Every religion has its traditions. Growing up Catholic, the big event for a kid is your first holy communion. 

Back then, the Mass was in Latin. We didn’t really know what the priest was saying, but it sounded holy and we did our best with the responses — though half the time Dominus Vobiscum sounded like Domino Nabisco

I was around seven years old when my parents told me I’d be attending holy communion training after school with the rest of my class. Since I’d watched people receive communion every Sunday, I didn’t understand why I needed training. 

We stayed in our seats as the last bell rang and were soon greeted by a nun, who told us she would help us prepare. Sister Agnes explained a lot in that first class, and at one point told us there were different degrees of sins. There were mortal sins, which were the worst. If you committed one of those and didn’t make it to confession, you were going straight to hell. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200. 

Then there were venial sins. Those didn’t condemn you to eternal damnation, but they still weren’t good. An example of a mortal sin would be murder, Sister Agnes said, while lying would qualify as a venial sin. “White lies” didn’t seem as bad if you were trying to be polite, an example being telling the woman next door her new hairstyle looked nice even though her perm looked like a bird’s nest. 

Then things got strange. 

“All right, I want all of you to stand in a straight line in front of the class.” We lined up shoulder to shoulder. “Now, when you receive communion the priest will place the host on your tongue. You will stick out your tongue and make sure it is flat, like a table. So everyone, stick out your tongues.” 

I wish there was video of this event, a line of seven-year-olds sticking their tongues out at a nun. Any other time we’d be in serious trouble for such an action. 

Sister moved down the line, checking tongues. “Very good … excellent … good …” She stopped in front of one boy. “Flatten that tongue!” 

The kid moved his tongue a bit. Not good enough. 

“It must be flat. Do you want Jesus to fall on the floor?” 

He responded with his tongue still out. Of course if you try to talk this way, you sound like Elmer Fudd. “Ahm twying, Sistuh.” 

She waited until he mastered the exercise. “Better. I want you all to practice at home.” 

So for the next few weeks, parents watched their kids sticking their tongues out at anything with a reflection. A mirror, the stainless-steel oven, a toaster. 

Meanwhile, we had to go to our first confession. You wanna terrify a seven-year-old? This is the way to do it. 

Go behind the red curtain, kneel. The wooden door slides, revealing the image of a priest behind opaque glass. Soaked with sweat, I confessed my sins (drawing on the wall with crayons, trying to saw my bedroom door in half) and got a penance of a few Hail Marys. Then to the altar to say the prayers. My mom told me people who were at the altar for a long time after confession must have been really bad. I noted that Tony, the neighborhood bully and classroom screw-up, seemed to be there forever. 

The big day arrived, and we had to fast; in those days, no food for three hours before communion! We were all dressed in our Sunday best, seated in the front pews. The sound of growling stomachs filled the air, soon replaced by that of eight-millimeter film moving through dozens of movie cameras. 

We lined up at the altar, kneeled, and stuck our tongues out, terrified that Jesus would fall. Every eye in the church was on us. More flop sweat. Monsignor Donnelly moved down the line, placing the hosts on each child’s tongue. (Why they always sent an Irish priest to our 100% Italian parish was beyond me.) Thankfully, no problems thanks to our training from Sister Agnes. 

Communion isn’t given on the tongue anymore, except in a traditional Latin Mass. Still, after years of flattening my tongue, I’m ready just in case.

Randy Tatano is the author of more than 20 novels, writing political thrillers under the pen name Nick Harlow and romantic comedies as Nic Tatano. He spent 30 years working in television news as a local affiliate reporter and network field producer.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].

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