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Timothy P. O'MalleyApril 01, 2021
Photo by Laura Allen on Unsplash

In graduate school, I was a staunch defender of the Eastern approach to initiation. The baptized child receives all at the same time the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist. This approach to initiation was likely the practice of the early church. If it was good enough for St. Ambrose, surely it is good enough for us too.

Then I had children. Sacramental initiation was no longer an abstraction for me. My son, my first born and beloved one, was baptized. His dad was a theologian and his mother a pastoral minister. He grew up in churches. By the time he was 3 years old, he was chanting the Salve Regina. He knew the entirety of the Mass parts. And he wanted to receive the Blessed Sacrament, just like mom and dad.

Let me clarify. He really wanted to receive the sacrament. It was almost painful for him. At every Mass, he would scream and cry, demanding to eat Christ’s body. During his later toddler years, we often needed to take him out of the church. But as the first rays of reason dawned in our son, he began to receive our explanation. When you are 8 years old, you can receive the Eucharist. We promised.

At last, during the pandemic, the time arrived. Over the last year or so, we have been doing our sacramental catechesis in the home. He has begun each day in prayer in our makeshift Covid homeschool. He has learned to chant the Sanctus. And still, we could not believe that our little boy was preparing to make his first confession.

My own relationship with the sacrament of confession has been shaped by my youth group experience. Confession is supposed to be a dramatic affair in which you declare your darkest sins to the priest after an evening of tearful contrition. As a Southern Catholic, confession to me was akin to the altar call. I wondered to myself: What sins does an 8-year-old have to declare before God that are remotely dramatic?

Priests tend to refer to the sins of small children as marshmallows. I hit my sister. I yelled at my mom and dad. I fought with my friends. But as we talked to our son, it was clear that these transgressions were not marshmallows to him. They were occasions in which he failed to love as he was created to love by the God who is infinite love. The sacrament—and the nerves it produced in our son—were real. He knew, in some way that he could not entirely articulate, that he had failed to love God and neighbor.

During this formation, I had an epiphany. My son taught me that I had the sacrament wrong. Confession did not need to be dramatic. Sin rarely is. It is the banal decision to not love God and our neighbor. It is to prefer my own will above all, the will that often leads me to exasperated anger at the slow driver in front of me, to annoyance at incessant emails from a student in need and to hatred of the Twitter user who contradicts my preferred ordering of the world. Are my sins any more dramatic than my sons, or is my desire for drama part of the problem? Why is an 8-year-old capable of recognizing this when I am not? Perhaps it is really my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault.

My son taught me that I had the sacrament wrong.

Despite my years of teaching and studying the sacraments, I had misunderstood the role of desire in the sacraments. My son, as he entered that confessional for the first time, desired to receive God’s forgiveness. He was not performing this exercise out of obligation. He wanted to know forgiveness, to recognize himself before God as a creature who was made for more. Why was it so hard for me to do the same?

After his first confession, my son turned to us and asked, “When do I get to receive the body of Christ?” At last, I understood the gift of waiting for first Communion until the age of “reason.” He understood—in a way that I have forgotten—that our regular reception of Christ’s body and blood is also about desire, about a love emerging from purity of heart. For my son, of course, the desire is childlike. He wants to receive the eucharistic host the way his parents do, just like his grandparents do and just like his neighbors do. He has learned to love the cross hanging above our parish church, and he wants to know the Jesus who gives himself as a sacrifice of love in this sacrament.

Filled with pride, I had thought about the Eucharist as something we deservedly, regularly and perhaps thoughtlessly receive. I saw it as our cultural birthright, the right of those who are baptized. And yet, my son’s desire for Christ’s body reawakened a memory in me. When I was his age, I stood outside a parish church in south Florida, dressed in a white suit. I waited my turn to enter the nave. On that Saturday afternoon, I would receive Christ’s body and blood for the first time. I could not wait until Sunday morning, when I would return to that same parish church once more to receive our eucharistic Lord.

Where did that desire go in me? Well, it was hardened by years of adulting. The Blessed Sacrament had become a regular, mundane, nothing to fuss above occurrence. I had mistaken apathy for maturity. I needed my beloved son to teach me once more to gaze with desire upon the Blessed Sacrament, to receive with joy the body and blood of Our Lord. The Western practice of the sacraments of initiation has this strange consequence. After believing that your job as a parent is to teach your children all that they need to know, the tables are turned. Your child invites you—hardened by years of normalcy—to look once more at the gift of love that appears before your eyes each Sunday.

Pope Francis has said that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect.

Pope Francis has said that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect. That is true. But the presence of Our Lord is given to us so that we may desire fully, absolutely, totally to receive the love that is given in the sacrament.

These days it is hard for me to care in the same way about liturgical and sacramental arguments that have occupied my attention over the last 20 years of my life. The liturgists tell us: “Remember that Christ is present in the Scriptures. He is present in the altar. He is present in all these ways. Why do you care so much about the first Communion? And shouldn’t he have received this sacrament earlier, at his initiation, just as the early church did?”

My only reply now is that I want what my son wants. I want to long for Our Lord, to receive once more the gift of love that I received as a child. After years of study and writing, of the kind of theological hubris that is regularly cultivated in the academy, it is strange to suddenly see your own emptiness before the gift of a love that your study cannot capture. My son has taught me, a sacramental theologian, to love the sacraments once more.

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