2016-06-30
Reprinted from Parents Magazine. Used with the author's permission.

It was my husband who first broached the subject of our daughter, Annie, making her First Communion. This touched on the sticky issue of organized religion--a concept our family had all but ignored for years. It's not that we're heathens exactly. Both my husband and I had gone to Catholic school as children, but by the time we were grown and married, we had become the dread "fallen away" Catholics the nuns had warned us about in sixth grade.

After Annie and her younger brother Alex were born, church meant attending Mass twice a year. I remember carrying a howling 3-year-old out of Easter High Mass and cleaning up Cheerios strewn on the pew on Christmas Day--not exactly beatific experiences.

But when Annie turned 7, it was fish or cut bait. If we ever wanted her to know what it meant to be Catholic, we couldn't skip her First Communion. And that was how she and I wound up in the basement of Saint Anthony's Church along with 40 other mothers and their second graders, each signed up for 12 Saturday mornings of instruction.

A wave of nostalgia passed over me the first time I came in and sat on the familiar folding metal chairs. But much had changed--the class was led by a volunteer in a business suit rather than a nun in full Dominican habit. A TV/VCR stood in the corner. The catechism text had changed, too. There was less emphasis on purgatory and plenary indulgences and more on spirituality. Annie, however, was not impressed. None of her friends from public school were Catholic, so she was without her usual coterie. She squirmed, she sighed. It was only when the children were allowed to color the saints in the prayer book that she perked up.

"What did you learn today, Annie?" my husband asked when we got home.

"Uh, forgiveness," Annie said shortly. "Can I go roller-blading now?" And that was that.

Meanwhile, each Saturday I was having piercing flashbacks to my youth.

I was not the only mother to look sheepishly at the Virgin Mary statues and holy cards when we went to the church gift shop to buy prayer books and other communion items. But whatever negative thoughts I had about my religion subsided as I revisited the artifacts of my childhood--the fonts, the missals, the scapulars, the rosaries.

As I was paying for Annie's communion prayer book, I happened to glance up at a high, narrow shelf of dusty statues of saints. Idly, I scanned them for my own patron saint. There she was--tall and fierce in her green pants and royal blue tunic. St. Joan of Arc seemed to tower over the others, holding her sword and shield.

I had a sudden memory of all of us in second grade coming to school dressed up as our patron saint. The other girls in my class, as St. Catherine, St. Claire, and St. Rita, had to wear boring long dresses and veils and stand around with their hands primly clasped in prayer. But as St. Joan I got to wear pants and carry a tinfoil sword. The nuns used to tell us that our patron saints watched over us; they would protect us and our loved ones from harm. I had been certain that St. Joan had helped me sink the winning basket during sixth-grade intramuals and pick the prize raffle ticked at the St. John of Nepomuk annual church picnic. Despite my long struggle with my own faith, the belief that someone or something would protect us, not just from evil but from all the harm in the world, beckoned to me. I looked up at St. Joan again. Although the statue was $57, I bought it.

The day of the communion dawned sunny and bright. I was so busy organizing the party for after the service, I didn't notice that Annie's normal exuberance was subdued.

My parents had driven from the Midwest, and as we rushed to get ready, my mother took a moment to show me three old black-and-white photographs of my grandmother, my mother, and me--each taken at our own First Communion.

There was a photo of my grandmother, so young and somber in her high-button shoes; one of my mother looking serene and poised, except for the unfortunate veil pushed down to her eyebrows. And then there was me, a 1950s tomboy, uncomfortable in a dress but forcing a grin for the camera. Today, my father planned to take a black-and-white photo of Annie, and then we would display the four pictures together. Just then Annie came in wearing her communion dress. After we oohed and aahed, my mother attached the veil with bobby pins. Annie looked into the mirror and wrinkled her nose. Mom and I assured her that she looked beautiful.

But later, as we walked into the church basement for our lineup with the other communicants, Annie ripped off her veil. "I'm not wearing it," she said flatly. "It itches."

I exchanged a look of panic with my husband. He first tried the stern approach. "Annie, you have to wear the veil or else we're leaving," he said. "Fine, let's go," said Annie. I shot him a grimace.

"But why, Annie?" I asked. With her love for drama and dress-up, I thought she would enjoy the whole experience, including the veil.

"None of my friends have to do this," she said. "Nobody on our block is here. I'm the only one." Her eyes began to fill with tears.

I looked at my husband again. Our fault, he mouthed. I had to agree. We had waited seven years to introduce the concept of being Catholic to Annie, and forcing her to go on now wasn't going to instantly instill in her a high regard for the family's religion. I considered just walking out. Then I did something I hadn't done in quite a long time: I prayed. Suddenly, it occurred to me to open my purse and pull out the three communion photos.

"You're not the only one here, honey," I said quietly. "Take a look at these." She took the pictures and studied them, as the nun in charge stood with her microphone, going over last-minute details of the processional.

"I like Great-Grandma's dress the best," she said finally. "Look at Grandma's veil! She had to wear that?" We both giggled. "Poor Grandma." Then she turned to me seriously. "So all the girls in our family made their First Communion?" she asked. I nodded. "I'll be the fourth one then." She held out the veil. "Okay, I'll wear it. At least it's not as bad as Grandma's."

I barely had time to secure her veil when the procession began. Slowly my husband and I walked into the church on either side of Annie, along with the other girls and their parents. It reminded me of my own communion and also of my wedding--the music, the friends and family, my mother's eyes soft with tears.

The priest at the altar tapped the microphone. "Let us proclaim the mystery of faith..." he began.

Annie's First Communion was a turning point for our family--it brought us back to church. We rediscovered a Catholicism that was more about love than about guilt or fear. Our son Alex's First Communion went without a hitch in a parish we have come to think of as home.

I guess St. Joan is still watching over us.

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