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Identity, Ritual and the Eucharist: Communion among “Lapsed Catholics” 

Photo Essay

Written by Isabella Daniele

The following pictures are part of my honour thesis exploring the function of the sacrament of First Communion in building a Catholic identity amongst practicing and non-practicing Catholics at St. Benedict’s parish in Montreal, Quebec. I want to explore the apparent contradiction of Catholics valuing the sacrament of First Communion yet discounting the importance of weekly mass attendance. I am curious to understand how people come to reconcile their Catholic identities through their “lived religion”- how faith is practiced in everyday settings rather than prescribed by the institution. The inconsistent or lack of mass attendance is not exclusive to St. Benedict’s parish since it affects churches across Montreal and is part of Quebec’s religious history. In the 1960s, 88% of Catholics in Quebec attended weekly mass. Comparatively, less than 15% currently do (the lowest in North America) yet French Canadians, continue to self-identify as Catholics and report high levels of belief (Kaell, 2017, 13). There is more to the sacrament of First Communion than the child being able to receive the body of Christ at mass, which the following pictures acknowledge and explore. When I asked one child what the gift was, he would be receiving at his First Communion—expecting him to answer Jesus or the body of Christ— he instead responded “an X-Box” and “probably some money from [his] nonna [grandma].”Although not all children answered me this way, this child’s spontaneous response revealed the materialistic and consumerist aspects that are associated with the sacrament which the church tries to minimize, but many parents continue to emphasize. The sacrament of First Communion hence illustrates Robert Orsi’s notion of “religious messiness,” which he describes as “ attention to … multiplicities, to seeing religious spaces as always, inevitably, and profoundly intersected by things brought into them from outside, things that bear their own histories, complexities, meaning different from those offered within the religious space”( 2005, 167). The First Communion also gathers families for a meal and sees them engaging in a form of gift economy which reaffirms bonds and heritage as a way of continuing the chain of memory (Hervieu-Léger, 2000).

The following pictures depict the “religious messiness” that is part of the First Communion Sacrament by exploring the Catholic Faith (the sacrament itself), materiality (the clothing and festivities), Quebec religious history and pedagogy (how kids learn about the sacrament through Catechism courses). The pictures are a combination of images taken during my fieldwork observing the preparatory First Communion catechetical courses and photographs from my family album. The family photos explore and expose my positionality as a researcher studying within my community, where I also received my First Communion and taught liturgy (a kind of Sunday School). My family photos also explore the chain of memory and how faith is often inherited and passed down through the generations. The information accompanying the images is a combination of the literature, observational fieldwork in the catechetical classes, interviews with catechists, parents, the priest, the catechetical program coordinator and from my own experience.

* I have received permission to use all of the following images. Also, all the names in the essay are pseudonyms, including that of the parish, except for those who allowed me to use their real names. The honours thesis research would not have been possible without the support and generosity of St. Benedict’s parish: the priest, catechist coordinator, the catechists, all the children and parents who allowed me to observe and took time to speak with me as well as my supervisor Professor Kristin Norget who gave me an opportunity to explore this topic ethnographically.

My Mother’s First Communion

Photo by: Photo Magni, First Communion Mass, April 19th, 1970, family album

“Back then it was different, back then it was done in school, it was done in batches as if you were cattle coming in”

-(Joe, catechist, May 2019)

Mrs. Anna’s Banquet- Mock Altar

Photo by Isabella Daniele, catechism class, February 2019

In your Body we find Life,

We come to Your table. Life You give for us to share, We come to Your table.

We come, we come

We come to Your table.

(- Hymn sung at the children’s First Communion)

Children Draw First Communion Symbols

The reception of the Eucharist at the First Communion is the affirmative part of the rite of passage, which marks the official transition of the children into full participants at mass. The sacrament preparation courses exemplify the liminal period during a rite of passage, the intermediate period when initiates are transitioning out of their present stage and entering a new one. During the liminal stage anthropologist Victor Turner (1979) states that initiates experience a period of “separation” from the community where they learn the sacerrima (“most sacred things”) of their culture so that they can understand how their culture works and learn to live according to their custom and law (Turner 1979, 241). The children, through the preparation courses, become experts in semantics and learn the meaning behind the symbols used in mass along with how to behave following Jesus's example. The children were intrigued by the symbol of the host, precisely how it tasted and how it transformed from an ordinary wafer (bread) into the body of Christ (the transubstantiation); which is unsurprising since many adults continue to struggle to understand what Catholics believe to be a miracle (or mystery).

First Communion Group Photo

Photo: St. Benedict's photographers, the First Communion group picture, June 2019

“It was very moving because it was very personal. It was really completely about the children and had nothing to do with us”. – Clarissa (Parent, June 2019)

A photograph of the First Communion children with their catechists and the priests all lined up on the altar after the ceremony. There is something about the imperfection of a group photos that despite being staged and the kids being told to pose with prayer hands, there is still an impossibility that everyone will smile and look the same way at the same time. The children face the congregation, as active members now.

Works Cited

Hervieu-Léger, Danièle. 2000. Religion as a Chain of Memory. Oxford: Polity Press.

Kaell, Hillary. 2017. “Making Memory: Heritage Work and Devotional Labor at Quebec’s Croix de Chemin” in The Anthropology of Catholicism. Edited by Kristin Norget, Valentina Napolitano, and Maya Mayblin, ed. 2017. Oakland, Ca: University of California Press.

Kaell, Hillary, ed. 2017. Everyday Sacred: Religion in Contemporary Quebec. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Orsi, Robert. 2005. Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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