We Roman Catholics are in the midst of the First Communion season — dark suits fitted for seven-year-old boys, white dresses and veils for the girls, lots of flash photos, and earnest young faces in prayerful concentration for receiving Christ in the Eucharist for the first time.
My memories of First Communion are quite different. It wasn’t the season of Easter. I wore a clip-on green tie with a white shirt, but no suit coat. My parents weren’t present, though I was a sixth-grader. I think it was a Wednesday and — possibly no surprise to those who question the liberal streak of my Catholicity — I wasn’t even baptized.
In 1969, my mom pulled me and my sister out of Rochester, New York’s, Public School number 39 and enrolled us in the neighborhood Catholic school, St. Andrew’s. As I began sixth grade that year, one student befriended me the very first day; Michael was an affable, heavy-set kid who took me under his wing.
I remember clearly my first experience of Catholic Mass. The entire school gathered in one big room — I’d never experienced a school gathering like that before. I liked the spacious, cool church interior. The sound of the organ seemed like it just floated from the back of the church onto us students. I studied the saints’ images in the colored windows — people I’d never heard of like Athanasius and that guy Andrew tied to the big “X.” The priest read the Bible and talked to the students about it. A bit later, I noticed the kids close to the front lining up in the aisles. Were they leaving?
I asked Michael. “Psst. What’s going on now?”
“Communion,” he said.
“Can anyone go?”
“Sure. Come on.”
So I carefully mimicked the kids standing around me in line: pressing my palms together, index fingers near my lips. As I passed my third-grade sister, I might have smirked slightly, and her mouth fell open.
She told her teacher, who informed the principal, who consulted the pastor, who telephoned my mother. By the time I came home for lunch, my mom told me I’d done something wrong. I was crushed, and bolted up the stairs, shut myself in the closet and cried. I thought for sure they were going to kick me out of school. That would have been catastrophic, because from the moment I entered St. Andrew’s Church, experienced the Mass, and was welcomed by my friend, I knew I wanted to be Catholic.
My mother consoled me, carefully explaining that only Catholics could receive Communion in a Catholic Church. She was sure the priest and school staff would understand I meant no harm, but I was not to go to Communion again.
My mother was a Baptist and my dad considered himself a Presbyterian, so the possibility of asking either of them if I could become a Catholic presented me with a dilemma. If they said no, I would be stuck. So in my ten-year-old mind, I formulated a solution: I asked God to arrange it for me to become a Catholic without risking a veto from my parents.
A few months later, the phone rang, and it was Father McCarthy, the pastor. He spoke with me briefly, then asked to talk to my mother. I gave her the phone, and resumed reading my book. I overheard her part of the conversation and remember it with clarity.
“No . . . none of them have been baptized.”
“Well, that’s an idea. Let me ask Todd and see what he thinks.”
God answered my prayer, and I was sure Father McCarthy had been notified from on high to call my mom and suggest that it might be a good idea for me to get baptized. We had several months of instruction, which was amazing in itself: Imagine, a busy pastor taking the time to catechize two little kids. As a result, my sister, younger brother, and I were baptized on our parents’ 25th wedding anniversary, August 22, 1970.
Looking back almost 40 years later, I have to smile inwardly at the unlikely sequence of events that led me to the Catholic Church. The confluence of my experience and divine intervention gave my life a powerful grounding. I never doubted God in my youth, like many of my peers. When I thought about how boring Mass was, or that maybe I didn’t need to be an active Catholic, I was drawn back to my own conversion experience. God interceded, in the person of a busy parish priest. How could I turn my back on that?
Liturgy was the open door through which I first saw and experienced God and heard the call to faith. Music and preaching, plus an unorthodox welcome, drew me in. When I was in trouble, I prayed, and those prayers were always answered (sometimes, in unorthodox ways). God’s loving intervention is never far off.
As for my real First Communion, I didn’t want anything public or fancy — no front row seat or special announcement. I went to Mass with my sister and our godparents. When it was time to receive, I got in line with everyone else, one Catholic among many.