voices joined together in prayer and song. The genial priest assured everyone he’d be brief with his homily. The week before, he had been at a grandniece’s Communion in Kerry ‘and, would you believe it, the priest went on for 20 minutes? I was like this on the altar beside him,’ he said, miming nodding off to sleep. There was the laughter of recognition at that figure of fun — the priest with a weakness for the lengthy sermon, the old quips about the popular curate who does ‘the quick mass’, and what is underneath that, I found myself musing, the sense of duty in mass attendance, the ‘Ah,
‘There was laughter
of recognition for that figure of fun: the
priest with a weakness for the lengthy sermon’
don’t make more of it than you have to, there’s the Sunday chicken to put in the oven’. Mass might be symbolic of the great mystery of our existence, and an elaborate belief system evolved to frame that mystery, but there’s no need to bang on.
‘Do you know what happened today?’ he asked the children. ‘A little girl from Bray became champion of the world. You are champions too. You are little stars; you are very special, each one of you.’ My memory of Communion, and its complementary sacrament, Confession, was the accompanying lesson that Jesus had to die for you because you’re terrible altogether, and never forget: The Guilt. This was purely positive, a celebration for a group of children who’ve reached the ‘big eight’. That my niece didn’t join the line to actually take Communion didn’t seem such a big deal then.
At the end of the service the priest reminded the congregation that it was called ‘First’ Holy Communion, that the next day, being Sunday, was the opportunity for the second, and that hopefully it would be the first of thousands. No mention of such a notion back in my day, no need. Being a Catholic meant church every Sunday, it being a small rural community. Everyone complied (even if for some fellas it entailed reading the paper down the back).
There were sandwiches and cake in the school afterwards. I got talking to one of the Communion dads who said, if it was from a purely intellectual standpoint, he would never darken the doorway of a church; he absolutely loathed the institution, ‘but what I see here today is community and structure’. A mother said the priest had told the children that Confession was about getting it off your chest if you were worried about something, or had done something wrong. A nice idea, but linking it with the notion of ‘sin’? Not to mention the complications around what constitutes ‘sin’. I’m told one little girl hit her sister so she’d have a sin to tell for First Confession (and another Katie Taylor is born?).
What I took, from those I spoke with, was their pragmatism. I’d wondered, watching the large congregation receive Communion, if each one believed in the doctrine of transubstantiation? That’s one of the reasons I don’t practise — when I really thought about it, I discovered I didn’t believe, at all. Maybe in today’s put-upon church, that’s a moot point?
It’s the belonging, the community, the cultural continuity that matters. Though my niece didn’t receive, she experienced Communion, in the ‘shared experience’ sense of the word. I found the ceremony surprisingly moving. I’m glad she is gaining such close familiarity with Catholic doctrine, and the nuances of its particular, pragmatic, Irish practice.