This photo symbolises the role of church or religion in my early life and that of my family. Religion’s impact on family relationships will inevitably be introduced in other stories. The collage photo is of all the girls in my First Communion group, taken when I was seven. Instead of using that photo here I’m going with one I found subsequently which also includes the boys and the local parish priest Fr O’Connor. First Communion is the second significant step in the religious life of young Catholics following on from baptism. If you attended a Catholic school you received the necessary instruction in your religion classes which were the first session of the day: the reason why we had a longer school day than the kids at the State Schools. Ironically I remember nothing much about the actual First Communion –I was always so obsessed with getting things right, that the details of the event then passed me by. We received a special medal with a communion symbol on it, which could be worn on a chain, and the certificate you can see here, and our further connection to the church was entered in the registers.
As you can see from the photo, both boys and girls were dressed to the nines for this special event. After the church ceremony, there would be a breakfast for all the communicants –a special “spread” of food and treats to celebrate the milestone. In those days all communicants were required to fast from midnight if they were to receive communion at Mass the next morning. All that I recall, dimly, is that I wasn’t especially well on the day, most likely because of nervous anxiety. In those pre-Vatican II days, communion was received on the tongue, not in the modern way, in the hands. It was all much more formal and structured.
When our eldest daughter made her First Communion things were much the same stylistically, but by the time our second daughter came along, in a more progressive parish it has to be said, this had changed. The children all wore simple robes, not unlike altar servers’ robes, thereby eliminating the potential for competitiveness, and celebrations were mainly with family and friends at home. Strangely it was when #2 daughter was receiving her education for First Communion, that I met my second Kunkel relation: one of my 2nd cousins, a nun who was the granddaughter of my great-aunt, about whom I’d known nothing. And the teacher for our eldest daughter’s First Communion was the sister of a girl in the photo above. Small world isn’t it? In a Freudian slip, I almost forgot that before being accepted for First Communion each potential communicant also had to make their First Confession. Now there’s another experience which is fraught for those of an obsessive, literal frame of mind. One by one each child/person would go into the small confessional through (usually) a purple curtain. Once the penitent is inside the priest would slide a tiny window open and you would see his outline through the wire grill, rather than full-face.
There was a specific ritual of wording which occurred before you outlined your recent sins. At the end you would be given absolution. It’s not true that you can confess a sin and be forgiven then go out and, for example, commit murder again, Scot free, as is sometimes believed. This contradicts the need to be truly sorry and also to repent, follow the priest’s penance (usually some prayers) and “go forth to sin no more”. Confession has now been re-badged as Reconciliation. The procedure is a little more relaxed (there’s even an i-Pad app as an aide memoir…of course!) and in some cases people choose to talk directly to the priest rather than be “hidden” behind a screen. Some say that you walk out feeling so relieved but it was never my favorite religious experience.
Confirmation, or the young person’s acceptance into the full life of the Church, came in the last year of primary school or thereabouts. It also involved much ritual but was significantly more daunting because the Bishop or Archbishop was the presiding cleric on the day. Those being confirmed also had to be able to answer questions on aspects of the faith –just imagine the scope for anxiety in an obsessive “nervous Nellie”. Your sponsor would accompany you, and you would take on an additional (second or third) Christian name. Of course these were simply the key events in a life which encompassed so many rituals and obligations (makes me tired just thinking about it all): Saying the rosary at home daily Morning and evening prayers Grace before and after meals Multiple church visits over Easter Benediction First Fridays Fasting before Mass Abstaining from meat on Fridays Lenten penances Stations of the Cross Confession (weekly …ugh) Weekly (minimum) Mass “visits” to the church between times Children of Mary (what the neighbourhood thought of these apparitions in blue cloaks with medals on blue ribbons, and white veils is unknown). Etc etc etc One of the complexities of our family’s religious life was that my parents had what was then called a mixed marriage[i] as my father was not a Catholic, though throughout he never stood in the way of my education and upbringing as a Catholic. Perhaps that made the focus on religion much greater than it might have been otherwise. It was such a pivotal part of life that it was woven through my day-to-day life. Was going to church a big-deal in your family, or low-key?