I officially received my First Holy Communion (Catholic capitals) on April 17, 1971.
I unofficially received it a few months earlier.
And my mother damn near killed my dad over it.
First, my mom was a cradle Catholic and a Polish Catholic, which, like many other ethnic Catholic groups, has a whole lot of lore and custom surrounding them. For Polish Catholics, a deep, reverential respect for Catholic tradition and a fanatical devotion to the Pope are hallmarks of their tradition. And butter in the shape of a lamb blessed by the priest for Easter Dinner as well, but I’m digressing here.
Anyway, you don’t screw around with the sacred rites of the church or even joke about them if you’re Polish Catholic. Many of them old enough to remember have still never recovered from Vatican II.
My father, on the other hand, converted to the faith to marry my mother. He came from a long line of lackadaisical German Lutherans who generally were too hungover to attend services on Sunday morning. So they didn’t.
So the whole mysticism of the Sacrament of the Mass did not dutifully impress itself on my father. It was just a lot of bowing and scraping he needed to do to marry my mother and keep my grandmother happy with the whole marriage (which she wasn’t).
One Sunday, my mother felt too sick to go to Mass and when that happened, you knew she was really sick. Maybe my sister was sick too, I don’t know, but my mother entrusted my father to take me to Mass.
Just the two of us – and it would never happen again.
OK, so we get to the point in the Mass where everyone who is going to get Communion rises from the pews. As usual, I wanted to be like everyone else and get to chew the wafer.
See, we hadn’t had our communion lessons at my Catholic school yet. I was jumping the gun – big time.
Well I must have really bugged the Hell out of dad because he let me go up with him.
If you are or were Catholic, can you imagine the horror of what was about to happen?
I got to the Communion rail and kneeled down and pretended I had business there just like everyone else and when the priest came around I just said and did what everyone else said and did and finally got to chomp the cracker.
You know, when in Rome. . .(sorry, had to).
So when we got home my father made the biggest mistake of his adult life and mentioned in passing he let me go up and get Communion.
“You did what,” my mother yelled.
“Ah, I got tired of him buggin’ me about it so I let him go up,” my dad said . . . innocently enough.
My dad was a Marine MP, Korean War Veteran and I generally lived in perpetual fear of him. But on this one occasion, my mother reduced him to a pile of ash.
“HOW. . . COULD. . .YOU. . . DO. . .THAT?!”
This was the one and only time I knew dad was in trouble with mom and I wasn’t. I was transfixed by her rage – I had never seen her so mad and never would again.
“Well geez, Connie is it such a big deal?” My father was actually whining!
“THAT IS THE BODY OF CHRIST,” my mother shrieked.
“It tasted like cardboard,” I said.
“YOU! YOU GET UPSTAIRS AND START PRAYING FOR YOUR SOUL – RIGHT NOW!”
I burned carpet getting up the stairs. I knelt in front of my bed and started apologizing to Jesus. Meanwhile below me, all Hell was still breaking loose. My mom let my dad have it with both barrels for another fifteen minutes. It was surreal to me. I was assumed to be ignorant of what I had just done but the secret is, I knew full well what I got away with and felt kind of sneaky happy that my dad was catching it for what I jawboned him into doing.
Then it was quiet in the house for a while, and then my mother came up the stairs.
“I called the Monsignor,” she said. “And he said it wouldn’t count and that you would be OK but you should pray on it.”
She made it sound like I was lucky that I had swallowed Drano and lived.
“And one more thing,” mom said. And then her voice got low and mean: “you must never tell anyone about this ever – not the nuns, not your classmates – NO ONE!”
“Is dad OK,” I asked.
“He will be,” mom said. “He’ll need to talk to the priest.”
So on the day of my First Holy Communion when I was walking to the rail I had a little secret over everyone else – I had knelt on this rail before any of them.
And the photos of me that day show my telltale smirk.