I almost asked if you remember your First Communion. How silly of me. How could you not? I’m sure you recall your prayer book, your first rosary, and the class picture taken on the altar steps with the pastor of your parish. If you’re female you probably still own your white Communion dress, Communion veil, and white gloves. You may even have your white shoes and white anklet socks trimmed with lace. So the correct question isn’t if you remember. It’s: what do you remember about your First Communion Day?
I remember the excitement I felt picking out my dress and veil, going through my mother’s cedar chest and choosing from the dresses and veils my four older sisters wore. I remember the day my new, purchased-just-for-me First Communion prayer book and rosary were delivered to school. And I remember walking to a shoe store on Main Street to buy black patent leather shoes. That’s because my First Communion was in October and one of the room mothers told Sister Louis Ann that black shoes were more fashionably appropriate for autumn than white.
I vividly recall my oldest sister saying my thick, straight hair needed to look more festive and curling it into a head of sausage links that even my mother couldn’t brush out. And parading down the street from the school to the church with my classmates, sitting with them in the front pews, and when it was time , walking four-abreast past the Communion rail and all the way to the top step of the altar to receive the host. And I’ve never forget my second-grade boy friend kneeling next to me, the host slipping from his tongue, and Sister Louis Ann nearly fainting when he tried to pick it up before the priest did. Or that after Mass, we gathered on the altar steps between two angel statues and had our picture taken with Father Ratterman who was always very kind to us.
I’m think about First Communion because my eldest granddaughter is making hers this weekend and I’m anxious to see how closely it will resemble mine. Traditions changed after the Second Vatican Council and though I don’t know what got tossed out when, (or what has been reinstated where) I can tell you that by the time I attended a First Communion Mass as an adult I barely recognized the ceremony.
The Communicants paraded in together, but they did not look or act as a group. The boys weren’t required to wear suits and ties nor were the girls required to wear traditional Communion dresses and veils. (Most of them did, and I felt sorry for the few who did not.) They sat with their parents, not their class. They approached the altar flanked by their parents, not side by side with a fellow classmate. And the candles, flowers, and music weren’t much different than a usual weekend liturgy.
My book club just finished the novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Linda See. It’s about many things but in particular about a special friendship that began between two girls the same age as most Communicants. They were called “same olds” and would share each other’s lives forever. It reminded me of Catholic baby boomers and their First Communion because there is a connection that remains even now between same-age Catholic boomers because of their training for and experience of First Communion Day.
Yes, I know that what a Communicant wears, where they sit and with whom, and how many flowers, candles, and new songs are played is immaterial compared to the awesomeness of the Eucharist. But they aren’t insignificant factors either. I remember my First Communion because its intangible sacredness was made real to me in tangible ways. The training, the clothes, the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony is like a secret society that others may know about but whose secret handshake can only be felt by a fellow Catholic boomer (or someone who was close to them). My traditional First Communion Day gave me a connection to my pre-Vatican II parents and grandparents, and their ancestors in Italy and Ireland centuries before. It continues to give me an immediate connection to Catholic boomers I have yet to meet.
It’s a connection I want to feel with my granddaughter and one I hope she’ll always feel with me.