Maggie picked out her dress last summer, when they were all on sale for 50 percent off. She wanted to wear pants, but our neighbor with three boys convinced her otherwise. I would have supported pants.
Her dress was very simple compared with some of the bridal get-ups the other girls picked out. She wore a cockeyed halo of white miniature roses on her head. Around her neck we fastened the white gold cross she opened that morning at breakfast.
Forty-six children lined up outside the church in two straight rows, shortest to tallest. Maggie was on the right side, half of the fourth pair. Her partner was a scrawny blond boy, whose name she did not know. She processed down the aisle with appropriate solemnity, in spite of the fact that most of her classmates raced toward the altar as if they were heading for the ice cream truck.
Molly and Clarke sat by my side in the sixth pew from the front, which is awfully close for us. People up front don't talk as much as we do in our usual spot two-thirds of the way back. Clarke clutched my arm, intent on preventing a repeat of his First Communion four years ago, when I reached out from the pew to straighten his tie as he walked past. (His version: He was deep in prayer when I lunged out and tried to strangle him with his zipper tie.)
It was a cute service that hasn't changed much in the past 40 years, since Vatican II made it OK to sing folk songs and pray in a language other than Latin.
The adults were a little too serious for my taste. The two women responsible for preparing the kids for First Communion took the lectern to call out each child by name. The second-grade teacher (for the Catholic School kids) and a volunteer (for everybody else) were way to solemn. If you didn't know better, you'd think they were summoning these children to prison camp for grave sins.
But the kids were sweet. When they called out Maggie's name, she stood up and replied nice and loud, "Here I am Lord." I cry every year at this point. But this year I just wanted to ask their teachers if they could lighten up a bit.
Almost all the kids had been taught to bow as they approached the priest. They all forgot, which is just as well. It looked really silly when they did it during the rehearsal.
Afterward, they all lined up for the obligatory group shot. They put on their plastic smiles and tried to hold still. It was awfully hard for the boys. Now, the photographer was yelling at them, as if this was not an occasion of joy, but something to be feared. Maybe the sacrament won't take if you don't get a nice picture too. (Although that's hardly true of marriage, we have a great wedding album.)
I wonder how many of these kids will keep the faith as they grow older? I wonder if my kids will? I doubt it. Molly and Clarke already put up great resistance about going to Mass. They don't feel a connection. But I never waiver on this one. I think it's important to grow up with a set of beliefs and a way to express those beliefs. Formal worship gives you the chance to be explicit. We say it out loud every Mass: This is our faith. This is the faith of the church.
I don't expect my kids to all remain in the Catholic Church. But my hope is that they will all find a spiritual home. I think it's a lot easier to do that as a young adult if you are rejecting one concrete set of beliefs in favor of another. Starting off with a vague notion is a disadvantage, like not having a map.
Maybe this isn't true for everyone. Some parents are really good at conveying deep truths about life to their kids. Not me. I get bogged down in survival. Being Catholic gives me many many opportunities to both affirm my faith and to argue with my church.
My kids actually like the arguing part. They like having something to push back against.
First Communion is a quaint, almost old-fashioned notion. But it's symbolism holds up. You are getting your first taste of an active spiritual life. Even if you spit it out later, it gives you a starting point.