Custody of the eyes is a problem of mine; I must be a very visual person. Since I’ve realized this is a problem, closing them at appropriate times is the best remedy. One appropriate time at Mass being after Communion—eyes open but cast down are still too easily distracted by the parade of designer footwear, French pedicures, and heels that defy the laws of physics. But last Wednesday, sitting in the front pew at the noon Mass on the Solemnity of the Assumption, my eyes opened several times and I found myself transfixed by the beauty of the young children as they received Holy Communion. Yes, it was sweet and the children were cute, but this was more than a Hallmark moment. The innocence and earnestness with which these children received Our Lord in the Eucharist was profoundly inspiring.
August 21 is the feast day of Pope St. Pius X, a saint and pope of whom I have had little familiarity. It is this holy man who can be thanked for the blessed opportunity for these young people to gather at the Lord’s table with the rest of our community. We become so absorbed in the way things work these days that it is difficult to fathom that there was a time, in the not that distant past, when the opportunity for frequent reception of this sacrament did not exist and certainly not for those so young.
I happen to be blessed to live in a vital suburban parish which has well-attended daily Masses at 6:30 and 8:00 am. There are many Catholics for whom this is not possible. That is the sad reality of a Church in which the number of priests has drastically declined and is gradually rebuilding. But, when the staffing of parishes permits, we have St. Pius X to thank for the opportunity to avail ourselves of the opportunity to receive our Eucharistic Lord on a frequent basis.
Pope St. Pius X was born in 1835 as Giuseppe Sarto. He was elected Pope in 1903. Bringing the legacy of his youthful poverty with him, he served the Church humbly during the most difficult time: pre-World War I Europe. The work that he did in so many areas is mind boggling—on top of several supposed miracles that he worked while alive.
But what we can all see in front of us every day is the work of his exhortation: “Holy Communion is the shortest and safest way to Heaven.” Besides encouraging more frequent reception of the Eucharist, he lowered the age for First Holy Communion from the early teens to the age of discretion: seven.
Along with this was his wish to “reclaim children from religious ignorance” and require the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (yes, the dreaded CCD, a gift which many young people did not appreciate while participating) in every parish. Some clerics worried (much as we worry today about Confirmation) that early Communion would lead to an early drift in children’s formation. Communion would be viewed as a final goal to be attained, after which much instruction and participation would dwindle.
That can be a pitfall. I have participated, not just as a parent, but also a teacher in the religious education that my parish offers. There are parents who are most focused on the Hallmark moment. These are the parents who wish to drop their children into second grade to receive their First Holy Communion and then disappear into the vapor only to resurface when it is close to Confirmation time, eighth grade in my home parish. There is a certain dynamic tension in putting a sacrament—which in fact is a gift freely given—at the end of a contracted and protracted time of study. (I did not receive communion as a Lutheran until I was fifteen. We could not receive communion until we were confirmed. And, for what it is worth, it did keep us hanging on.) It is the parents who are the key element in this equation; their participation is essential to maintaining the faith life of their children. Sometimes the children need to be reclaimed from the parents’ religious ignorance.
On the feast of this most fascinating modern saint, I must take a moment for thanksgiving—for the sweet young people I see at Mass, who have the priceless gift of penance and Communion. And for the beautiful, picture book memories I have of daughters at their First Communions in the beautiful lace dress now lovingly stored for my granddaughters. Pictures plus stories: the trek through the mall in winter to find a fancy white dress for a December First Communion, when all we could find was red and green velvet, and the eureka moment when we found the perfect white lace over satin; the First Communion lunch at Ed Debevic’s when a snowstorm derailed our celebration plans; the daughter whose springtime allergies brought on nosebleeds and my most ardent prayers at the moment were to make it through Mass with an unstained dress. Those are the picture book memories. I know the true beauty is in the sacrament.
I saw beauty, too, when one of my children, with various neurological concerns that made participation in the class First Communion too overwhelming, received his First Communion in the course of Sunday Mass. I had been his teacher – it had been a rough year, with a class full of comedians and students who had achieved as much slackerdom as possible by the second grade. For a moment or two I thought I would cry when I saw the class enter the church, seeing the little girls in their frilly dresses and boys in creased trousers, blazers, boutonnieres. But who was I crying for? Not my son, but his mother who wanted a photo op. No, my son did not have a picture perfect First Communion. But there was a perfect gift from God freely given. A sacrament received by a child at the age of discretion; one more small part of the legacy of St. Pius X.
What more could a mother want? For her child to be welcomed to the Lord’s table; to know that her children can now avail themselves of what J.R.R. Tolkien called “the only cure for sagging or fainting faith.” This mother is going to tear through some disheveled bookshelves to find some volumes on modern saints that are there somewhere and learn about one more saint who should receive her thanks!