May 29, 2020

‘A source of comfort and peace’: The power of the Eucharist shines through in readers’ stories of special first Communions

Above, Patrick Evans, a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield, recieves his first Communion from Msgr. William F. Stumpf, vicar general, during a Mass at the parish church on May 4, 2019. (File photo by Sean Gallagher)

Above, Patrick Evans, a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield, recieves his first Communion from Msgr. William F. Stumpf, vicar general, during a Mass at the parish church on May 4, 2019. (File photo by Sean Gallagher)

(Editor’s note: The Criterion invited readers to share their special memories of their first Communion and also to share the importance that the Eucharist has in their lives. We begin their stories in this week’s issue. See Part Two and Part Three)

By John Shaughnessy

It’s a handwritten letter touched with the love of a child for her mother.

Nadine Kaelin wrote the note, in her best penmanship, on lined paper just days before she would receive her first holy Communion.

Dear Mother,
I love you. To show my love, I will be good and obey you. Next Sunday when Jesus comes into my heart, I shall ask Him to bless the sweetest Mother in the whole world.
Love, kisses,

Kaelin recently rediscovered that love letter as she was quarantined at home during the coronavirus crisis.

“During this quarantine time, I chose to look through some boxes I brought home after my mother passed away in 1983,” said Kaelin, a member of St. Michael Parish in Bradford in the New Albany Deanery. “I was surprised to find this letter I wrote to her before my first holy Communion in 1955.

“I couldn’t believe she kept it all those years.”

Keeping that letter shows the depth of a mother’s love. In another special way, love is at the heart of how Kaelin’s faith has deepened through the years.

“I remember my first holy Communion. Although at that time I probably really didn’t realize the true meaning, I knew it was something special. As years went by, I truly came to know the meaning of the Eucharist. I have grown to know Christ is most important in my life.”

That connection of human love and divine love also shines through in these stories that people have shared about the power of the Eucharist in their lives, then and now.

‘It’s time to come home’

While Marilyn Pitzulo remembers her first Communion in 1971 “with great fondness,” there’s another experience with the Eucharist that stands out to her even more.

“More impactful was my second first Communion in the fall of 2019,” she says.

“After my divorce, my children and I left the Catholic Church for a 30-year ecumenical journey through several Protestant denominations. Those were formative years as I grew to find comfort in the word of God and a deep prayer life. However, even working in full-time ministry, I couldn’t shake the knowledge that something was missing.”

That feeling started to grow for Pitzulo when her daughter, Amanda, had a desire to deepen her own faith while she was a student at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind.

“When my daughter called me from Saint Mary’s and said she felt called to be confirmed, I was delighted,” Pitzulo says. “Attending Mass with her during her college years, I clearly heard, ‘It’s time to come home.’ ”

Still, one major concern made her wonder about returning to the Catholic faith.

“I had remarried another non-practicing Catholic and could not imagine how this could ever come to be,” she recalls. “What I was not aware of was my husband was hearing the same call, and struggling with what it would take for this to come to pass. After much prayer and discernment, we made the decision to return to our Catholic faith in August 2017.”

Petitioning for annulments, she and her husband Tony received valuable guidance from Father Benjamin Syberg, who was the pastor of Our Lady of the Springs Parish in French Lick at the same.

“We dove in head-first getting to know our Church family and participating in every event we could. I knew we were where we were supposed to be, but something was still missing.”

She discovered what was missing for her when she and her husband vacationed in the Florida community of St. Augustine during their annulment process.

“When we entered the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, I was drawn to my knees. In this building was the presence, the real presence of God. I wept at the tabernacle. This was what I was missing, and desperately wanted. From that moment on, Mass was bittersweet as I felt peace in being home, yet was unable to receive the Eucharist.”

She recalls that difficult time as being similar to a child anticipating Christmas and “seeing everyone else receiving gifts.”

“I was able to find Christ in the trial and build endurance. I leaned into Scripture to find comfort and went to eucharistic adoration to be close to him. Many Catholic brothers and sisters cheered me on and provided encouragement during the longest of days.”

Finally, after their annulments had been granted and their marriage had been convalidated by the Church, the day she had longed for came on Oct. 19, 2019.

“I was able to receive Communion for the first time in over 30 years,” she says. “As I knelt to pray afterward, I knew not only was I home, but I was whole.”

A source of comfort in a time of fear

Faith Linden had just one hope in the months leading up to her first Communion.

She just hoped her father would be alive to share in that defining moment of her childhood.

“In January of that year, my father became ill with a serious kidney condition,” Linden recalls. “He was confined to bed from January throughout that long winter and into spring. I was terribly worried that he would not survive, let alone be able to go to my first Communion.

“In our parish, each Communicant received the Eucharist for the first time between his or her parents. My mother lined up my uncle to stand in for my father, but I kept hoping my dad would be there.”

When Linden shared her hope and her fear with one of her grandmothers, her grandmother comforted her. She also said something to Linden that has stayed with her through the years.

“She showed me a picture of Christ’s agony in the garden,” Linden says. “She said she would pray with me, but we always should pray as he had done—not our will, but his. She said that was how one needed to pray. I never forgot that.”

Linden has also never forgotten the special gift she received at her first Communion on May 6, 1956.

“My father did make it to my first Communion, looking wan and weak, but he was there. In fact, he made it to my 65th birthday party,” says Linden, who is now 71.

The love of the Eucharist continued to be a gift they shared together for years, leading to one more touching moment.

“My father was deeply spiritual—a daily Communicant throughout most of his life. One of the greatest privileges of my life was bringing him Communion shortly before he died [in 2013 at the age of 88.] We had come full circle.”

All of those memories came flooding back to Linden this year as two of her grandchildren were scheduled to receive their first Communion this May.

“Clearly, that did not happen,” says Linden, a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. “As I watched their earnest, innocent little faces getting ready for the big day, I thought back to my grandmother’s words to me.

“I pray that the faith handed down from our parents and grandparents will be a source of comfort and peace to our own precious grandchildren, as it has been to me.”

‘I think she would be proud’

For Dan Ryan, the story of his journey to bringing the Eucharist to people in nursing homes begins with his mother’s journey to find a church where she felt welcomed.

Ryan’s mother hadn’t been a member of any church when she became a widow at age 37, but she suddenly decided it was time to join one in the south side Indianapolis neighborhood where she lived with her three small children under the age of 7.

“As she told the story, on a Sunday she decided to walk north on Shelby Street and stop at the first church she came to,” Ryan notes. “The first church she came to was a Baptist church. She did not feel welcome there. The following Sunday, she headed south on Shelby Street and came to a Lutheran church. She did feel welcome so that became her new church home.”

That church home touched every part of her life. She married her second husband in that church, a marriage that led to the birth of Ryan. She made sure her four children were baptized and confirmed there. She even taught Sunday school there for more than 40 years, years in which she often shared one of her deepest beliefs.

“She believed with all her heart—and she taught her children to believe—that the most important thing we could do as Christians was to celebrate the sacrament of holy Communion.”

Still, it wasn’t a belief that Ryan embraced during his young life.

“Like a lot of young people when they went off to college and became more and more independent from their family, I went to church less and less,” he recalls. “My mom noticed, and she was not happy. She let me know in no uncertain terms that not celebrating Communion on a regular or at least a semi-regular basis was not an option.”

Ryan eventually returned to his Lutheran faith and stayed with it, even after he married his wife Carol, a cradle Catholic. Yet he had a different feeling several years ago whenever he attended a Catholic Mass with Carol.

He thought about how he had these “strong feelings during the Mass about the Eucharist” and how “our Lutheran church only celebrated Communion or the Eucharist one Sunday a month.”

He wanted the Eucharist in his life on a more frequent basis. So he was received into the full communion of the Catholic Church in 2015 after completing the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program at SS. Francis and Clare of Assisi Parish in Greenwood.

“Going from celebrating the Eucharist once a month to every day if I chose is very special,” he says.

He has also felt compelled to share the blessing of that sacrament with others who long for it.

“One of the first ministries I joined at Saints Francis and Clare was to become a eucharistic minister, taking Communion to the Catholic residents in nursing homes in our community. To see the appreciation of many of these lifelong Catholics when they receive the Body of Christ really says it all.”

During such times, his thoughts often return to his mother.

“I feel I’m not only taking Communion to these deserving Catholic seniors who can’t make it to Mass regularly, but I’m also letting my mother know, ‘I get it.’

“I think she would be proud of her Lutheran son who became a Catholic and now celebrates the Eucharist on a regular basis.”

(More stories will be shared in next week’s issue.)

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