My First Communion
I was seven. About 15 of us kids, well-scrubbed and dressed in our best, were gathered inside the beautiful Cheticamp church with our mothers, waiting for Father Leblanc to arrive. Our mothers kept whispering to us not to make too much noise, pointing to the altar where the living body and blood of Christ, they kept saying, was present and that we were about to “receive” for the first time.
A little boy named Henri, who’d been sitting quietly with his mother, asked if he could go see the altar up close. He was fascinated by the light streaming in through the stained glass windows falling gently on the beautiful altar and the life-like statues (so life-like that some of us wondered if they might not be real). OK, but don’t go any farther than the front pew, she whispered, loud enough that all of us could hear. Although Henri’s family lived an isolated life of poverty at the foot of the mountain, it was their decision that Henri receive his first communion same as the other kids and perhaps become part of a new life.
Henri walked as far as the front pew then stopped. He was in awe at the colorful streams of light now shining magically through the church windows and slanting down almost to his shoes. He took another step forward so the light could dance on his brand new home-made suit, casually putting his hands in his pockets as he looked down at his pant legs, not realizing that having hands in ones pockets could be considered a show of disrespect.
It was at this point Father LeBlanc stepped out from the sacristy and walked on to the altar floor. He noticed Henri and walked directly to him. A hushed silence fell suddenly inside the large church except for the sounds of heavy footsteps as they approached Henri. The mothers tensed. Henri did not move.
“What is your name?” Father LeBlanc bellowed!
“Henri…” came the frightened whisper.
“I didn’t hear you! Speak up!” Father LeBlanc roared, the sounds echoing deafeningly inside the almost empty church.
Henri had lost his composure by then and took his hands out of his pockets to wipe his tears.
“Hands back in your pockets! Deeper! Deeper!”
When Henri had shoved his hands as far down in his pockets as they could go, the man of God reared back and with all his might slapped Henri on the face with the palm of his open hand. Within seconds Henri lay crumpled on the floor by the altar in a pool of his own urine.
Henri’s mother was desperate to run to the front of the church to hold her son and carry him away, but she too was paralyzed with fear. The other mothers too were afraid – too afraid to even gather around Henri’s mother, who sat alone now sobbing in her seat.
“When you’re in the house of God” barked Father LeBlanc, “you never, ever, put your hands in your pockets! Let this be a lesson to you!” After glaring at the mothers, he turned and genuflected at the altar before walking into the sacristy to prepare for the ceremony. Only when he had closed the door behind him did Henry’s mother rush to Henri, cradle him in her arms and carry him out of the church for what would be their last time.
I have never been able to recall “receiving” the body and blood of Christ at my first communion. The only recollection I have is of the terrifying sound of Father LeBlanc’s blow to Henri’s face with the palm of his open hand and Henri’s sobs as his mother carried him awkwardly out of the church.
But mixed in my memory has always been the question: why was the entire community silent over this? A cruel, merciless act that went against every fundamental human value we had been raised with, yet the world went on as if it hadn’t happened. Why didn’t someone storm the church, grab the man, throw him on a raft and shove him out to sea? Anything - any action from the community that would have reminded us all of who we were.
It is this silence that is repeated every day. A silence so contradictory that our humanity may already have been stripped out of us. We have manipulated physics, sent people to the moon - split the atom, even - but seem to have lost a lot of our common sense – the kind necessary to have feeling for those around us.
We easily tolerate the thousands of elderly people kicked out of hospital beds with no other place to go; the rising poverty rate among children; spending cuts for social programs of all kinds; the increasing number of food banks. The list goes on. And we remain silent, accepting these as if they could not be changed – much as did the community of Cheticamp in the case of the cruel priest. Then when someone takes the step to correct things, as did Bridgette DePape with the Stop Harper sign, politicians of every stripe denounce her – not understanding her fragile act was driven by her compassion. An attack on democracy, they said.
But remaining silent over time has its effects. Psychology texts explain that consistently denying the reality around us eventually mutates our rationality which in turn affects our ability to care for one another. In short, it fries our brains.
How else can we explain re-electing Mike Harris for a second term? A man who closed hospitals, compared laid off hospital workers to those who lost their jobs after the hula hoop fad died down in the early 1960s, and rewrote labour laws to favor business. Yet we voted him in for a second term.
And what about this scene: Tim Hudak, a Mike Harris clone, leads in the polls for the October Ontario election. He leads even though he would bring greater cuts to social services, privatize everything he could – even have chain gangs of inmates cutting grass. He is anti-union, pro-business.
Then there’s Stephen Harper. Prime Minister and union killer. He told us cutting corporate taxes would create jobs. He lied. Now that he has a majority, he can do whatever he wants. And he has: he’s cutting social programs in a big way, legislating striking workers back to work at wages lower than they were offered in bargaining, and continues to cut funding to groups that try to promote democracy. He is a mean man, bent on destroying the advances in working conditions that past labour leaders fought for and by doing this causes untold suffering to workers and their families. His callousness is known, so he is feared.
He is the Father Leblanc of my first communion. And we remain silent.
By Bert Deveaux