THE CHURCH was packed with the doting parents.
brothers and sisters. uncles, aunts, grandparents, friends, relatives of consanguinity
and affinity. and other impediments, and the day was boiling hot.
We were crowded into Our I .nly of' Lourdes and St Peter Chanel, Hull, for Children's Sunday Afternoon Mass, but on this occasion it was special — First Communion Sunday.
For my wife and me the youngest of our children had reached, though I find it impossible to believe, the age of reason.
Why Catholics should reach it at the age of seven and non
Catholics approaching the age of 13 or 14 I could never understand. In those certain days of pre-ecumenical isolation. 1 took it to be just another example of the presence of the Holy Ghost remember Him? — in the Church. Papes were brainier than the rest.
On these occasions, with self-conscious pride, parents parade their white-clad offspring before the congregation. There have in recent times been attempts to discourage the wearing of white dresses and veils as distracting from the importance of the occasion, but the collective voice of the Holy Mother's Church triumphed.
The dressing-up is neither a false pride, nor a taking away of proper respect from the Sacrament, nor a concentration upon the inessentials. Rather it is the reverse. It is a desire to impress upon the child the awful significance of the occasion, the terrible majesty, and the constant love that is involved in the continuing Miracle. It is something special, and for special occasions special care is taken.
The parents were right.
I can remember my mother rushing around Swindon in the war looking for a white shirt and a red tie for my Maundy Thursday First Holy Communion. We had to•walk for what scented miles to a Mass at Holy Rood — it took me ages to work out that paradox.
I was abjured not to kick stones, forbidden to fall down and graze my knees, urged to pull up my socks straight; and I was so hungry. What with the walk and the fasting, in those days there was little chance of a toffee stickiness on the front of a white shirt and tie. The stop-watch mentality of "one hour before" had not yet developed.
The picture of my first Holy Communion is indistinct apart from my mother's do's and and dont's, and I probably have some of my facts wrong except that there was a party afterwards in the school and the Mercy Sisters had done it again! Another miracle, Wartime, and there were cream buns. Whenever I see a cream bun I think of my first Holy Communion. Although doubtless I had one before, 1 can never remember eating a cream bun before that day, and I certainly did • not have another until after the war was over.
There was probably jelly there and sandwiches too and orange juice and doubtless the tables groaned with the combined efforts that mothers and teachers always make on these occasions — a-day to remember, wartime or not. But all I can recall are the cream buns.
Really I should not have allowed my mind to wander at Mass, to reminisce like a 90year-old.
The pillars of the Church were decorated with pictures the children had made of the Lad. Supper and of other occa
stuns associated with Holy Communion. In the front of the altar there was a picture of a ciboritinf with Hosts tumbling forth, and the name of each new communicant was upon a Host.
The children read the Lessons, sang their songs. Each new communicant had a prayer book he or she had made themselves at school. Each composed his or her own prayer to say before and after Communion, prayers containing the simplicity and unselfconscious devotion, mysticism and practicality that only the young can achieve.
To teach music in an infants' school must take a superabundance of patience arid of grace: a heroic virtue. or a dreadful penance. Perhaps it is the punishment for one of those special sins which are reserved to the bishop of the diocese, perhaps even the Holy Father himself. to forgive.
Or it is something imposed upon the Sisters for some terrible infringement of the Rule within the Enclosure — failing to put sugar in Reverend Mother's tea?
Perhaps it is a way of experiencing an earthly Purgatory in order to achieve eternal salvation that much quicker: perhaps it is iusi a sheer gift Of the Holy Ghost, a delight in being able to make beautiful music from bits of wood and nylon held by the fumbling fingers of five-year-olds who two years later are playing tunes and enjoying the companionship and discipline that music can bring.
Far from being a solitary art. as is sometimes suggested, music is an art of conversation, the gift of the gregarious. The Sisters on Sunday had surpassed themselves: the singing. the guitars, the recorders helped to make this occasion special for the children, making their first Holy Communion a day to remember.
When the Mass was over we had photographs on the altar steps, the parish priest at one side. the curate at the other. The children proudly holding in front of them _their certificates of their first Holy Communion.
The boys were not uniformly dressed all in white like the girls, but with their best coloured shirts. their sparkling shoes and shining eyes, somehow had still retained, where appropriate, the partings in their hair — another minor miracle. They were all very happy and afterwards we went to the parish hall: not for the formal parties that we used to have. For the parents there was tea and for the children crisps, Coke and then inure crisps and even more Coke and then hack home for another party. Neither at the parish hall nor at home were there cream buns: but it was still a day to remgmber —a special day.