An extract from Erika Fiore’s memoir.
First Communion Rite
Being late to our Catholic church was unnecessarily jarring, because the whole building was brightly lit by an enormous skylight. If we didn’t time the lateness just right (like coming in during the songs, for example), then we came in when everyone was already quietly seated. To minimize the disruption, my family always came in through the back entrance.
In those days, the Catholic church in my hometown of Southern California was so crowded that occasionally there was standing room only and we had to stand in the back against the wall. Then usually, a volunteer usher would parade us to some empty chairs in between other people or break us up into smaller family units. Sometimes there were only empty chairs in another section, and we’d have to slink around the edges of the back walls to get there.
Mass happened every Sunday in the same sequence. I knew the signs of when communion was coming, towards the end of the service. Stable volunteer couples, the wives with modest 90s dresses, and elders in the church, stood in pairs before each block of seating. One person held a golden chalice of red wine and the other a golden saucer of thin wafers. Then the whole church filed down the right-hand side of each seating block to the front. At the altar, the congregants, one at a time, opened their mouths for the wafer to be laid on their tongue or put out their hands in front for the wafer to be placed in their palms. Then they turned to the person holding the wine to take one sip, wiped quickly after with a white cloth. This part seemed optional because many people skipped the wine. I agreed with them and thought that I would also skip the wine, because I didn’t want to drink after other people.
When it came time for my row to go and receive communion, I stayed standing at my chair, the back of my knees pressed up against the plastic seat to make room for the adults to pass in front of me. Even children much younger than me walked past to receive their communion. I was left standing alone in the empty seats because I had not yet performed my First Communion Rite in the Catholic Church and was thus ineligible to participate. I was sure everyone was looking at me wondering, “Why is that girl not going to the front? I bet she didn’t have her first communion yet.”
After a few more weekends of humiliation, I decided that I didn’t want to go to church anymore until I could also have communion.
“Mom, when am I supposed to get my first communion?” I asked one day in the kitchen.
My mom paused, as if it had not yet occurred to her. Oh yes, that’s supposed to happen. Salvie, my older brother, had gotten his first communion on time. He even prepared a little vest with my parents at home that all the kids wore in the special ceremony service over their small suits and dresses. It was blue felt with a little white lamb made of cotton balls.
“Well, how do I do it?” I asked. I was exasperated that it wasn’t something that comes automatically, but that an adult has to coordinate for you, and I was already several years behind.
“I’ll call the church tomorrow,” my mom said.
In order to take my first communion, I would need to attend classes. Since I was 11 years old and too old to take the first communion classes with the seven-year-olds, I was enrolled in the confirmation classes with the teenagers.
All I remember from the confirmation classes was that we met at a two-story house hosted by a well-meaning couple from our church. There was a trampoline in the backyard, snacks in the kitchen, fragmented and confusing lessons, and a movie about monks where we were shocked by a sudden scene of a naked butt, which remains unexplained. I had homework that I needed to complete at home on my own, of which the objectives did not feel clear. I participated in the meetings, because I was genuinely interested in learning about God, and this encouraged one of the older teens to also participate and reveal his own interest.
The last thing I needed to do was to perform a confession, which I had never done before. I thought about which sin would bring the least embarrassment: “sometimes disobeying parents.” The confession was just like in the movies. I went into a wooden box with the priest hidden behind the screen. He told me that I should write a letter to my parents to apologize to them. This seemed reasonable. On the way out of the chapel, in my religious fervor, I saw a statue of Mary. Overcome, I knelt down and prayed to her because she looked so beautiful in her turquoise robe and gentle expression.
The children at the Catholic church in my hometown had their first communions when they were seven years old because the church considers this to be “the age of reason.” I was 11 and already my full height at 5’7”, but without the adult graces to accompany the stature. I was also strong and athletic due to daily home cooked Italian meals and swim practices.
My grandma, the family angel, sewed me a traditional communion dress. The one the small children wore – a white satin bodice with a poofy tulle skirt and toile sleeves. My mom purchased for me a large, fresh wreath of baby’s breath with white plastic ribbons hanging down the back, which I secured upon my head. I had been so excited about the wreath because I imagined that it would make me look like an ethereal princess. When I looked in the mirror, I felt slightly disappointed at how reality differed from the ideal I had pictured. The dress was well and lovingly made but I thought I looked fat and was too overgrown for the style.
We needed to be at the church early but were still running late. I discovered on the way to the church, that there was some test that I needed to pass, a poem to have memorized.
“Mom, no one told me about this! I didn’t memorize any poems.” I started panicking and getting angry.
“You’re supposed to tell it to the priest before he gives you the communion,” Salvie suggested.
“Oh no, what am I going to do?” I started to despair, imagining that the whole church will see that I don’t know the poem, and then I won’t pass and get the communion.
I sat in my white dress and baby’s breath wreath the whole ceremony service, until it was time for the communion candidates to stand up and go to the front. Everywhere, miniature brides in white dresses and tiny veils and little boys in black tuxedos left their parents. You could barely see them move to the front because they were the same height as the chairs. I rose too, possibly to the shock of other adults in the room, in the same outfit.
The children collected in front of the altar, ushered by adults into a single row of petite, precious angels. I stood at the end. Parents moved to the aisles to take photos. I made eye contact with the audience and smiled hard.
I didn’t hear most of what the priest said because I was stressing about the poem. I prayed that the priest wouldn’t ask me to say it publicly. I looked at the seven-year-olds to see what they were saying to the priest, but I couldn’t hear them. When it was my turn to receive the communion elements, the priest stood in front of me. He lifted the wafer high above my face. Then he spoke to me. I think it was a question.
“This is the part for the poem,” I wondered. I didn’t see anyone else say anything too long, so I just lowered my head, using a bow of reverence to hide my lips.
“Amen. Thank you,” I mumbled. It worked, and the priest gave me the wine and the bread.
I never learned if I was actually supposed to have memorized anything. I believe now that if I did have to have memorized something, it would have been a creed which I mistook as a poem. Afterwards, to celebrate my first communion, my family went bowling. I changed my clothes, but I still wore the wreath. I preserved it in wax papers afterwards and kept it high on a shelf in my closet for years.