We learned about Baptism and original sin, we knew how to recite the sacraments of the church and the ten commandments, and we understood that Penance or going to confession was the telling of our sins to a priest to have them forgiven. I'm not sure what sins a second-grader could have worth confessing. We also learned that there were mortal sins and venial sins. The dividing line here was not always that clear. Was having impure thoughts a mortal or venial sin? (This was a big one for me because I had a lot of them.) I also never knew the meaning of the word "covet" so the 9th and 10th commandments were kind of a mystery to me. I figured if they were so low down on the commandment list, breaking them would only be a venial sin.
In the 1950s Catholic churches were full. Going to confession on a Saturday afternoon could mean 30 minutes of waiting on line for your turn to come clean. The "confessional box" as it was called was shrouded in mystery for second graders. A tiny room with curtains on either side of a central cubicle where the priest sat, separated from the penitents by screened-in darkness. "Bless me father for I have sinned; it has been one week since my last confession" was the traditional way to start. You would then tick off your sins and the priest would assign you some prayers for a penance. You felt light-hearted when you left knowing that if you got hit by a bus as you stepped off the curb, you were in a "state of grace" and headed straight for Heaven. They stopped calling it Penance some years ago, it's now the sacrament of "Reconciliation". I guess that sounds more "sinner friendly."
They told us kids what to do and what not to do when going up to the altar to receive our very first Communion. No talking, keep your hands clasped in a prayerful attitude, and kneel at the altar rail when your turn came. This was in the day when Communion was received on the tongue only, not in the hand as most people take it today. If we dared touch the blessed host with our hand, a hovering nun would have chopped it off. They also told us NEVER to touch the host with our tongue, just let the wafer dissolve in the mouth. Communion wafers were paper thin and dry; they tended to stick to the roof of your mouth. A couple of times when this happened, I broke out in a sweat thinking: touching the communion wafer with your tongue...mortal or venial sin?
Finally the big day arrived. The new communicants sat in church with their families proudly filling the pews behind the seated children..boys on the right in their little white suits and girls on the left in their junior bridal gowns complete with veils. Sister Bonneventura sounded her froggie clicker twice, the signal for all to rise and file up to the altar. First Communion was a big deal in our parish and the church was decked out with beautiful flowers donated by local florists trying to buy their ticket to Heaven. For pomp and circumstance, nothing beats the Catholic church when they put their minds to celebrating. Centuries-old rituals conducted by a posse of priests in full regalia, celestial organ and choir music, and the smell of burning incense to top it all off.
If you were lucky, your parents had a few relatives over to the house afterward for coffee and cake. You waited with great anticipation the Communion cards you would receive from grandparents, aunts and uncles. You did your best to feign interest in looking at the cards and reading what they said, when all along you were frantically searching for the five-dollar bills you prayed were in them. Today some parents hire fancy halls and throw catered Communion parties for their kids that cost ten times what my wedding did. We were content with a cake from Mrs. Maxwell's bakery and anything that came in those envelopes.
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