Communion: An Irish Catholic Childhood Remembered
By Michael Scanlon, Contributor
Febuary / March 2006
It is the early spring of 1945 in the Bronx. World War II is about to end. Over fifty of us, boys and girls together, cram into our classroom. Sister Mary Herbert stands tall at the front of the room in the black robes, black veil and white headband of a Sister of Mercy. She announces: “Now that you are all seven years old and have reached the age of reason you will be receiving your first Holy Communion. This will be the happiest day of your life.”
“Sister is right,” my mother says at dinner that night, “Holy Communion will be the happiest day of your life.” I look to my father. He continues to eat. He says nothing.
The next day Sister points to a picture of St. Patrick, a figure well known to us children of Irish immigrants. “He holds a shamrock,” Sister says. “It has three leaves but is only one shamrock. There are three persons in the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. All are one. All are God. You will be receiving the second person of the Trinity into your body in the form of a wafer we call `the host.’ This is bread and wine which has been changed into the body and blood of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.”
It is overwhelming and confusing. Later, my mother tells me it is true. “It is a mystery,” she says.
This is the first time I hear this word, but in years to come my young imagination will grapple with other bewildering mysteries and rituals. I will learn to sing hymns in an unknown tongue called Latin: “Tantum Ergo,” “Salve Regina,” “Panis Angelicus.” I will have ashes put on my forehead on Ash Wednesday reminding me that from dust I come and to dust I shall return. On St. Blaise’s Feast Day, my throat will be blessed with sacred candles. On Confirmation Day, my head will be anointed with a holy oil by the bishop who will lightly slap my cheek, then announce my new name — Augustine — and declare me a soldier for Christ. I will learn to carry rosary beads and run my fingers through the five decades of beads reciting in unison with others: Hail Marys, Our Fathers and the Glory Be in honor of the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries. And on a night called Holy Thursday, at age 12, I will hold a lighted candle against the darkness of our church and join a procession of choir boys behind the priest in his purple robes as he holds a silver crucifix on high. The smoke of the fragrant incense as it rises in the air, the flickering candles in the blackness, the hushed silence of the congregation broken only by our slow steps and steady chant of Pange Lingua Gloriosi — “Sing, my Tongue, the Savior’s Glory” — all this, on that night, will fire in me a sense of awe and wonder I had never known before.
But all that comes later. Now I am seven years old trying to imagine what the happiest day of my life will feel like.
“Three rules you must remember,” Sister says. “First, no eating or drinking on the morning of Holy Communion. Second, do not allow the host to touch your teeth. Third, you must never, ever chew the host.”
We boys prepare for the day by trying on our very first suit — navy blue with a white armband shaped like a cross. In our new shirts and ties, we look like our fathers going to church. The girls are even more excited with their white dresses and lace veils, looking just like their mothers in photographs of their wedding day.
Days before my first Holy Communion, I watch ants crawling on my window sill and I think to myself, “God made even those little ants. He made the big tree across the street. God made the great Yankee Stadium only blocks away. He made everything and everybody in the whole world. And this great God almighty will be put on my tongue and I will swallow Him into my stomach.” A mystery, my mother said.
My legs are shaking as the Communion Mass begins. We are instructed to walk to the altar rail one row at a time as the choir sings, “O, Lord, I am not worthy/ That Thou should’st come to me/ Just speak the word of comfort/ My spirit healed shall be.”
Old Monsignor Humphrey pauses before each kneeling child, speaks in Latin, then places the wafer on each tongue. As I wait, my stomach hurts. My mouth is dry. “O, Lord, I am not worthy…”
My turn. I open my mouth, stick out my tongue, feel the wafer and try to swallow it whole. I cough and cannot breathe. My face is burning. “Take him away,” Monsignor orders. The altar boy whose job it is to hold a gold plate under the communicant’s chin to catch even the slightest crumb of the sacred host from falling to the ground, leads me to a room at the side of the altar, the sacristy.
Father Bond stands in his black cassock and seems almost amused. He pats my back. “C’mon, it’s all right, son, take this water and swallow,” he says. Then, unbelievably, he says, “Go ahead, chew it!” I choke as he leads me to the sink, “Here, spit it out!” The water and host go splattering into the sink, the little crumbled wafer swirling down the drain like a potato peel I’ve seen in my mother’s sink. I stand in terror. Father Bond shrugs, and smiles again, “Go back to your seat, it’s all right.”
My mother, father and I walk home in silence. This is the worst day of my life. As we are about to go up to our apartment, my father says, “Come with me.” He takes my hand in his. His hand is hard and rough as we walk down a hill to the train station. Soon the two of us are sitting on the elevated subway car going downtown to the city.
This is the very first time I have been alone with my father, away from my mother, brother and sister. My father is a mystery in a way. I wonder if he is mad about what happened at church. I know my father comes from a place called Sligo, Ireland, which is across the Atlantic Ocean, that he gets up each morning and goes to work on the IRT. It’s where most of my friends’ Irish fathers work. They call it the “railroad.” He comes home from work each evening for dinner, takes a nap, and then goes off to another job as a security watchman at night. When he returns home, we are all asleep.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“To buy strings for my fiddle,” he winks at me. “And resin for my bow.”
I remembered the first time I asked my father about his fiddle. He was standing bare-chested by our kitchen window on a hot summer’s night playing his violin. Some neighbors had come to their windows to catch a breeze in the sweltering heat of the evening and found themselves listening to the strains of “Lovely Leitrim” and “On the Banks of My Own Lovely Lee” that drifted down from our fifth-floor apartment to the courtyard below. My father turned to me that night and said in his Irish accent, “I play by air, lad, by air.” Years went by before I realized he didn’t just pull music out of the air. He meant, “By ear!”
The train stops and he leads me up the subway stairs toward the hot noisy streets of Manhattan. We come to a tiny store, “Mattie Haskins Irish Products.”
My father greets the man behind the counter and with his hand on my shoulder, says, “This is my son, he made his first communion today.” With a big smile and in an accent like my father’s, the man says, “Well, congratulations to you, my boy.”
Later my father buys me an ice cream cone and says, “I’m proud of you, son. Happy First Holy Communion Day.”
With my hand still in his, we go home, my father no longer such a mystery. He is on my side.
Looking back across a sea of years, the shame and hurt of that day have long since passed. What has stayed with me instead is the memory of a different kind of communion. It is the feel of my father’s hard callused hand in mine and his knowing wink as he took me downtown to buy strings for his fiddle and resin for his bow. I think about him now and of Sister Mary Herbert and her happy promise. She may have been right after all. ♦