Wednesday, August 19, 2009


HOST WITH THE MOST. A Kapampangan boy, Julian Gonzalez, poses for his First Communion picture, drssed in tradition white shirt and pants and a ribbon tied to his arm. A painted backdrop completes the heavenly scene. Ca. 1920s.

One of the rites of passage a young Christian has to undergo is receiving his First Holy Communion upon reaching the age of discernment and reason. With all its rigid preparations and choreographed ceremonials, the prospect of receiving the Eucharist can give a 7 year old kid many anxious, sleepless nights. After all, in the Philippines, this sacrament is as important as Baptism—but as an infant, you are not expected to “perform”—people will still dote on you should you cry through the whole proceedings.

As a First Communicant, expectations are high—you can’t possibly fail the school, your catechism teacher and your parents who have all connived to ensure your successful participation in the sacramental life of the Catholic church. To prepare us to focus on this big event, I remember our catechism teacher herding us—a giggly bunch of kids—to the Mabalacat Church for Mass. We also received lessons on how to make a sincere and proper Confession, a requisite of the First Communion. We were taught to reflect on our sins, write them if necessary, sorting the venial from the mortal (but what serious calumny could a 7 year old be capable of? Is giggling during Mass a major offense?).

Back when there were few Catholic schools to spearhead Holy Communions, the event was mostly a parish affair. Parents had to register their children, who then will go through some training of sorts, to prepare him for the big day. Emphasis was put on the pre-ritual trappings. Parents and their teachers had to make certain the children knew their basic prayers, to be recited as an act of Penance for confessed sins.

They were also taught how to approach the confession box and knee properly. It is a no-no to peer through the mesh screen of the confesario. Some children were instructed to hold an open handkerchief over the screen so as not to see the face of the priest directly. The standard opening lines are then uttered, the confession is made and the corresponding penance is prescribed.

The act of receiving the Sacred Host was also exact and precise. At a signal, communicants line up and kneel solemnly before the communion railing with clasped hands. After the “Amen” response, one sticks out his tongue, keeping it flat and extended as possible, on which the kind father plays the Host. A paten held by an altar boy is ready to collect any fallen wafer. One then bows his head, makes the sign of the cross and continue to kneel in prayer. (Today, of course, most modern churches have no communion railings and communicants just stand in line and have the option to receive communion by hand).

Of equal importance was the clothing tradition associated with Holy Communion. White was de riguer color, and male first communicants in the 1920s, had to wear a hite long sleeved shirt with their immaculate white pants. I wearing shirt pants, white knee-high socks had to be worn with matching white shoes. A ceremonial white bow with fringed ends is tied to the right arm. On the other hand, white dressed girls wore a veil attached to the headdress of flowers, symbolizing the tablecloth used at the Last Supper.

First communicants mark their special day with giveaway commercial estampitas with commemorative inscriptions. In turn, they are given small gifts like prayer books, rosaries, small images, card relics and more holy pictures. For posterity, pictures are taken by the town photographers. For mass communions, all participants pose before the church with their cura parocco and ‘guardian angels” (played by older kids), in their pristine white outfits.

Individual photos are much preferred by families. Standard poses include either a standing or a kneeling communicant on a prie dieu, holding a sacramental candle, a rolled-up Communion certificate or a prayer book. A crucifix or a religious image may appear also in the picture. For a more dramatic effect, religious figures ( painted Jesus Christ holding a host, angels, the Blessed Mother) are incorporated in the picture with the communicant.

As far as I know, the fuss was all worth it. After my first Holy Communion, I remember being a good boy for about two weeks. Then the ruckus started again. Anybody can tell you that for a 7-year old, it’s a bit hard to have a spirit that’s willing, and a head that’s stubborn. “Bless me Father, for I have sinned again..”

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