My daughter had her First Communion recently. She goes to a Catholic school and First Communion is one of the highlights of the school year. Being a non-Catholic--the first in the family to sever his ties to Rome in fact, the rest of the family following later--this caused some anxiety in the family, as I expected it would. But they didnt raise a howl about it, to their credit. My mother, who's an Evangelical, quite mildly brought up the subject of the uselessness of the exercise to me. She voiced her apprehension about my daughter growing up confused about her religion. I didnt tell her what my reason was, but I did tell her that I see no harm in it, what with me (and her and the rest of the family) growing up Catholic. "I had my first communion and it didnt do me any harm, did it?" Ok, so the jury is still out on that one, but my mother seems to have accepted it, albeit while pointing out that my daughter's fellow Evangelical classmates werent participating.
So here's my reason: I wanted my daughter to grow up with a spiritual life. And a Catholic upbringing is perfect for kids. They have all the pomp, the rituals, the ceremonies, the mysteries... the whole Mythos of a truth beyond this mundane one, all embodied in the liturgy. It's beautiful, the whole ceremoniousness of it. It's so different from the real world that one is instantly tranported to a glimpse of the world beyond. The communal prayers and incantations like magic words, open sesames, to a world where they can feel safe from pain and suffering. There's the priest with the flowing robes and gilded ornamentation, the gleaming altar, the beautiful stained glass windows, the statues of saints in various pious poses, the incense... and the Host. My daughter was duly instructed about the whole Communion exercise. The priest leads the faithful in prayer and the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus. Miracle. Or in the eyes of a child, magical. They then partake of the body of Christ, the allusions to theophagy lost in all the solemnity, replaced by communing with God; inviting God to enter their lives. One could never imagine a more beautifully poetic way of being introduced to a spiritual life.
In an evangelical service, one does not get that. The pastor looks just like you and me. He's just a guy with a Bible. The place of worship is devoid of ostentation. There are no ethereal ceremonies; just a lot of singing and praying. It's more fun, more lively, sometimes, but it remains earthly to the child. It takes a more mature temperament to grasp the spirituality in the service, and not all parents are adept at imparting the sense of the otherworldly to their children without the props that Catholicism gives.
As the child matures, as my child matures, the need for the trappings of holiness will diminish in importance as she discovers that true spirituality doesnt need them. As she learns to be more introspective, she will see that the Catholic pomp and circumstance, the Catholic rituals, the Catholic mythos and mystique were just the door that showed her the way. She can have a personal relationship with God on her own, that she can commune with God directly, and God doesnt need to do it through the magical and poetic liturgy.
On my daughter's First Communion, she was dressed all in white, with a lace veil on her head, as were all her classmates. She looked so pretty, easily the prettiest girl there, so I thought. As they lined up preparing to enter the church, the nuns led them in prayer: Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, Act of Contrition. They entered the church, hands together in piety. The Mass was solemn and beautiful, the priest eloquent in his sermon tailored for a child's ears and sensibilities. Then he spoke to their parents. The importance of this First Communion and all it meant was repeated to them with grace and humor. The sermon wasnt boring at all. If only all priests were like that. And when the time came for the 'Peace be with you' part, the priest told the children to go to their parents and hug them and tell them, "I love you." Beautiful. I almost cried. Before that part I was checking out the hot moms from time to time. After that I was into the whole thing. At the end of the ceremony, the children got certificates and prayer books, manuals theyll use as a guide to the Catholic life. My daughter and I went through them on the way home. We were supposed to go straight home, but then that wasnt right. I remembered my First Communion. My parents took me to a special restaurant. I wasnt prepared for that. Instead we stopped by the grocery store and got her some special ice cream and cookies. An old lady at the grocery store noticed her dress and smiled and congratulated her. When we got home, the tambays on the street congratulated her too. "Wow si Cael nag-first communion na." My daughter was beaming.
There were gifts waiting for her at home from my Catholic aunts who lived next door and she eagerly opened them. We ate the ice cream and cookies with a sense of accomplishment; a sense of how special the day was. It was a rite of passage and my daughter went through it a different person, if only for that day. I couldnt think of a more perfect introduction to the spiritual life.
Eventually she may outgrow it all as she begins to seek and to question, and I'll encourage her to do so. But in the end, it'll be her decision as it should be.