When I Was a Child: Children's Interpretations of First Communion

When I Was a Child: Children's Interpretations of First Communion

When I Was a Child: Children's Interpretations of First Communion

When I Was a Child: Children's Interpretations of First Communion

Synopsis

First Communion is generally understood as a rite of passage in which seven- and eight-year-old Catholic children transform from baptized participants in the Church to members of the body of Christ, the universal Catholic Church. This official Church account, however, ignores what the rite actually may mean to its participants. In When I Was a Child, Susan Ridgely Bales demonstrates that the accepted understanding of a religious ritual can shift dramatically when one considers the often neglected perspective of child participants.

Bales followed Faith Formation classes and interviewed communicants, parents, and priests in an African American parish and in a parish containing both white and Latino congregations. By letting the children speak for themselves through their words, drawings, and actions, When I Was a Child stresses the importance of rehearsal, the centrality of sensory experiences, and the impact of expectations in the communicants' interpretations of the Eucharist. In the first sustained ethnographic study of how children interpret and help shape their own faith, Bales finds that children's perspectives give new contours to the traditional understanding of a common religious ritual. Ultimately, she argues that scholars of religion should consider age as distinct a factor as race, class, and gender in their analyses.

Excerpt

Katie sat on the top step of the back staircase at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School, a few feet away from her Faith Formation classroom, talking with me about church, First Communion, and art projects. She chatted with me as easily now as she did when we walked to the Spanish tutorial class each Sunday morning fortyfive minutes before the bilingual class began. As we talked, eightyear-old Katie worked diligently on a drawing of her upcoming First Communion. While she colored I asked: “What’s your favorite part of Mass?” She leaned over a piece of paper, took a pink crayon from the tattered box next to her, and replied, “When the priest gives out those things.” She put her hands to her mouth in a little circle. “I wonder how it will taste. Will it taste like a real body?” As she articulated her interpretation of transubstantiation, her wide eyes and halting style betrayed both her excitement and her concern. This brief conversation with Katie about First Communion illustrates two major themes of this book: first, that children have their own revealing interpretations of the rituals in which they participate which differ from those of adults and, second, that much of the information that they use to develop these understandings comes through their senses—taste, sound, and movement—rather than through classroom lectures and workbook exercises alone.

When I began my research for this book, I never expected to be talking to children about the taste of Jesus’ body; I thought our conversations would center on white dresses and parties, as so many adult memories of First Communion do. And, after all, it was seeing my neighbor Natalie’s First Communion picture, not the desire to understand the Eucharist, that drew me to this project. Looking at Natalie sitting in her white dress and veil in front of a stained glass window with her white-gloved hands, palms together, in front . . .

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