Experiencing communion for the first time

Some time after my first confession our religion teachers began to shift gears, starting to prepare us for our first communion. For those unfamiliar with the Catholic tradition, the "communion rite" is the time during a prayer service (usually a mass, although not exclusively) where the people approach a minister to receive and eat what appears to the eye as either a piece of bread (most common), some bread with some wine (less common), or just a bit of wine (least common, for exceptional circumstances). As they are distributed during the communion rite, the term "communion" also commonly applies to the substances being consumed. A person's "first communion", therefore, refers to the first time a person participates in the communion rite by going up and receiving communion.

In some spiritual traditions, such as for many Eastern Catholics, a person receives their first communion at the same time they are baptized, i.e. it can be given even to an infant. However, in the Latin tradition (to which most Roman Catholics belong), communion is not given to infants, but is delayed until the person has attained a level of maturity called the "age of reason" (generally considered to be around 7 years old).

Of course, that doesn't stop little kids from wanting to receive earlier. Any minister of communion can tell stories of what often happens when parents bring their children up with them in the communion rite. "Let me see!" they sometimes say when we place the wafer (called a "host") in the adult's hand. "Can I have some? Why can't I have some?" they sometimes exclaim. I've even had a few come up and perfectly imitate the gesture of receiving communion, not noticing Mom or Dad behind indicating, with a shake of the head, that the little one has not yet made his or her First Communion. On some level they know that something special is happening with communion, and they want to take part.

I was no different. I knew I had to wait until I had made my First Communion, and I don't recall making a lot of fuss otherwise. Still, I was curious. During our annual summer holiday at a cottage in the country, I asked the kindly parish priest if I could try a host. My father accompanied us to the sacristy, where the priest took a host out of a tin and gave it to me. It tasted like... not much.

Sometime later I found myself reflecting on this experience. The host was way too small to be worthwhile as food, and as a culinary experience it left something to be desired. So I asked my father about it: what was the big deal?

His answer floored me. "After the host is consecrated, it isn't bread anymore. When we receive the host in communion, what we are actually receiving is the Body of Jesus."

Wait, what?

How was THAT possible?

"It's called 'transsubstantiation'," he explained (and yes, he used that word). "It means that the host keeps all of the outward appearances of being bread, including the look and the taste, but it isn't bread anymore. It is Jesus' body."

This all seemed very strange to me. I didn't have a lot of trouble thinking that transsubstantiation was possible — after all, God could do anything, so if that's what he wanted to do that was his business. But to be honest, it didn't sound terribly plausible. In fact, it sounded a little gross. So I asked where we Catholics got this strange notion that we were eating Jesus' body in communion.

My father's answer? "From Jesus himself." And then he went to a Bible, and showed me chapter 6 of the gospel of John, where Jesus said that the bread he would give the world was his flesh (verse 51). He also showed me how people disputed this saying (verse 52), how some found this teaching intolerable (verse 60), and how some even stopped following him because of it (verse 66). "People had taken him literally," my father explained, "and Jesus did not correct them. When it was the Last Supper, Jesus took bread and said 'this is my body", and then he took wine and said 'this is my blood'. He meant what he said."

I had heard those words before, of course, during Sunday mass. I knew the priest spoke them over the bread and wine, and I knew they had been the words of Jesus. My father explained that this was why we would kneel at that point, why the priest would elevate the elements after each set of words, and why we would ring the bells and bow our heads. Jesus was now present, ready to be received by us as food.

This also explained what happened after receiving communion. I remember being impressed at seeing my parents pray in silence after receiving communion. As I got closer to my first communion, I found myself wondering what I should be "doing" during that time of silence. My father's suggestion was an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be. I knew those prayers, so that seemed simple enough.

Once our special catechism classes for first communion were over, I knew the big day was coming. However, our parish at the time had a curious practice, in that there was no big group first communion ceremony as was found in many other parishes. Instead, the parents were encouraged to decide, as a family, on a particular Sunday when the young boy or girl would receive their first communion along with the regular parish community. As I recall, there was not a lot of extra ceremony.

It was at this time that my mother had an idea. Her suggestion was that I receive my first communion on the Thursday of Holy Week. For those who don't know, the mass of Holy Thursday evening is the special moment of the year when we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus. Every mass is a memorial of that moment, of course, but Holy Thursday has that character in a special way. As she pointed out it would make every Holy Thursday from then on an extra special event in my life. Given everything I had learned, it made sense to me.

I don't recall feeling anything particular in the moment when I finally did receive my first communion. I went up, I received and ate the host, I went back to my seat, and I said my prayers. It was all very matter of fact, and I felt as much.

That is, until the end of mass.

My experience of the end of your usual Sunday mass had been: a closing prayer, a set of announcements, and a final blessing and dismissal. Grand total, about 5 minutes. Mentally, I started to already shift gears into going home.

Except this was Holy Thursday.

After the closing prayer, suddenly everyone was back on their knees. The priest put on what looked like an extra white robe (which I would much later learn was called a "humeral veil"), and picked up the vessels that contained the leftover hosts. Instead of putting them back in the tabernacle, he then began to walk around the inside of the parish church with them. It was a procession, complete with candles and an altar server waving incense.

As the priest walked around, the choir began to sing. It was all a capella, i.e. no instruments. I had never heard that gorgeous melody before, and it was all in a language I didn't understand (I later found out it was the Pange Lingua, being sung in Latin).

Through it all, something spoke to me in my heart, impressing on me not words but concepts:

"This is holy."

"What the priest is carrying, is holy."

"What you received, is holy."

It was a genuine religious experience. Despite whatever hesitations I might have had before, I never again had trouble believing in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist — or at least, not for many years, and even that time of challenge was never about the Real Presence as such. But that is a tale for a later installment of this story.