First Communion and Corpus Christi in Burkina

For Catholics, first communion is a really big deal. It is a ceremony that means a whole bunch to people. Although not formally a separate sacrament of its own, it opens the door to young people to begin regularly receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist. There’s a whole process of preparation and a big ceremony attached to it. Yesterday, the two daughters of my friends the Soyas, along with their friends Zara and Camillo, had their first communion at the Apostolic Nunciature (the Vatican Embassy) in Ouagadougou.

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Girls traditionally dress in white with veils as if they were getting married. And boys are similarly formal. So here they are, Zara on the left, the two Soya daughters, Ariel and Kaliel in the middle, and Camillo on the right with Father Jozef, who we’ve met before. The embassy Catholic contingent was out in force, including Ambassador Mushingi. Even with Americans, notoriously laissez-faire as we are, this is a big deal.

One of the people in the pews, an American-born child of a Sri Lankan Catholic family (the Church in the Indian subcontinent dates back to early missionaries who traveled there along the Indian Ocean trade routes in the second century CE, so although a minority faith it is deeply established in the culture), allowed as how he made a practice of returning to Sri Lanka for the first communion celebration of even rather distant relatives. He and his wife budget several trips a year for this purpose. From halfway around the world.

In the Catholic (and mainline Protestant) world, there is a regular calendar of religious events. This Sunday (and the preceding Saturday night, since like with the Jews the day starts at sundown) is what is called Corpus Christi. This is where the Church tells us about “hocus pocus”, which is the way Protestants mocked the Catholic idea of what is called the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In Latin, the priest used to say “hoc est corpus meus” (this is my body) when consecrating the bread for the communion. Contrary to rude Protestant stereotypes, nobody believes that the bread actually turns into human flesh. Obviously, it is still bread as far as the evidence of your senses is concerned. And everybody gets a bit so nobody can pretend they just had a little piece of shish kebab. But the idea is that the essence of the bread becomes the body of Jesus and the essence of the wine becomes the blood of Jesus. This makes the most sense if you have read a lot of Plato, which those early Christian philosophers in the second and third century CE certainly had. The difference between essence and appearance (or between substance and accident) is kind of like this. I am sitting on an object that I call a chair. The ‘chairness’ of this object rests in the fact that I can put my 110 kg of body down on my buttocks on the flat surface that is parallel with the floor and the object does not dump me on the floor but instead supports my weight. There is also a back to lean back against when I can’t figure out what to write; if there wasn’t, it would be a stool. But it has some imperfections. It is a little creaky; I’m scared to lean back too far or I might find myself on the floor in the midst of a bunch of pieces of wood. The padding could stand to be a bit thicker. There are a few tears in the covering. The ideal chair would have none of these flaws. It probably wouldn’t be brick red either. That ideal is the essence of chairness. Plato held that there was a realm where essences had real existence. In that realm, there is an essence of bread, which, I might add, the little bits of cracker they hand out at Mass probably have little in common with (cracker because the particular dinner we are in a sense re-enacting, the Last Supper, took place during Passover when Jews ate bread without yeast). The miracle of the Mass, for us Christian heirs of the Platonists, is that the essence of bread is supplanted by the essence of Goodness, and so when we eat the little bit of nothing we are actually, at a deeper level, eating Goodness and making ourselves maybe a little bit more good as a result. The wine, I might add, more closely resembles what I would consider the essence of wine, but unlike in the States they don’t give you any wine here. Unless you’re making your first communion: those four little kids got a sip of wine last night.

After the kids and the rest of us got our bread (and wine, for the kids and Father Jozef), we had a Corpus Christi procession. In the old days, in Catholic neighborhoods in Boston and Chicago, and back in the Old Country, the priest and all the faithful would go out and troop around the neighborhood. Last night, we restrained ourselves to the courtyard of the Nunciature, a wonderful Italian palazzo in the midst of Ouagadougou.

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That’s Father Jozef in the middle, holding a monstrance, with a little bit of that Jesus/bread stuff in the middle, as the folks troop around the perimeter of his embassy. We made four stops, at altars built by each kid, where the kid sang or read something and then Fr. Jozef read a passage from the Bible and blessed everyone. Here’s Camillo’s altar:

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Camillo sang a nice song in Spanish. He’s a bright kid and he’s got a nice voice. Afterwards, we went back into the chapel, sang Salve Regina (got to get the Blessed Virgin Mary in there somewhere or people will mistake us for Lutherans) and then off to the afterparty.

The afterparty was at the Soya’s. The UEFA championship game (European soccer) was on. Madrid was playing Madrid (Real vs. Atlético), which tells  you pretty much all you need to know about where the power is in European soccer. There were no Spaniards in the room but nonetheless plenty of people who had strong opinions about who should win. Camillo ditched the suit and was wearing a Real Madrid jersey, though I think his father was an Atlético fan. Maybe early adolescent rebellion? Anyway, all the soccer fans were inside, and since the food and the bar were outside that was where I was to be found. I did watch the end of the game, which was decided on penalty kicks. Real won 5-4.  When I was a kid, we lived near the Real Madrid stadium (no king then, so they were just Madrid), so I had to cheer for Real. Both teams were really good, and I wish they could have been co-champions.

On the way home, there was a god-awful thunderstorm and I ended up as soaked as if I had fallen in the river. Luckily, I had the happy thought to put my phone in a plastic bag or I would be looking for a new phone today. My camera survived riding in a pocket for about 15 minutes. My money and passport were all soaked but they’re made of sterner stuff than phones and cameras.

So Hocus-Pocus to you, dear readers. Last class tomorrow, so I’m going to bed.





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