By Anne Hansen
Twenty five second graders walked down the aisle of St. Mark’s Church in Venice to receive their first communion. The children, who are most comfortable in play clothes, were decked out in white shirts and ties for the boys and fancy white dresses and veils for the girls. They were serious with hands folded, looking straight ahead, mindful they were participating in something important. Their families and friends looked on with broad smiles, a few tears and a great deal of love as the children processed to the altar where the pastor, Fr. Paul Spellman, introduced them. He encouraged the congregation to give them a warm welcome with a round of applause and invited everyone to come forward to take pictures explaining that during the liturgy a professional would be doing the photographing so everyone could participate in the liturgy.
As the liturgy proceeded there was a definite sense that this was a day for the children. They made up the choir, proclaimed the readings, offered the petitions and during the homily the pastor directed his thoughts to them. It was a respectful liturgy while reflecting the reality of the assembly as babies were crying, children were fidgeting and people were commenting to each other. The sense of joy and pride was palatable. It was a moment in time that will remain etched in the minds and hearts of the parents and grandparents watching from the pews; a tradition that has been followed for many, many years.
Family members craned their necks to get a view of their child as he or she received their first communion. I did the same when it was my grandson’s turn. He was so solemn, never unfolding his little hands. Very quietly his great-great-uncle stepped from his place on the altar to give him this first communion which of course touched the hearts of our family on another level. As the liturgy unfolded the sense of celebration intensified and culminated with everyone gathering in front of the church talking, laughing, hugging and snapping countless pictures.
Ultimately, it was a day of faith. While the children most likely did not grasp the full significance of the moment they were nonetheless assured that Jesus was with them which was a message that resonated with the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends gathered. The planning of a day like this sometimes leaves the purpose obscured. There are the proper clothes for the first communicants, the invitations to send out and usually a party to put together. I remember well arriving at my own children’s first communions a bit frazzled with all that was expected. Yet, it is these traditions of faith, the community witness to the sacrament, which brings a family together. In the midst of family problems, illness, divorce or the many other issues that touch our families, and certainly touched families gathered on this occasion, there are these graced moments when faith in God and belief in Jesus renders any obstacle as secondary. We come together to worship and praise and to let our children know we are passing our faith onto them. It is well worth the effort even if it is not understood until after the fact.
These 25 second graders along with countless other young children making their first communion this year are the future of the Church. They will be the altar boys and altar girls, the young adults and eventually the leaders of their own families when it comes to passing on the faith. As they filed down the aisle out of the church I wished them a church of love and understanding that recognizes its responsibility to influence culture and the good sense to learn from the culture, a Church mindful that at the end of the day there are two primary commandments: to love God and to love their neighbor. I hoped they would meet pastors and leaders in parishes who would smile and say, “Yes, we would love to have you get married here,” or “Yes, we would be happy to baptize your child,” before turning to the details of paperwork and directives.
I was grateful for the religious education teachers who prepared these children for the sacrament knowing how much time and energy they gave to the task. And, I realized how important a family is when it comes to faith. We support each other in an endeavor that is sometimes unclear, sometimes difficult but always worth it in the end. The milestones along the way, such as first communion, offer a time to pause and celebrate.
(This article first appeared in The Tidings May 2015)