally in First Communion homilies. Who knows what's happening in their homes, what things they're being asked to do by parents and other adults? No, their goodness doesn't depend on what they do. It depends on being created by the God who created everything from muons to black holes, who culled and shaped the infinitely delicate lines of DNA down the millenia to bring them to this moment, and who has chosen an eternity of undisclosed abundance for them and for us together. Maybe we need to build on kids' natural egalitarianism and sense of fairness, helping anchor that in their religious consciousness, and naming equality and "having enough" as God's will for everybody. That is what Jesus taught and lived, and that is the gospel, the good news. But it has to sound like good news, because it is more important than what they can hear on TV and Disney/Pixar, even more important than the really good stuff they hear in reruns from Fred Rogers, peace be upon him, and God rest his soul.
Well, we do our best. We sing with joy and energy about the reign of God, about God's universal invitation, about the "children of God" and the family resemblance in God's family. I'm afraid it all gets lost in the mishmash of esteem-building exercises and psychobabble. In the end, all I can really do is release it into the hands of God, since this conversion business and Church and grace are God's business anyway, and not mine. Without letting us off the hook here, first communion is barely more about being "prepared" than infant baptism is. At their core, sacraments are about God's action, not ours. So yes, I need to exorcise my inner Pelagian, but it would go a long way toward that if we pared down the ritual to something that more resembled...well, the ritual.
Send out your Spirit, Lord, and renew the face of the earth. Seems like you have a lot of work to do, urban-renewal wise, in this land, this church, and certainly in me. But what do I know? I'm just a bloody ignorant bogtrotter meself.