My husband and I sat proudly in the front of St. Francis of Assisi Church. We could smell the warmth of the candles even through our masks during the Catholic confirmation ceremony for our oldest child, Glenn Adam Michael. And despite all the obstacles thrown at him in this crazy year of COVID-19 during the second worst winter on record in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Glenn sat tall, eyes smiling above his covered face, with gracious words for his grandparents and a handshake for his little brother. Confirmation! Parents and priests celebrate this right of initiation into the Church. The confirmands are now adults in the faith, responsible and graced with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But to the young men and women receiving this sacrament, there is something bigger to celebrate – WHOOO HOOO NO MORE SUNDAY SCHOOL!
And there I sat watching my sons, one teen and one tween in their suits, hands folded and heads bowed, waiting for the bishop to process in, and it was all I could do to keep from laughing as I remembered back to the days when the boys were little monsters and tortured me to tears every single Sunday we took them to church!
I was a late bloomer, married at 35 and had my first born when I was 39. Full of joy and gratitude, I vowed to God that if He blessed me with children, I would do my best to give them to Him. I had no idea what a challenge it would be to keep my vow but I should have been tipped off when Ryan screamed bloody murder at his baptism as monsignor poured water over his little, innocent-looking head. It was the beginning of things to come because Ryan screamed EVERY Sunday we tried to take two kids in diapers to Mass, no matter how fed or dry he was. My poor father-in-law had the patience of a saint with crying Ryan, and compassionately offered to take him outside so we could finish the service.
As the years went on, I lost my peace more and more. I am Italian, and when I was a kid Sunday was not only a day of rest, but also a day of food! My mom would make French toast before putting a lasagna in the oven for a feast that evening. And I like to keep this tradition alive with my family as I smile remembering my own parents who are now in Heaven. On Sunday mornings our kitchen is bustling with pancakes and bacon, Frank Sinatra crooning on Alexa while I chop garlic and put on a pot of sauce and meatballs. But it seemed no matter how early I tried to get ready, we are always late to church! It was as if time is in a vortex and I can never catch up to it. And so I yelled at the boys in the car to tie their shoes on the way to church, and I flipped my lid yelling on the way home for kicking the pew in front of them interrupting the poor souls trying to pray. I dreaded Sundays, and I knew that is not what God wanted for us.
There was often fighting over who got to sit next to Daddy or who got to hold the money envelope. When I was little my mom had “the look”. You know - when all your mom had to do was LOOK at you a certain way and you knew you had better behave pronto. Well, I didn’t master “the look” but I did invent the whisper-yell where I would try to say “Stop it!!” in the quietest voice I could, which only embarrassed my husband even more. Then there was the time Glenny picked his nose and wiped a giant bugger on the beautiful cherry-stained pew we were sitting in, to the horror of the couple sitting behind us. I didn’t even have a tissue and had to shush Ryan who yelled, “Mommy, ewwww Glenny picked his nose!” as I wiped off the snot with my sunglass’s cleaner.
Every week it was something. We hold hands when we pray “The Lord’s Prayer”, and one time I had to pry the boys’ hands apart because they were arm wrestling. Once, I forget who, accidentally ripped a page in the hymnal newly bought to celebrate the 100th anniversary of our parish. Another time Glenny sat on the glasses in his pocket and broke them, upsetting Daddy who was well aware of how much they would cost to replace. Then there was that time Ryan dropped the Holy Communion out of his hand and picked it up off the floor quickly putting it in his mouth invoking the 5 second rule that states you can eat something off the ground if it’s been there less than 5 seconds. These kids were never discrete and it was always witnessed by everyone nearby. My poor husband who is so private and modest, would sometimes stay back. He would though, always drive us and make sure his family went to church even if he did not go himself.
This 8th grade class of confirmation candidates was also my first kindergarten class when I started volunteering to teach the parish religion education program (PREP) at our church. I was an inexperienced, stay-at-home mother wanting to volunteer anytime I could to be with my little boys. I walked into the religious ed office greeted by the director, Sister Laura. She was a very serious but friendly nun with a kind round face and metal hook for her right hand. I was a little alarmed but the boys were shocked stiff! “Oh my you must be busy, “she said as I walked in her office with two small boys in hand, “are they twins?”
“Oh no, they are 15 months apart. It got easier once Glenny learned how to tie his shoes.” I told her.
“In my family we call them Irish twins,” she said laughing. All the while I registered the boys for Sunday school and received my books to teach and take attendance, Glenny and Ryan were silent, staring at us with terror on their faces. “Goodbye and thank you for helping us in PREP. I know you will do well. Goodbye, boys. See you in September!” The boys didn’t know what to say and were scared silent. “Say goodbye and thank you to Sister Laura, boys,” I said in my sweetest mother voice.
We were not one step out her door and Ryan, then three, blurts out LOUD, “Mommy I don’t want to come back! I’m scared. Did they chop off her hand for Jesus? It looks like Captain Hook!” It was just a few years later when Sister Laura retired that she told me she lost her hand in an accident caught in an old-fashioned washing machine when she was just a young novice. And even though I know she heard Ryan that day, she was always pleasant and cheerful to the boys.
Ironically the turning point was on Easter Sunday 2015, our worst incident ever and the day I had to stand up and not-so-whisper-yell to find Glenny right in the middle of the high Mass. The Easter Bunny brought Glenny a long-awaited Darth Vader action figure in his basket, and Glenny begged me to take it to church with us. Against my better judgement I said he could, hoping it would keep him occupied and maybe behave. It was not five minutes after the opening hymn and Glenny dropped and lost Darth Vader. Unknown to me he crawled under the pews, down the aisle and under 3 rows back of feet, kneelers, and purses. He was crawling around the floor looking for it and at 8 years old he wasn’t cute with cherub cheeks anymore. People didn’t know what to do and I didn’t know where he was. I think I blocked it out but somehow Glenn made it back to us, wailing as we left church because we never did find Vader.
I don’t know what gave me the nerve go to coffee and donuts after this service, but I did with sobbing Glenny, an aggravated husband, and mascara smeared tears in my eyes. And then Father Tolentino came up to us brightly smiling and said, “Happy Easter boys! How are you?” lost it. “Oh Father terrible, I am so embarrassed. I can’t believe I teach Sunday school and my kids are the worst behaved kids in church. Every week I pray for peace and every week I am yelling in the car on the way home. We hate Sundays and I don’t know what to do.” And with sympathy in his voice, he said this. “The Lord loves children in His house! You are doing His will by bringing them here. Take heart. This is what I want you to do. Start sitting in the front pew. Every week no matter what, sit in the front.” I was mortified. “Father, then everyone will see. I am already embarrassed to death.” “When children sit in front and can see what is happening at Mass, they are not so bored and you’ll find they will start to pay attention. They will even start to listen. Promise me you will try.”
“Oh hell no!” my husband said in the car when I told him the advice Father Tolentino gave me. But the next week with a prayer and a fresh pack of tissues, we did it. We went to church and walked right up to the front pew. And so, as luck (or prayers) would have it, Father was right. Even if the boys sat next to each other there was no squirming, no fooling around, no talking or fidgeting or kicking the pews. I could not believe it. I could love Mass again! And now I am happy to walk into church with my handsome sons and husband. We often go Sundays with my in-laws, and it is such a nice way to begin the week. I remember clearly one spring day when we came out of church and Glenny said, “Mommy don’t you just love when Mass is done? It feels all shiny and good.” The boys have often been asked to read at Mass or present the gifts. I was never prouder than when Glenny was preparing to read at the most crowded service, the large Cathedral was full. My husband asked him, “Glenny, are you nervous?” And Glenny answered, “No Daddy. Why should I be?”
All this ran through my head as we watched Glenn with his sponsor, his grandfather, process up to the bishop to receive the sacrament of confirmation. My son watched You Tube videos all week to learn how to tie his necktie, the first one that was not a clip-on baby tie he’d worn his whole life. Glenn’s chose the name Michael for his confirmation saint, after St. Michael the Arch Angel who slayed the devil. He told me the name will remind him to always fight evil. But I know it my heart it’s the little boy in him who thinks it’s cool that St. Michael can fly and wields a sword.