A child’s sacrament recalls another years ago

A grandson’s first Communion brings back memories and evokes prayers for the youth

By George Valadie

It was May 1961, so a good many of the details escape me now. But it was when my second-grade classmates and I received our first Holy Communion.

It was the third of five sacraments I have received at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church here in Chattanooga. I’ve got one more big thing to do there.

I know we looked good that day. I have proof. There’s a keepsake photo of us someone has held on to and shared recently. We were standing on the church steps with our pastor, the same steps on which we stood six years later when we graduated with a different pastor.

There were the requisite white dresses for the girls, with lace on their socks and their veils; white shirts, navy-colored pants, and ties for us guys. And apparently my friends and I had a fair amount of Brylcreem or Vitalis laced through our hair, gel before gel was a thing.

I recall we practiced in the church a time or two. And when the moment came to receive Communion, Sister pretended to give it to us by softly stroking our cheeks with her hand.

The first time we received the Eucharist was indeed the first time.

Someone, likely a grandparent, celebrated with me by gifting me with a Sunday Missal so I could follow the Mass before missalettes were a thing. I don’t have it anymore, though I wish I did.

What little I can recall came flooding back this weekend when our youngest grandson, Fischer, received his first Communion. Other than the white tie they required, he looked just like I had—hair gel and all.

But so many of the other things had changed since that day in 1961. All good as far as I’m concerned.

There were five teenage altar servers, and four of them were female. Their pastor in this heart-of-America (Little Rock, Ark.) parish is an immigrant from Mexico who had to learn the language in addition to theology. He was assisted this day by a deacon.

Though instituted in the earliest days of the Church, deacons have not been a hugely active part of the American Church until of late. This Sunday’s deacon for Fischer’s ceremony was also an immigrant, from South Africa.

Fischer said he and his classmates had rehearsed, too. Unlike Sister’s soft touch on my cheek, teachers at his school sent home unconsecrated hosts so they could get used to the texture and taste. It makes sense . . . no one wants a kid to start gagging in the biggest moment of his biggest day.

He knew where to sit and where to stand. He knew when to stay and when to go. His hands were folded in a most devout manner. He knelt up straight and appeared angelic if just for the hour—even if he was sure the devil and his tie were choking the everlasting life out of him.

And I had to chuckle, imagining him and his friends on a not-so-special Sunday. Other Masses on other days when they may be a little bored, a little distracted, possibly poking their sisters or each other now and again. Praying a little, giggling a little, learning a little.

Unlike our ceremony when the 50 of us had piled into the front pews, girls on the left, boys on the right, Fischer’s school takes a different approach. They space things out. Each of four classes gets to attend its own weekend Mass.

And each new communicant gets a reserved pew for family. It was nice, no need to arrive 45 minutes early, no need to save seats. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of reducing a family’s stress when back at home you can imagine there are all sorts of hollering and anxiety. If for no other reason than everyone needs a hot shower.

But the girls still sit on one side, and the boys still sit on the other.

I couldn’t help but look around. In a throwback to families of the ’60s, across the aisle sat a little girl with her mom and dad and seven stairstep siblings, the oldest of whom couldn’t have been but 12.

The boy’s family in front of us needed to spill over into a nearby pew. Good for them. But he appeared to have lots of grandparents … not at all uncommon these days but not nearly so for those of us who gathered those 60-plus years ago.

In the pew behind us sat a little fellow with his grandpa and not a single other soul. His parents had been killed in an accident; his grandparents were now raising him until his grandmother recently passed away. So, it was just the two of them now, and Grandpa looked older than me.

Father gave a great homily—one he addressed to the kids but that had meaning for us all.

And then came the big moment. Each came forward, each stood alone with Father, each extended a palm. And then each youngster took his or her turn receiving their Savior for the first time.

It gave me a few moments to ponder the future of each of these children.

Who will he be? What will she do? Will these little ones prove to be responsible and charitable? Or more focused on the face that will stare back in the mirror?

Does good health await? Or will there be need to offer up all that suffering? Will the other kids be mean and make fun? Or rather, will that be the sin our grandchild will need to confess?

There will be that normal desire to fit in—scary to watch, if you’ve ever seen a kid implode while trying too hard. Will athletics be a gift? Music? Dance? Or will they have been blessed with the most needed blessing of all: that ability to be someone else’s very best friend?

Will we see a doctor develop or the custodian who keeps such offices sterile? Is there a future politician with the power to improve the planet or the sort who just relishes the power?

Funny or shy? Easily embarrassed or the center of every room? Will some future greatness earn the spotlight? Or will an excessive need for the spotlight cause some future stupidity? Blue eyes or brown, blond hair or dark, tall or short, fat or skinny? Just exactly who are these children who—for the moment anyway—want to be just like the Lord they had just received?

It caused me to pray. For each young child for sure—but also for their moms and dads. Maybe more so for them. Their task is real . . . and really big.

Because after the little ones had taken their turn, so did the rest of the congregation. Male and female, old and young, white and black, and every other color of humanity.

He was there—the teenager who drove himself because no one else in his home wanted to come. She was there—the worn-out single mom with three little ones in tow. They were there—the elderly wife with a cane leading her blind husband with one of his own.

Will these second-graders still be here then? Eight years down the road? Or 80? Will they return to church when the choice is theirs? Will time diminish their faith or see it flourish?

So, I pray for these moms and dads—our daughters and their husbands, too—in hopes they invest in these souls for whom our Creator entrusted such immense responsibility.

One fact is certain—no matter who or what results—God has found another home in another of His creatures.

And He will never leave.

Dear God—How incredible it must be! To be able to see what and who they can be. But it must be tempting, too? Wishing to coax them toward this turn and away from that one? May we be blessed with the wisdom and opportunity to help them choose. Amen.


George Valadie is a parishioner at St. Stephen Church in Chattanooga and author of the newly released book “We Lost Our Fifth Fork … and other moments when we need some perspective.”

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