It’s springtime, and for many Catholics that means it’s the season for sacraments, especially first Communion. It’s a time of preparation and prayer, of observing beloved traditions and contemporary customs in bringing Catholic children into the Church’s sacramental life.
This month my family celebrated the first Communion of my grand-niece, Mila, at her parish church, Our Lady of Sorrows in South Orange, N.J. Mila was one of 15 children who received the Eucharist at a beautiful Mass attended by joy-filled family and friends. For me, it evoked a tide of memories and some reflections on the sacraments and what they mean for us.
It poured rain on the day of Mila’s first communion, just as it did on my own first Communion day in May many years ago. The rain did nothing to diminish the spirits of the people gathered in church. The children were joyful, attentive and dressed up for their special day, the girls beautiful in white dresses, wearing veils or crowned with flowers, the boys handsome in dark suits. Colorful banners hung on the pews along the center aisle, each bearing the name of a first communicant.
The pastor, Father Brian X. Needles, celebrated the Mass and spoke directly to the children with warmth, understanding and humor. In his homily he asked them what their favorite foods were; the answers included pizza, ice cream and watermelon. Then he told the youngsters that just as it is important for them to nourish their bodies, they also need to nourish their souls. He asked how they could do that.
“God’s word,” said one of the boys. Mila answered, “Prayer,” and then, “the Eucharist.”
When the time came for Communion, the children were guided up the main aisle. Their parents, relatives and friends followed them onto the Communion line. Just before the Mass concluded, the children went to the rear of the church, where each received a white rose. Then they walked in procession to a shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the front of the church and placed the roses in a vase.
I was moved by this act of devotion to Mary. It was a beautiful way to foster Marian devotion, so vital a part of Catholic faith and practice, in the pure hearts of the youngsters who had just received Mary’s Son for the first time.
After the Mass, a spirit of joy and thanksgiving seemed to linger as the children and their families left the church. I’m sure that all of them did what our family did: gather for a party. We went to a restaurant, where Mila’s parents—my niece Mary Beth and her husband, Bill—had arranged for us to have an upstairs room to ourselves. We’re a mix of parents and children from infancy to preschoolers and up, along with grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, siblings and cousins. Some of us are related by blood or marriage, others are “related” in the sense of extended family. As always there was a great sense of belonging, of celebrating something important that draws us together in joy and reinforces our family bond.
Jesus gave us the sacraments to feed our souls and to unite us as members of his Church and of the family of God. I can’t help but feel that heaven must be something like the space where my family gathered, and where Jesus and the Apostles gathered in Jerusalem: An upper room, a place apart, where everyone knew everyone else, all were welcomed and fed, and God was present. In other words, a sign here on earth, in the words of St. Paul, “of what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Let’s rejoice, with and for the children who are receiving the Lord for the first time, and for the gift of the Eucharist in our own lives—the gift beyond all price—and for the bonds that unite us in the Lord.