Whilst most would look for the silver lining in the cloud there are some who look for the cloud around the silver lining! Amongst the latter have been those lamenting the crowded-house celebrations of First Holy Communion that have not featured on the calendars of our church communities for the last two years, almost to a point where in the absence of large numbers and fripperies questions are raised as to the validity of any celebration without these. Having presided at numerous, rich and varied, First Holy Communion Masses I am aware that what is customary and traditional in one parish would be alien to another. Yet in settings where a Health and Safety Officer would quake in his boots at the numbers rammed into the interior of churches, or those where a single child or small group of children receive Our Lord at the weekly Mass they attend with their families, the Sacrament remains unequivocally the same: totally and utterly valid, and the same the world over.
From a Presider’s perspective the recent smaller, family-group celebrations of First Holy Communion for our Year 5 children were incredibly spiritual, participatory, meaningful and memory-creating experiences for those at their centre. Appreciative comments have been received by the staff in Holy Spirit Primary School all favourably reflecting my own view of the evenings. About to embark upon another three evenings of such celebrations this coming week for Year 4 pupils, I can only hope that they go as well, most especially for the youngsters who have been preparing for these incredibly special days for a considerable period of time.
Experience has given me a fabulous back-catalogue of the all-so-not-important additions to these celebratory occasions from forms of transportation to church, to clothing and accessories which will be a part of some children’s memories of their First Communion Day. Having seen stretch-limo arrivals at church doors, one of the most memorable and at the same time touching was of siblings been borne to church in a Police car. Yes, indeed! Travelling along the M62 the family car had been stopped by a keen-eyed Policeman due to the excessive number of passengers crammed into it. With the children’s parents explaining the significance of the day, the two communicants were duly put into the back of the Police vehicle in order to complete their journey and be at church on time. Hopefully just a warning was issued to the parents who – as the Police car didn’t appear at the end of Mass – must have promised to get their children home in a more safety conscious fashion than that used at the beginning of their special day.
Many of us will have some recollection of our own First Holy Communion day. I was just six when I received Our Lord for the first time, on a windy May Sunday morning. The climatic conditions captured for all time on the class photograph depicting the veils worn by the girls blowing in all directions ! Having fasted from midnight, which was the expectation before an early Mass, we breakfasted in the school hall, and I well remember tucking into a bowl of jelly and ice-cream, which were never a feature on the breakfast table at home. At a theological and intellectual level as an adult I may be able to understand a little more of what I continue to receive in Holy Communion than I could as a small child on that blustery day. However the wonder and mystery remain. Satisfied that I do not need to know everything about what is given to me as sacramental gift, simply knowing that it is good for me is enough. What is offered to me evokes an on-going willingness of body, mind and spirit to utter with its entirety an expressive and believing So be it or Amen. That the sacred species is the Body and Blood of Jesus, and He said it is, is enough for me. Using the account given by St. Mark of the Last Supper, which was the gospel reading of Corpus Christi this year, I encouraged those receiving the Lord for the first time to accept – in faith – the words Jesus said about the bread and wine He shared with those closest to him: This is my Body … This is my Blood. If the second person of the Trinity says this is fact, who am I to do anything but accept what I am privileged to receive by repeating the Abrahamic word of affirmation which means So be it.
The celebration of First Communion by name and definition calls upon us to ensure that we build upon this unique initial meeting between God and ourselves by valuing it enough to appreciate that it is far more than a landmark on a spiritual journey. It is nourishment and viaticum, or food for the journey of life. The cloud-gazers amongst us on such high-days in parochial life may wonder, often loudly, when, or if, a particular cohort of children will arrive at their second communion with the Lord. However, what we receive is far less about the spiritual lives of others, than our own interior livelihood and well-being. If we make the Real Presence that we receive a tangible reality for others to see the benefits from in our own lives, expressed in attitude, word and deed, then, just maybe, they will come – in the fullness of a timescale which is not ours – to value the same gift offered to them. When Jesus offered Himself at table to His first disciples he did not put a sell by or best before date on His Body or Blood. Instead for all time and in all places and situations He stated This is my Body … This is my Blood. In a period of time when many have for all good reason been separated from the Real Presence in their lives, what a wonderful and consoling reality that has, and continues, to be.
Next weekend marks a year since our two churches opened for the celebration of Holy Mass having been closed from 20th March. The experience of our current celebrations of Holy Mass is somewhat different to that of pre-pandemic times, but at its heart is the reception of Christ’s Body and Blood. With the exception of November, when we were obliged to close our doors once more for a month, and thanks to willing volunteers, together with adherence to a code of compliance issued to keep our congregations safe, we have been able to offer the gift of Holy Mass throughout this period of time. Whilst for many Holy Mass continues to be a virtual experience, accessed through the internet or a radio broadcast, as you think of the celebration of Holy Mass that in ‘normal’ times you are a participant at, so in these times, by spiritual presence you remain in the midst of the familiar sacred space and amongst recognisable faces, Communing with what is the Body and Blood of Christ.
Having recently come upon the following reflection on the reality of presence I both assure those still hesitant about returning to church, as well as those who are beginning to return – albeit to a weekday Mass rather than those of the weekend – that in our celebrations you remain present in reality or spiritually: “Everything can bless us, but we’ve got to be there for the blessing to occur. Being present with quality is a decision we are invited to make each day. It is another way to become like God. Due to the reality of our terribly distracted, cluttered and noisy existence, the decision for real presence is not easy. If we can make this decision and live it, it will be a kind of salvation for us. It can save us from many kinds of death: the death of apathy and mediocrity, the death of carelessness, the death of boredom, the death of selfishness, and the death of meaninglessness. There is nothing so healing in all the world as real presence. Our real presence can feed the ache for God experienced by others.”
May a life of fidelity to the Eucharist sustain us at this time and allow us to reflect something of its real presence to those who share our life-journey whether they are under a shared roof with us, known by voice recognition, name, sight or even the random stranger, who for whatever reason, we are brought into contact with. In prayer this week may we recall especially the children in Year 4 who are about to meet Christ in the reality of His Body and Blood for the first time, asking the Lord that what they receive of Him they may, in turn, generously share.
In the privileged ministry that I have in being able to celebrate Holy Mass in our churches, be assured that you are present in prayer and thought, together with the intentions that are closest to your hearts.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas