I have a confession to make. Although I righteously roll my eyes at moms and dads who yell boorishly from the bleachers for their kids to get a hit, I have become a religious equivalent of the Little League parent.
Call me the “first Communion father.”
I’m anxious for my 7-year-old son to recognize the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, genuflect when passing the tabernacle and pronounce “transubstantiation” without a stutter.
Mind you, I don’t yell at my home-schooled boy from the pews during the consecration. But I do harbor a deep desire for him, as he prepares for his first holy Communion, to have the same life-changing experience I had in the second grade.
Perhaps I seek to relive this holy day through him.
More on that later. First, a bit of background.
I am one of the lucky ones. Or should I say blessed? The first time I heard about the Eucharist as a child, I believed in the Real Presence. Of course, I didn’t have a nuanced knowledge of substance and accidents. I didn’t grasp that the whole substance of the bread and wine are changed into the whole substance of the body and blood of Jesus, while the accidents of bread and wine remain.
I simply believed because the world seemed filled with the kind of hidden mysteries that the Eucharist embodied. In my urban parish, the nuns wore floor-length habits and bonnet veils that covered almost every strand of hair. The priests were funny and friendly when you met them in the schoolyard but, in the church, behind the marble altar rail, they were icons of the mystery they handled.
These were the last days of the old Mass, now restored by Pope Benedict XVI as the Mass of Blessed John XXIII, the extraordinary form of the Latin Rite.
Some 40 years after my first Communion, however, I am coming to understand what a gift my simple faith was. While preparing my own son for his first Communion, I was left speechless when he said, “But Dad, it looks like bread.”
Didn’t he understand everything we had covered in the Baltimore Catechism? Didn’t it sink in at church each Sunday when we genuflected while passing the tabernacle and I said, “Jesus is present”? Most of all, doesn’t he know he’s my son, that my first Communion still ranks as a great highlight of my life, and that I simply don’t understand that someone with my genes could possibly have a question about the Real Presence?
“Don’t worry. He’ll get it,” my wife assures me. “His mind is more scientific; yours is more poetic. It’ll take him longer.”
Yes, I’ve seen that our son favors proof over piety. He loves videos about the solar system and astronauts. I had forgotten the names of all the planets till he reminded me.
Friends at our parish also have well-meaning advice.
“It’s not an easy thing for a child to grasp,” a mother said, sensing my anxiety. “Who thinks about substance and accidents?”
Somehow I was not comforted. So I read with great reverence to my son the sections in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really and substantially contained. … It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament” (Nos. 1374-75).
That is, after all, what I was taught. I recall stately, tall Father O’Neill walking into our second-grade classroom, carrying a gold chalice and paten with an unconsecrated host. This was our last test student.
But Father O’Neill, jolly by nature, was not out to catch anyone off-guard. He was there to share what clearly to him was the center of his priestly life.
“Boys and girls,” he said, “holding up the paten and host, “when the priest says the words of consecration, ‘This is my body,’ it is no longer bread but the body of Jesus.”
He lifted the empty chalice. “And when the priest says, ‘This is my blood,’ the wine in the chalice becomes the blood of Jesus.”
He placed down the chalice, paused a moment, then spread wide his long arms. “This is a miracle!” his voiced boomed with joy.
At that moment, the Holy Spirit touched me and I thought with an innocent conviction: “Yes, I know Jesus is that good.”
Lighten Up, Dad
Of course, I realize that my anxiety over my son’s first Communion is counterproductive, just as fathers and mothers shouting for fidgety Junior to clear the bases are doing him no favor.
Maybe I should just open my arms for my son, in the manner of Father O’Neill, say it’s a miracle, and let God’s grace take effect.
It would mean admitting that my 7-year-old boy is not exactly like me — which would surely be a grace for both of us.
A bit of that grace broke through recently when I was talking to a priest I had never met before. I asked him about his vocation. He said he first began thinking about the priesthood in high school. A priest was teaching about the Eucharist and the priest-to-be kept asking if Jesus was really, truly present.
“Really?” the young man kept asking. “Yes, as real as you and I are present here,” the priest replied.
“That was the first time I remember really hearing it in those terms,” the young priest, now ordained four years, recalled. “If Jesus is there in the host, the world is suddenly a much different place.”
I told him about my own experience with my son. He told me not to worry; Jesus has a way of making himself known at exactly the right time. This “first Communion father” was greatly comforted.
“I’ll pray for him,” he assured me. “He’ll get it.”
In this month of May — first Communion month, for many — my wife and I will see our son receive his first holy Communion.
And when we receive the same sacrament after him, I pray that we will all experience the Lord’s presence more deeply.
May we know, together, that Yes, Jesus is that good.
Stephen Vincent writes from