With Easter being so late this year, we have had a flurry of inspiring activities crammed back to back into these last few weeks: the beautiful celebration of Holy Week and the Easter Triduum, with eight days of Easter right behind them, the ordination of our seminarian Patrick Blenman as a deacon and more. Flowing out of all that, we celebrate what is always a great joy for a parish: First Communion day, when our young children just old enough to begin to understand the mysteries of Jesus Christ dying on the Cross and desiring to feed us with His Body and Blood are able to enter into Communion with Him for the first time in the Blessed Sacrament.
As I prepare to celebrate that Mass for our six newest communicants from St. Mary Parish, I think back to my own first Communion almost half a century ago now. I still have the pictures my parents lovingly took of me in my navy blue pants, white dress shirt and little white knit tie. I still remember the cake they made for me (cherry chip, my favorite flavor) and the special outing they took me on to celebrate – to visit the Belle Isle Aquarium on the island park off downtown Detroit. On that same island, my mother, who loved gardening, insisted we go to the conservatory and botanical gardens next door for photo opportunities, I was much more interested in watching the gars and electric eels gliding mysteriously through the dank waters of the giant glass-encased aquatic world. With as many children as were in my family, we almost always took outings together, so it was a very rare treat for me to be able to have that time with my parents all to myself.
I still remember the gift they gave me: a small plaque of St. James the Great, to hang on my bedroom wall. They gave all thirteen of us a plaque of our patron saint on this special day of our First Communion. There was St. James, this humble fisherman, this bold and impulsive son of Zebedee, older brother to John the Disciple whom Jesus loved, standing serenely with a sword at his side. That dagger was a reminder of the death this first of the Apostles to be martyred was to undergo as he was beheaded by King Herod in Jerusalem for daring to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout what is now Spain.
At a scant eight years old, of course, I could barely begin to comprehend the depth of the mystery of Jesus, the God-made-man, sacrificing His life for the salvation of my soul and countless millions of others, and coming to us Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in what appeared to be merely a piece of bread. But still, I knew in my young heart somehow that that was true and that it had everything to do with how much my parents loved me and fed me and took care of me.
It hasn’t been a constant part of Holy Mother Church’s tradition to distribute Communion this young. My own grandmother did not receive until she was a young adult, because that was the norm until Pope St. Pius X lowered the age to about seven years old in 1910. He reasoned that in their innocence and purity, young children did not need extensive preparation to receive this incomparable gift.
There is certainly a wisdom in that and it has certainly become a cherished tradition to bring our second graders to this joyful day, wide-eyed and eager to receive Jesus’ Body and Blood for the very first time. The downside of that, however, is that some parents treat this gift beyond price as a mere “rite of passage” – an opportunity to dress their children up in fancy clothes and then drift away from the Church again.
I was blessed to have good parents who would allow nothing of the sort. Through my teen years, when I was sometimes bored with the Mass, and all of life’s joys and challenges, the celebration of Christ’s saving sacrifice on the Cross and receiving Communion was at the very core of our family life. My father even went to daily Mass after he retired.
That quiet but steady love of the Eucharist they modeled set the stage for me eventually to realize that the Eucharist was not only important – but that the Lord’s mission for me was to become a man of the Eucharist – to lay down everything else in life so that I could celebrate the holy Mass and bring Christ’s Body and Blood to the faithful. There were a few turning point moments on that path – such as the time my parents took me to Eucharistic adoration when I was a bored teen one Holy Thursday night. There, in the first time I had seen incense and a monstrance, I was transfixed by the mysterious power by which Jesus would “hide Himself” under the veil of the Blessed Sacrament.
I didn’t understand those concepts very well yet – that would come with later prayer and study – but I knew that everything my parents taught about the Mass was undeniably true. Things began gradually to come together later in high school, when a priest faculty member at Detroit Jesuit High gave an impassioned speech to us about never taking the Mass for granted. That is exactly what I had been doing most of my life! But it wasn’t until college that the rest of it came together – including the life of the Apostles and priest saints who would surrender their own lives so that others could have eternal life through the Eucharist.
May our children always have that same love of our Eucharistic Lord.