Close friends of my family offered to send me to a parochial school for a better education. One was Jewish and the other was Protestant. My parents were not churchgoers – my dad left in his youth; my mom came from a broken home, but they convinced my folks it would be better for me. I was already baptized but my very first church experience was that year in parochial school when I made my first communion. All the “smells and bells” – the incense, holy water, stained glass, blessed objects and the beautiful hymns got “under my skin”. I was hooked.
I was “jazzed” and spent many months eagerly preparing for first communion. Palm Sunday came and my mom took me to mass. She had never been to a church her whole life. Then during the mass much to my surprise she told me to get in line for the palms. She had no idea what was happening – and neither did I. Soon I realized I was in line for communion! I was scared. What if the sisters or someone else saw me? I didn’t know what to do. So I just played it cool and stayed in line, keenly watching everyone in turn kneeling at the rail. I had never done it before. I knew I had to watch and get it right or they would know. As I knelt at the rail I turned and looked at each person being given communion to see how they did it. Finally the priest and altar boy came. This was it. I was ready. I don’t remember if the priest said it in Latin or English (The Body of Christ) or if I even said “Amen.” I remember the priest placing the host on my tongue while the altar boy held the paten under my chin, then going back to the pew, anxiously hoping no one noticed. I remember little else about that day except worrying whether anyone saw me or if the sisters would say anything that week. Nothing happened. Not a word. I went on and made my “first communion” in May but it was really Palm Sunday, 1966.
Like so many teens I drifted from the Church. But that year of my first communion left me with fond and vivid memories. I became “homesick”. When I returned in college I told this story in confession. I had agonized over whether this was a sin I failed to confess long ago or if my “first communion” was “invalid”. The worry haunted me. The priest was very kind and understanding and said, “That was how God intended it for you.”
The irony of family friends who were not Catholic giving me a childhood faith experience, and the priest’s advice in confession taught me an important lesson: Be open to the unconventional and surprising ways God enters into our lives.