When angels came marching in

A moving ceremony even if the young participants didn’t fully appreciate its meaning

First Communion is one of the holiest and most important initiation rites in the life of a Roman Catholic, as the bread and wine consecrated during the Mass represent the continuing presence of Jesus on earth. Yet I’d bet pesos to doughnuts few if any of the adorable seven- and eight-year-olds receiving their First Communion at a nearby church on Saturday—the communicants—including Félix’s daughter Jessica, quite grasped the theological gravitas of it all. A few fell asleep during the long-winded ceremony while their relatives in the standing room in back of the church shuffled impatiently. No matter.

Félix’s daughter Jessica, holding a candle signifying the light of Jesus.

Such irreverent qualms aside, I couldn’t help be moved by the spectacle of 24 girls and 11 boys, all dressed in white and clutching bundles of gifts, wrapped in cellophane and gold ribbons, as they marched into the church like a choir of angels, accompanied by their padrinos or madrinas, to the music of a small but enthusiastic choir in the loft.

The difference in their numbers was but one difference between the girls and the boys. The girls wore hoop skirts that they daintily lifted off the ground as they walked, and sported veils and intricate hairdos some topped with tiaras. A few had hints of their first flirtation with makeup. Godmothers were similarly elegant, some in long gowns. Sequins and other glitter abounded.

Not so much with the boys, though, many of whom came with ill-fitting suits and ties askew, while some of the godfathers wore baseball caps or sombreros, work boots and other signs they’d taken time off work to attend this ceremony.

A communicant and his “ofrenda.

A Mexican-American friend who is a priest at a small Catholic church in Texas, near the border, told me the boy-girl discrepancy was to be expected. For centuries women have filled most of the church pews and given the most donations, particularly in a male-dominated countries like Mexico. Women sing in the choirs and take care of other routine church duties.

I once asked Félix about the degree of his religious fervor and he admitted that, perhaps typically, it was “más o menos,” even though his three children have received First Communion.

Presiding over the ceremonies was Padre Gerardo, whom I’ve seen leading this church for the past few years. He’s fifty-something, dark complexioned and bearded, with longish, slicked-back hair. Often he seems a bit haggard. Indeed, because of the critical shortage of priests in Mexico, the few remaining are left in charge of as many as nine or ten parishes, performing a marriage here, a funeral there or a First Communion down the road. Before the ceremony Saturday, I spotted Padre Gerardo hearing a young girl’s confession at a nook outside the church.

A couple of years ago, Stew and I saw him pulling up to the church in a tired-looking SUV, and announce his arrival with a couple of blasts from an ooga horn. It was time to get the Mass going.

Prospective members of the Church of Más o Menos?

The Padre’s homily was like a flyover of the New Testament, with stops at the Sea of Galilee; Jesus’s Baptism; the Last Supper and the Resurrection, not necessarily in that order.

¡No se me duerman!—”Don’t doze off on me!”—the Padre admonished a couple of times, looking primarily at the boys.

After he consecrated the bread and wine, and distributed communion, first to the young guests of honor, and then to the rest of the attendees, it was time for the communicants to bring their offerings, or ofrendas, and deposit them at the foot of the altar.

Through the cellophane I could make out a disparate selection of items, from dishwashing liquid, instant mashed potatoes to toilet paper and candles, a bottle of wine and various brands of breakfast cereals.

Piled up at the front of the church the ofrendas seemed enough to keep a bomb shelter stocked for two or three months. I asked who got to keep all the ofrendas but didn’t get a definitive answer: Seminarians? Padre Gerardo? orphans? poor people? No one knew for sure.

Halfway through the Padre’s parting blessing a volley of fireworks went off nearby that resonated throughout the church like gunfire. Then the godparents and their trustees lined up at the front to have their picture taken with the priest.

I asked Félix if he and his wife wanted me to take their photo, but he was in a rush to get home to a waiting banquet of two grilled cabritos he had ordered, chicken with a delicious red mole, beef consommé, chips, tortillas, hot sauce and cake Stew and I brought for the occasion. And plenty of beer.

The following Monday Félix apologized for being seemingly short with me. I asked what he thought of Padre Gerardo’s homily but couldn’t remember any particular passage except it was too long-winded and his feet were killing him. Plus it was past his comida time and he was really hungry.


More pictures:

And Guess Who? at his First Communion.


7 thoughts on “When angels came marching in

  1. dianne walta hart

    That was beautiful! It took me back to my First Communion in a little town called Arlington, South Dakota, when the priest stopped Mass to tell me to stop talking. A sign of things to come, to be sure. Thank you.


    1. These kids reminded me of the old saying about “herding cats.” Their attention span seemed to plummet after the first half hour—and the whole thing took almost ninety minutes. Thanks for your comments.


  2. Ellen Hayes

    Aww, Al, what a lovely exclamation point at the end of the post…a picture of your first communion! Those of us who were raised Catholic can truly appreciate this post, though there are quite a few cultural differences between what you described here and the ceremonies I’ve attended in the Atlantic mid-east. All the more interesting.

    I so enjoy your posts, though I usually don’t comment. Your words and photography capture moments that might otherwise seem bland, but you put such color to the events that they feel like a personal letter or something. Something of great interest.

    Thank you for sharing these events and your lives with us. I sincerely appreciate you.


    1. Ellen: Thank you so much for your kind comments! Sometimes between the pictures and the writing it takes quite a bit of work to put these posts together. For some reason, the kids here seemed a couple of years younger than when I received First Communion. Also, the First Communion Mass here is part of a weekend-long town fiesta, with vendors, music and carnival rides—the biggest shindig of the year except for the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which at times seems to be more revered than Jesus himself. Thanks again and glad you enjoyed the post.


  3. Perry

    Working in a second grade at an Archdiocese of Chicago school, I prepared many students for their First Communion. This brought back many memories. Thanks.
    I especially enjoyed the photos of the young man waiting for Jerusalem, the “ little Joe” Apache, and the very precious and pensive communicant in the last photo!


    1. It was a beautiful ceremony, though I can’t remember much of my own First Communion except I think I was older than the kids here. BTW though we lived in Chicago for 30 years, my First Communion was in Cuba, where I come from. Glad you enjoyed the post. That you for your comment.


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