Several years ago, I was thrilled to open an invitation to my niece’s First Communion ceremony. Although I attend an Episcopal church, I consider myself a good lapsed Catholic, and memories of my own ritual of passage came flooding back. Some were happy thoughts – the actual service itself – being the center of attention and all dressed in white, although I seem to remember wearing red Mary Janes. Other thoughts were not so happy – catechism prep by the nuns, who were allowed to rap our knuckles with a ruler for a wrong answer or any perceived sassiness. I didn’t score well with that.
My niece was appropriately solemn, as she sat on the aisle seat of a pew that was soon filled with friends and family, including her godmother who had traveled from San Diego for this special event. I’m sure there was nervous excitement among all the youngsters that morning. I felt it myself as I read the pamphlet carefully to get the stand/sit/kneel instructions committed to memory.
The priest took center stage, welcomed the crowd, then ordered us to turn off all devices and under no circumstances try to sneak a photo. He repeated it several times, with a most authoritarian voice and demeanor, bringing to mind my childhood priest, Father Casey. Nice guy, good Irish sense of humor, but you did not want to disobey a direct order from him. My sister, sitting on my left, grimly tucked her camera back into her purse.
A tall woman holding a sheet of music walked to stage left and began to sing with a beautifully pure, bell-toned soprano voice. The choir was hidden from view in the balcony behind us, but it was clear she was leading them as well as functioning as the cantor. The first music choice was a lovely tune with the words “And I will raise you up” that pulled the whole congregation into joining in.
I then did something I’ve never done before in church – I sang. I did it because the priest told us we all had to, but also I was carried away by the emotion of the moment. I’m sure my part of the hymn was tuneless and off-key because there’s a good reason I’ve never joined the choir, but nevertheless, it felt exhilarating. At the conclusion of the service, family members were milling around in front of the communicants’ artworks hanging on the back wall. I found myself next to the choir director/cantor and told her she had such a naturally melodious voice that I could easily follow her lead, because she was not “Diva-like.” I meant that as a compliment. She smiled and thanked me, then said, “Oh, I can be a Diva too!”
My niece’s artwork had been singled out for comment by the priest, so I was particularly interested to see it. The group of third-graders were tasked with illustrating the bible quote “I am the bread of life.” My niece’s carefully drawn and colored picture depicted loaves of Italian bread falling from the sky, with the wanderers-in-the-wilderness abandoning their sleeping bags to shout “Hooray!”
It’s a sobering thought that a nine-year-old has a better imagination and artistic skill than I do. Undoubtedly, she probably sings better too.