First Communions, Past and Present

JACQUES KELLY'S BALTIMORE

April 21, 1996|By JACQUES KELLY

A few weeks ago my sister Mimi called to fill me in on the details of her daughter Elizabeth's Catholic school report card. We went through all the subjects until we both burst out laughing at the one termed liturgy.

"Is that what they're calling religion now?" I asked.

"Beats me," my sister replied, and added, "All that Liz is interested in is her first Holy Communion veil."

I thought to myself that my niece certainly had her priorities right. There's nothing like preparation for the ritual of first Holy Communion.

The weekends after Easter are the high season for first Communions, when class after class of 6, 7 and 8 year olds, all dressed in white, reverently walk to the altar to receive, for the first time, the Communion host from the priest. It is an event that is never forgotten, if only for the snapshots, videotapes, luncheons and massive family gatherings that invariably accompany it.

How many times have I been to a flea market in Timonium or North Point and paged through a 1930s or 1940s photo album and found a set of sepia-toned photos of little girls in white dresses and veils, or their brothers in white suits, often with short pants?

The day of one's first Holy Communion is a day of childhood innocence and religious emotion. It is also the culmination of lot of hard work. There's the study of the Baltimore catechism (the principles of Catholicism), the hymn practice and, as the big day approaches, the trial runs in the church.

My mother, who had six children, gloried in the event. She was such an old hand at first Communions that she used to order a pile of lace handkerchiefs before the big day. These she gave out to her adult female friends, who sat in the pews and watched the children proceed up the aisle and sing sweet hymns. Mom knew there wouldn't be many dry eyes. It was most practical to have a nice piece of linen to help you get through one of these mornings.

The lace on the handkerchief was only the smallest amount of handwork visible that day. Little girls' first Communion dresses are a species of garment entirely unto themselves. I guess some schools require that all the students wear the same model, but that isn't the way I knew it to be. Mothers and grandmothers conferred over size and style. Price was (and still is) often no object.

I recall the negotiations over what sister Ann (No. 3 in the order of birth of my four sisters) would wear to her first Communion. My grandmother and her sister had a lengthy discussion months before the event and finally ordered handmade lace from ancient Carmelite nuns cloistered on the Spanish island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean Sea.

There was a lot of worry that the lace wouldn't make it in time; it did and my grandmother's sewing machines and pinking shears went into overdrive.

The boys had it much easier. The biggest decision was whether to wear long pants or shorts. I recall that the April I walked down the Communion aisle it was a long-pants year. A few years later, my brother Eddie had a short-pants Communion. He applauded this because, as everyone knows, churches can get pretty hot and stuffy. Added to heat and stuffiness is the perfumy scent of banks of fresh white flowers and what seems like 10,000 candles burning.

I think I spent most of the school year of 1955-1956 learning the hymns to be sung at the Communion Mass.

The essential Catholic hymn is "O Lord, I Am Not Worthy," but it hasn't stood up too well over the past 40 years. Church modernists don't like its harmonies or words because they are Victorian in sound and sentiment. But tradition is, of course, what a really effective first Communion is all about. Anyway, the song gets high marks from those who can hum its tune.

Other wonderfully old-fashioned Communion hymns are "Heart of Jesus, Meek and Mild," and "Jesus Thou Art Coming!" Both were standards in the St. Basil and St. Gregory hymnals when I was coming up. Even a bad organist couldn't destroy the beauty of little children singing those songs with everything they had in their lungs.

In addition to crying by women and singing by children, there are three other events that invariably accompany a good, jampacked first Communion Mass.

The first is a fainting, causing the ushers to rush to the afflicted. The next is a baby's crying, especially if the sermon runs too long.

And the last is major jamming in the church aisles. This occurs as the parishioners rise and walk to the altar to receive then own Communion, but then stop to gawk at the first-time communicants in their fine dresses and suits, perhaps for just a moment's worth of comparison.

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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