By Moira Gallagher
Preparation for First Communion began when I moved into First Class. Along with the shiny new English and Irish readers came a small attractive little book with cream coloured pages printed in red ink: The First Communion Catechism.
For our homework each night we were told by our teacher to memorise the answers to two questions from the catechism.
My father would listen and coach me until I was word perfect. Prayers had to be memorised too, the Confiteor and the Act of Contrition for confession, plus some prayers to say before and after Holy Communion.
After Easter the preparations began in earnest. We learned the correct procedure for confession and then practised it by going in turn to the teacher’s desk for ‘pretend confession’.
The formula consisted of reciting ‘Bless me Father…….’ followed by ‘the first half of the Confiteor’, then ‘this is my first confession’ and ‘here are my sins’. All this took some time to get in the right order. Then we would have to think of what sins we were going to tell the priest. After a suitable pause we would be given a make believe penance and told to say the Act of Contrition.
There was one little boy who, when hecame to where he was to think about his ‘sins’ would shout out: “I fought, I stole, I said bad words.”
“No! No!” the teacher would exclaim: “Don’t tell your sins to me, only to the priest.” However, every day, despite the warning, Frank shouted out the same story. Finally one day, losing patience, the teacher asked him what exactly did he steal?
In a small voice, he whispered “I stole sugar!”
Nowadays when the over consumption of sweet food has become a health hazard, it is difficult to believe that once sugar was regarded as a great treat and indeed was a scarce and precious commodity too, in many a household. Therefore ‘stealing sugar’ was a serious crime in the eyes of a child.
When everyone was au fait with Confession, it was time to move on to Communion. We filed up to the desk again. The older pupils informed us that there would be peppermint sweets used for ‘pretend communion’ but to our great disappointment this was not the case.
Instead the teacher put her finger on our outstretched tongues. I remember one of the bigger boys, who had been recently slapped, telling us that we should have bitten her finger.
At home, Mammy was busy getting ready for the big day. The beautiful dress my sister wore was taken out of the tissue paper it was wrapped in, and although it looked perfect, Mammy washed and starched it again. The wreath of little white rosebuds and pearls, the veil and the white gloves completed the outfit.
Off to the co-op to buy black patent shoes with big shiny buckles on the front and white ankle socks. A First Communion prayer book and white rosary beads, that were bought in Ards Friary one Sunday after Mass, finished the preparations.
At last the much awaited day arrived. Mammy and I stood in the porch of the church while she adjusted my wreath and veil. Then I was handed over to the teacher to take my place with the other children: girls on one side, boys on the other.
All went well until Communion time. We lined up at the altar rails and lifted the white cloth to our chins. We were told to go back to our seats in order, the child at the beginning of the rail going first. I waited for ages but nobody seemed to be moving so I got up, not waiting for my turn, and went back to my seat. I began to worry about the consequences of my action when my friend whispered, “You’ll be killed on Monday!”
A few photographs were taken afterwards and then off home for a very welcome breakfast, after having fasted from midnight. We finished off with a chocolate gateaux Swiss roll as a special treat. I took off my beautiful princess clothes and went out to play.
The outfit was carefully stored away and kept for my little sister’s Holy Communion. Although I wasn’t dressed up any more, the magic lasted all day.
I dreaded going to school on Monday, expecting to be scolded for not following the correct procedure at the altar rail. However, the teacher gave me a big smile and asked if I had a lovely day. I felt the true meaning of forgiveness for the first time that morning.