The first time a believer receives the flesh and blood of the eternal Son of God in holy Communion ought to be one of the greatest occasions in that person’s life. The amount of preparation, waiting and longing that normally accompanies one’s first Communion only makes the reception more special still. But what makes one’s first Communion a truly blessed event is not the adjective but the substantive: not the “first” but the “communion.” Because of whom we receive, the second, third, next, and last Communion should always be as special.
The Church teaches that the communion we enter into with the Lord Jesus is not meant to last only as long as it takes our body to digest the sacred host; rather, our communion is supposed to continue in all our actions throughout the day. In short, the reception of the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist is meant to lead to a truly Eucharistic Life, one in which Jesus in the Eucharist becomes the source, summit, root and center of a person’s existence.
This reality, which the Church puts before all believers, is modeled in a particular way for young first Communicants by some great young saints in Church history. Today we briefly look at four of them and propose them as exemplars to young Catholics preparing to receive Him for the first time.
Blessed Imelda Lambertini (1322-1333)
There’s a prayer that’s been made popular among Catholics in which they ask the Lord for the grace to receive Him in Holy Communion that day with the same love with which they received him in their first Communion, with the same love with which they hope to receive him at their last communion, and with which they would want to receive him if that were the only communion of their life. The three parts of this beautiful prayer all came together on May 12, 1333 for an 11 year-old girl in Bologna, Italy called Imelda Lambertini.
When Imelda turned nine, she begged her parents to allow her to go to the school at the Dominican convent in her city. There she endeared herself to everyone by her great piety, goodness and zeal. She fervently desired to be able to receive Jesus in Holy Communion like the sisters and several of the older students, but this was six centuries prior to St. Pius X’s lowering the first Communion age to the “age of reason,” or about the age of 8. Prior to that 20th century change, many young people received the Lord for the first time during their teenage years, in some places as late as 18.
In place of being able to receive Jesus in holy Communion, Imelda used to go to the chapel to adore him. She would also make many “spiritual communions” throughout the day and especially when others were receiving him at Mass. She was always asking those who were older and able to receive communion what the experience was like. She used to pepper them with the question, “Tell me, can anyone receive Jesus in his heart and not die?” That question would turn prophetic.
On the vigil of the Ascension, she was praying in Church after Mass. The sisters were preparing to leave the church when some of them were startled to see a strange light, what appeared to be a small sacred host, hovering in the air above her head as she was kneeling before the tabernacle. They ran to get the parish priest. Knowing of her burning desire to receive holy Communion and taking this theophany as a sign from heaven that she was ready, the priest gave her Jesus in holy communion. To her enormous joy, she devoutly received her long awaited for the first time. And the last and only time.
Soon after receiving holy Communion she fell first into what seemed like an ecstasy of love. She had a most serene and angelic smile on her face. While all the sisters were praying with her in thanksgiving, they watched her slowly sink to the floor. They thought that she had simply fainted and felt her arm. But she had died out of love for Christ in the Eucharist, with her face transfixed by a smile that has never worn off. With the Lord within the temple of her body, her soul ascended out of her body with the Lord into heaven. Her body remains incorrupt seven centuries later and lies in a Church in Bologna.
In 1826, Pope Leo XII declared her blessed and proclaimed her to be the patroness of first communicants.
St Gemma Galgani (1878-1903)
Gemma was born in Camigliano, Italy in 1878, the fourth of eight children. Her mother used to take her as a young girl to daily Mass and passed on to her a great love for Jesus in Holy Communion. Around the time of her mother’s death when she was seven, Gemma began to have intense experiences of prayer. Her father sent her to be educated at the convent of the Sisters of St. Zita in Lucca. Under the guidance of the sisters she developed a deep love for the passion of the Lord, for the Blessed Virgin Mary, and for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist.
She begged her parish priest to allow her to make her first Communion. “You are too young,” he replied. She declared to him, to the sisters and others, “Give me Jesus and you will see how good I will be: I will not sin again. I shall be quite changed!” Eventually her desire became all consuming. Her wise pastor recognized that there was “no alternative but to admit her to holy Communion; otherwise we will see her die of grief.”
During her retreat in preparation for first Communion, the preacher, Fr. Raphael Cinetti, repeated as a homiletic refrain, “He who eats of Jesus will live of his life.” She commented later, “These words filled me with much consolation and I reasoned with myself: Therefore, when Jesus comes to me I will no longer live of myself because Jesus will live in me. And I nearly died of the desire to be able to say these words soon, ‘Jesus lives in me’. Sometimes I would spend whole nights meditating on these words, being consumed with desire.”
On the feast of the Sacred Heart in 1887, when she was nine, she received the Love of her life within for the first time. She said innocently to one of her friends afterward, “I feel a fire burning here,” and pointed to her breast. “Do you feel like that, too?” She couldn’t fathom that there was anything exceptional in her own experience.
Lest she ever take receiving Jesus in holy Communion for granted, she made certain resolutions, which showed her deep and precocious spiritual wisdom. The first two were specifically about the Eucharist: “I will receive Confession and Communion each time as though it were my last, and I will visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament often, especially when I am afflicted.”
Her love for Jesus in the Eucharist only grew the more she received the Lord as if it were the last time. She would write later to Jesus in prayer, “What would become of me if I did not dedicate all my affections to the Sacred Host? Oh yes, I know it, Lord; that in order to make me deserve paradise in heaven, you give me Communion here on earth!” She would call the Eucharist “the school of paradise where one learns how to love.”
In a passage that would be good for all communicants — first and veteran — to contemplate, she wrote to her priest spiritual director. “Oh, what precious moments are those at Holy Communion! Communion is a happiness, Father, that seems to me cannot be equaled even by the beatitude of the saints and angels. They admire the face of Jesus, and are certain of not committing sin or of being lost; and I admire those two things, and I should like to be of their company, but I, too, have reason for exulting, for Jesus enters everyday into my heart. Jesus gives me all of Himself!”
St. Tarcisius (246-258)
St. Tarcisius was an altar boy during the ferocious anti-Christian persecution of the Roman emperor Valerian. The Christians would meet each morning in a hidden part of the catacombs to celebrate Mass and then normally a deacon would take the Eucharist to those Christians condemned to die in prison. After the death of Pope St. Sixtus and several of the deacons with him, there were no deacons left to transport the Eucharist as viaticum to the Christians on death row, so they entrusted the task to the young altar boy who knew the routine and had long shown a both fidelity and courage.
As he was heading up the Appian Way with the blessed Sacrament concealed under his shirt, a group of pagan boys met him. They asked them to join their games but he politely declined. They noticed he was carrying something. They had some sense that he was a forbidden Christian and they surmised that he might be carrying the Christian “mysteries.” So the small mob of boys started to gang up on him to get him to show them what he was transporting. Tarcisius knew the boys and had no doubt that they would treat the Eucharist sacrilegiously, so he refused to allow them to get their hands on the Eucharist, even as they beat, clubbed, kicked and stoned him until death.
The Roman Martyrology wrote, “At Rome, on the Appian Way, [occurred] the passion of St. Tarcisius the acolyte, whom pagans met carrying the sacrament of the Body of Christ and asked him what it was he was carrying. He deemed it a shameful thing to cast pearls before the swine, and so was assaulted by them for a long time with clubs and stones until he gave up the ghost. When they turned over his body, the sacrilegious assailants could find no trace of Christ’s Sacrament either in his hands or in his clothing. The Christians took up the body of the martyr and buried it with honor in the cemetery of Callistus.”
A little over a century later, Pope St. Damasus wrote a poem about this “boy martyr of the Eucharist,” saying that, like St. Stephen, he was willing to suffer a violent death at the hands of a mob rather than give up the sacred Body of the Lord to “raging dogs.”
His life points to the reality that all those who receive and give holy Communion are called to remember: the Eucharist is not something but Someone, and St. Tarcisius indicates the true value of Jesus in the Eucharist. Most times, thanks be to God, we will not be killed in order to receive or protect Jesus in the Eucharist, but St. Tarcisius shows all of us how we’re called to live and even die for the one who died out of love for us.
St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897)
St. Therese of the Child Jesus, the Little Flower, is clearly the most famous of the four saints we are profiling in this article. She lived a relatively hidden life as a Carmelite nun in Lisieux, France, from the age of 15. After her death of tuberculosis at 24, her spiritual autobiography, “The Story of a Soul,” written under obedience, became an international sensation. It brought to the attention of Catholics across the world St. Therese’s “little way,” to please God along the path of humility. She recognized that not everyone can be like the roses and the lilies in the garden, the spectacularly beautiful flowers that everyone notices. She was content to be a “little flower,” knowing that her existence, too, pleased enormously the divine Gardener.
Like Blessed Imelda and Saint Gemma, she, too, longed to receive Jesus earlier than what was typically permitted at the time. What she wrote in her autobiography about the day of her first Communion at age 11 is one of the most beautiful passages on the joy of holy Communion ever written. Composed more than 10 years after the event, her immense joy was still fresh.
“At last the most wonderful day of my life arrived,” she wrote, “and I can remember every tiny detail of those heavenly hours: my joyous waking up at dawn, the tender, reverent kisses of the mistresses and older girls, the room where we dressed — filled with the white ‘snowflakes’ in which one after another we were clothed — and above all, our entry into chapel and the singing of the morning hymn ‘O Altar of God, Where the Angels are Hovering.’
“How lovely it was, that first kiss of Jesus in my heart — it was truly a kiss of love. I knew that I was loved and said, ‘I love You, and I give myself to You forever.’ Jesus asked for nothing, He claimed no sacrifice. Long before that, He and little Thérèse had seen and understood one another well, but on that day it was more than a meeting — it was a complete fusion. We were no longer two, for Thérèse had disappeared like a drop of water lost in the mighty ocean. Jesus alone remained — the Master and the King. Had she not asked Him to take away her liberty, the liberty she feared? She felt so weak and frail that she wanted to unite herself forever to His Divine Strength.
“And her joy became so vast, so deep, that now it overflowed. Soon she was weeping, to the astonishment of her companions, who said to one another later on: ‘Why did she cry? Was there something on her conscience? Perhaps it was because her mother [who had died] was not there, or the Carmelite sister she loves so much.’
“It was beyond them that all the joy of Heaven had entered one small, exiled heart, and that it was too frail and weak to bear it without tears. As if the absence of my mother could make me unhappy on the day of my First Communion! As all Heaven entered my soul when I received Jesus, my mother came to me as well. Nor could I cry because you [her older sister who was a Carmelite, at whose command she was writing the autobiography] were not there, we were closer than ever before. It was joy alone, deep ineffable joy that filled my heart.”
It’s interesting that Pope Benedict, during his address at the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, spoke to young people about the proper meaning of “adoration.” He said it is a Latin word that means, precisely, a “kiss.” From that “first kiss” of Therese Martin and Jesus in holy Communion, she began to adore him within, to “fuse” with him, lost in the mighty ocean of his love, with a Eucharistic awe that never left her.
This Year’s First Communicants
These four child Eucharistic saints are just some of the many who have been led through communion with the Lord on the altar here on earth to an eternal communion with him around the celestial throne. Together let us pray that the children making their first holy Communion this Spring may imitate their love for Jesus in the Eucharist, follow their example in living Eucharistic lives and be spurred on to become, themselves, Eucharistic saints for children of future generations.