Explaining Communion to Children October 23, 2008

Explaining Communion to Children

I never went through this as a child, but it’s completely disturbing hearing someone talk about Communion with a straight face as if the wafer really is the body of Jesus:

Reader David asks this question:

Do you remember how the holy communion and transubstantiation was first explained to you?

Do you remember having any doubts back then?

(Via Atheist Media Blog)

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  • PrimeNumbers

    Don’t you just love ritual cannibalism? That said, it’s a pretty sick video to watch, all those innocent children heading into the land of Catholic nightmares. That their school is helping in their indoctrination and learning of Catholic dogma is sickening. Dawkins is right when he says it’s a form of child abuse.

  • I was raised Protestant, and I remember my first teary-eyed conversion experience, no later than junior high. I went up for the altar call, the pastor was handing out the bread and grape juice, and he paused at me. I was so excited about being a Christian and loving Jesus and everything that I took the bread out of his hand and put it in my mouth. I still remember the look of shock on the pastor’s face– not at my audacity, but because he hadn’t made sure I was truly repentant. I remember wondering why the pastor didn’t trust me.

    In conclusion, it was probably explained to me after the fact, but by then it was too late…

  • I was raised Southern Baptist and we didn’t believe in transubstantiation.

    But even then, just saying it represented the body of Christ is pretty pagan and barbaric and I’m shocked the church didn’t see that!

  • chancelikely

    Raised Methodist. While I don’t recall the explanation precisely, I do remember being unconvinced by it. It seemed like a promise in form, and I’ll be damned if I’ll make a promise I don’t entirely understand, especially to a vague and powerful shadowy being.

    Maybe it was just a result of too many cartoons where the bad guys controlled people by using pills or something, or fooling people into signing a binding contract.

    Not taking communion was the first major deviation from the orthodoxy, but the great thing was that no one could say anything about it without making a fuss during the service itself.

  • Beowulff

    I went to a Catholic primary school when I grew up, and participated in the required rituals in the Catholic Church too. However, I don’t remember that it was ever explained to me that communion was anything other than a commemoration of a symbolic gesture that Jesus made at the last supper. Can’t say how I’d have reacted if they had tried to explain that the wafer really changes into bits of Jesus, and then you eat it.

    Of course, the Catholic Church in the Netherlands is not quite the same as the one in the US, as I’ve come to realize more and more recently. And even within countries, the Catholic Church isn’t nearly as homogeneous as they’d like you to believe, even on what some people would consider its core doctrine. I’m quite sure a lot of Catholics worldwide weren’t taught about literal transubstantiation either. It’s just too weird.

  • Vincent

    And even within countries, the Catholic Church isn’t nearly as homogeneous as they’d like you to believe

    This is absolutely true. I used to joke that my wife and I were raised in completely different religions – Catholic.
    See, I was raised in Oklahoma where Catholics are the wacko liberals. She was raised in Virginia where Catholics are the heart of conservatism. Plus, I am male she is female and that makes a huge difference.

    Anyway the truth is I had my first communion classes in Spanish and I don’t speak Spanish so I probably missed a lot. I don’t remember transubstantiation being explained in any one moment, but have that feeling I knew all along. I do remember asking one of the priests at the monastery where I went to college when the exact moment was that transubstantiation took place and he didn’t know and admitted it was an angels on the head of a pin sort of question. The nun in the video seems to know exactly when, though I don’t know if that’s orthodoxy.

    Oh, and even then I had no doubts. Doubts came about 3 years after that, when I was in grad school.

  • Catherine

    My father is Catholic and I went to Catholic school for a few years as a kid. I honestly don’t remember how it was explained because I was so young.

    I didn’t really start asking questions until I was a little bit older, and by then I was spending more time at my mom’s Presbyterian church, and they didn’t believe in a literal transubstantiation.

  • Jeff Satterley

    I was raised Catholic, and went through 2 years of religion classes before making first communion, and I don’t recall literal transubstantiation ever coming up. We talked about the Last Supper story, and I always thought we were re-enacting that scene (kind of like the Christmas pageants re-enacting the birth of Jesus: we didn’t believe the baby playing Jesus actually became Jesus during the play!) Of course, I received a copy of the New Testament when I made communion, and the indoctrination went downhill from there. (I convinced my mom to stop making me go to religion classes when I was 7 or 8 years old)

    I don’t think I knew about transubstantiation until there was a world religions section of my 9th grade Social Studies class. We talked about the schism in the churches and whatnot, and then about the different beliefs between the different sects of Christianity.

  • penn

    I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school from grades K-12. I always remember it being “We believe it really is the body and blood of Christ.” like something you memorize for a test, but there was kind of a wink and a nod that it really wasn’t. I vaguely remember students asking about it, and the answer was like “Well it obviously isn’t physically human flesh and blood, but it is really the body and blood of Christ.” It was weird, and we did remember the answer for the test, but we were all aware that we weren’t actually eating people.

  • Matthew

    I love that the guy at the end of video says that for half the students the religious significance goes “over their heads”. Perhaps the same half that, even at a young age, have logic and critical thinking skills?

    Bread magically becoming Jesus in a LITERAL sense (not symbolic, which is understandable, kinda) is just stupid. It’s entirely in the same realm as pixies, or Santa Claus and his magic sleigh and time-freezing abilities.

  • Rachel

    In first communion classes in catholic school I don’t recall it ever being explained (either that or I wasn’t paying attention), of course it was said that this was the body and blood of christ but no further explanation, I always assumed it was metaphorical untill much much later (high school) my mother used the transubstantiation word and I was like “what’s that?” she explained it and i was like “that’s crazy talk!”.
    I was seriously astounded that anyone took it literally.

    I reminds me of one night when my husband (who was brought up with ZERO exposure to religion) were watching in the discovery channel that whole “are there decendents of jesus” thing. And he was like:
    “why don’t they just dig jesus up and do DNA testing?”.
    and I was like:
    “Uh…cause there’s no body”
    “why? what do you mean?”
    “Uh, cause he rose from the dead and assended into heaven”
    and he was like:
    “NO! no way, people actually beleive this? Oh my god.”
    He was completely floored.
    I still laugh about this to this day, because of just how shocked he was, and just how funny his complete lack of knowledge of religion is.
    To see someone completely shocked because they’ve never heard of this rising from the dead craziness and just how absurd it is.

  • Adrian

    When you look at this video you really do realize what Richard Dawkins means when he calls is “child abuse”.

  • This probably isn’t helpful, but no, I don’t remember and no, I don’t remember having any doubts. I know that I came to believe it eventually, but I don’t remember the original indoctrination.

  • Brian S.

    I recall that around 7th or 8th grade, our teachers did explain the nature of transubstantiation. I accepted it fairly blindly, being very impressionable at that age. However, because my dad is Episcopalian and my mom Catholic, I had to understand the protestant angle; so at some level I knew that other people believed differently.

    In fact, that even came as a point of superiority – they only believed in this metaphor, and we had a haunted cracker, in the same way that some congregations drank grape juice, and we were so hardcore/awesome that we drank wine.

  • T’s Grammy

    Rachel, I get that experience with my daughter all the time! She just doesn’t get the nuttiness of it all and when she hears some new ritual, she’s like people actually do this/think this/believe this? I encouraged her to ask when she was a kid even. Those commercials were running at the time this is your brain on drugs. I honestly used to try and answer how I was raised and from the believers view point but she’d inevitably wrinkle her brow and protest but that makes no sense! I could do nothing but laugh and say this is your brain on religion. It’s a running joke with us to this day.

    Raised in a variety of Protestant churches even though my mother was Dutch Reform and my father gave up Catholicism to marry her. Only the earliest one, an Alliance church, did anything like this. They’d have little goblets of wine on whatever Sunday it was supposed to represent Christ’s blood. That part totally went over my head. Never bought it. All I saw was what appeared to me to be grape juice, a treat in those days. I must have been about six and thought it grossly unfair that they wouldn’t let the kids have any and grabbed one before my father (mother refused to attend the Alliance church with us) could stopped me and gulped. Stuff was so nasty I spit it out. LOL! Maybe this is why I’m a tea-totaller.

  • Mike

    I remember learning that the cracker really became Jesus. A brief summary of how it went (I think I was about 7 or 8 year old):

    Me: Is it really Jesus?

    Them: Yes

    Me: How does it become Jesus?

    Them: God does it.

    Me: How does God do it?

    Them: Because he is God.

    Me: Oh, so it’s another one of those where we all pretend it makes sense? Okay, I’ll take my cracker now.

    See, I always just figured that all the parts of the bible that didn’t make sense to me as a kid didn’t make sense to anyone else and that we were all pretending together so that god wouldn’t get mad.

  • Nancy

    I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school for 12 yrs. We were taught the nature of transubstantiation and that the wafer became the body and blood of Christ. I even remember the nun telling us the story of the boy who didn’t believe it was REALLY Jesus. He took a consecrated wafer home and stuck a pin it AND……………. yes it began to bleed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I remember thinking “Eeewwwwww”

  • Nah, I don’t remember it too well. We do not examine these things closely. However, if I were to construct my former belief from vague memories, this is how I would describe it: Obviously, the eucharist doesn’t become real life flesh and blood. Jesus simply inhabits it, the same way he lives in everyone’s hearts.

  • I wasn’t baptised but my parents still chose to send me to a separate school. I had other cousins going there so it might have been a method to make sure I knew at least one person at my school when I got there.

    I could sit in Religion class but when it came time to prepare for first communion and confirmation and that stuff, they gave me the books to study with the rest of my classmates but I couldn’t go through the process myself.

    I don’t recall paying much attention to the beliefs inherent in those Catholic rituals as a child. I had to sit in the pew during mass while everyone else got their wafers. I don’t think I ever had a thought in my head that the “Eat this in remembrance of me” was anything more than metaphorical, just remember him at the last supper and think of what he did for us, that type of thing.

  • happycynic

    I was raised lutheran, but we had communion class as well. They didn’t teach transubstantiation, they simply said that it was a sacred ceremony, commemorating the last supper. That communion was the part where the actual forgiving-of-sins took place. I always knew it was just a ceremony, and even at that age (5th-6th grade or so?) i valued ceremony as much as a bloody nose, and so i never really put much value in it.

    Ironically, i often ended up in the position of the guy who takes the tray around and collects all the little cups after ppl drink their grape juice/wine (we had both, i prefferred the juice to the wine, wine tasted nasty). They had this whole assembly line thing going with communion, our church had around 250 members so they had to be kinda organized. Ushers would let people out of their pews to join the communion line down the center aisle, the line would lead up to this banister thinger on the side of the raised stage/preaching area, and everyone would kneel and take their wafer and juice. Meanwhile, in the back they’d have 8 or 9 trays already made up with the juice/wine, squirted into the cups with a little squirt bottle, like the one for distilled water in my chemistry lab :).

    One thing that was stressed about communion was that you didn’t take it if you didn’t believe. It was only allowed for true believers (which is why some churches refuse to serve communion to non-congregants, although my parents frowned on that and our church said “Communion is open to all who accept jesus christ as their lord and savior” before each communion). As such, when i stopped going up for communion, that was when it really hit home to my parents that i wasn’t coming back to religion. They actually instructed me to go up and take it, but i told them that that would be hypocrisy and I’m not a hypocrite.

    bad times… 8

  • happycynic

    By the way… Before i watched the clip, i totally thought that nun was dude!

  • This was the breaking point for me as a young Catholic going to a Catholic high school. I remember the conversation pretty well:

    “Father,” I said to the priest teaching the religion class (Father Joe, who was actually a very nice man who liked kids and did a good job teaching both French and algebra), “I have a question about transubstantiation. Now, I understand that eating the host symbolizes taking Jesus into our hearts.”

    “No, my son,” he said back. “It’s really the body of Jesus Christ.”

    “But Father, it just isn’t. It’s a piece of bread. And usually it’s stale.”

    “That’s an awful thing to say about Your Lord And Savior!”

    “But it’s not My Lord And Savior. It’s a symbol of My Lord And Savior.”

    “No, it isn’t. The miracle of the Mass is that this piece of bread literally and miraculously transforms into the body of Jesus Christ.”

    “Well, that means that we’re all cannibals because we eat human flesh.”


    “…human flesh that looks and tastes like stale bread. I mean, it’s obviously not made of meat.”

    “You need to go see the principal now.”

    That was pretty much the end of my being Catholic.

  • Geoffrey

    I went to a Jesuit college and I took a course that covered Catholic doctrine issues like this. Turns out that over eighty percent of American Catholics don’t believe in transubstantiation (you try convincing someone that they’re eating zombie flesh!), so most parishes just sidestep the issue.

    I was raised Catholic and I don’t remember even hearing about transubstantiation until I was in high school and had reached the age of reason (i.e. I was an atheist by then). There was an allusion to the idea in a book I was reading for English class, and I just remember thinking, “Huh. News to me. Who’d ‘a thunk?”

  • Growing up in my former Southern Baptist church communion was explained simpler. Basically it was considered a reenactment of the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples, so it never really seemed weird to me. Even today, it is hard for me to understand how some could view it as a symbol of cannibalism. The idea of transubstantiation just seems silly to me.

  • Pockets

    I was raised episcopalian, but my wife’s family is catholic. SO during the pre-wedding interviews with the priest, he explained the whole transubstantiation to me, and i calmly replied that it sounds kinda like cannibalism to me…he immediately turned to my wife and started a new topic. I still catch crap for that today

  • snoozebar

    I was raised non-religious, and I didn’t know about transubstantiation until PZ pulled his cracker stunt. I knew about the metaphor of it being Jesus’ body, but not that people actually believed it was flesh.


  • David D.G.

    I was raised United Methodist, so there was no doctrine of transubstantiation to be concerned with; it was strictly symbolic, and I never was especially impressed by it except on the one occasion, as a teenager, when I got wine instead of grape juice — and discovered that I liked it!


    I’ve actually taken communion a few times since recognizing my atheism, thinking that it would scandalize my fellow churchgoers if I refused it. But my late companion, a staunch Christian, finally asked me to demur on it because she felt it wasn’t appropriate for me to partake; I didn’t really care either way, so I deferred to her wishes.

    When I first heard of people who thought there was some actual physical change that made the stuff into Jesus’ actual flesh and blood, I was pretty appalled by the thought. I still am — not just by the concept of cannibalism, but by the fact that these folks actually believe such a fairy-tale version of reality.

    It’s depressing to think that these people vote, raise children, and occasionally work in medical, governmental, or even judicial positions. How can anyone’s judgment of reality be trusted when they uncritically accept such blatant falsehoods and loudly trumpet them as “truth”? I find this whole situation terribly unsettling.

    ~David D.G.

  • absent sway

    With all the nonsense I put up with as a Protestant, I was always relieved that I didn’t have to deal with transubstantiation. I remember wondering why the Catholics had prettier churches than us, though…

  • I was excited for my first communion (pretty dress, and family in town and a party!)

    It wasn’t until 5th or 6th grade that I started thinking that communion was awfully silly.

  • Not a Catholic, so I can’t answer the question. But after having watched the video, I feel compelled to say this:


    Oh, and T’s Grammy?

    this is your brain on religion.

    That is brilliant, and effing hilarious. I am totally stealing it.

  • Emily

    I was raised Anglican, so communion was strictly symbolic– we were imitating the Last Supper in remembrance of Jesus.

  • Vincent

    Here is an actual interchange I had with my brother very recently about this subject:

    Let me just run a quick reductio absurdum to see if I have your explanation

    Jesus was both human and divine, right?
    Human is that which has a body and a soul.
    Therefore, since Jesus was human, Jesus has a soul.
    During mass the wafer becomes the body of christ.
    The Eucharist is now body and soul.
    Therefore the Eucharist is human.
    You then eat the human flesh, presumably ending its life.
    Oh, wait, I made a mistake there. You never said the Eucharist had life. So I
    guess it’s lifeless human flesh.
    That’s okay to eat then. Not only okay, but mandated.
    But isn’t Jesus alive when you eat of his body?

    and his reply:

    Yes and yes.

    (this was in the context of a discussion of legal abortion)

  • Fr. Terry Donahue, CC

    I distinctly remember my first communion because it was so traumatic.

    Since I didn’t attend the local Catholic school, I was given the choice whether to receive first communion by myself or with the group of kids from the school. I was a shy kid at age 7 and I mistakenly thought that “by myself” meant in a separate room somewhere. So imagine my surprise that Sunday, when I was called forward to receive first communion by myself in front of the whole congregation. I was so self-conscious and scared that I started bawling my eyes out as I received. Not anyone’s fault, just a misunderstanding all around, since I had said that was what I wanted, etc.

    I don’t recall what was taught about transubstantiation, but I’d bet it wasn’t covered well, given that it was in the mid-70s when catechetical methods were pretty touchy-feely, without much intellectual substance.

    As I grew up, I don’t think I explicitly believed that the Eucharist was Jesus. By the time I got to university, I didn’t think God existed and stopped going to Mass.

  • Monkey Deathcar

    I don’t remember being told that the it was Jesus until years after first communion. I think that’s the plan, they tell you it’s symbolic and then years later tell you it’s really jesus. Because you’ve been eating it for all those years it’s not as weird. I still don’t find it weird, I just find it ridiculous.

  • Richard Wade

    I think if Jesus could see all the lunacy about transubstantiaton, he’d be slapping his forehead and dragging his hand down his face, saying, “It was a metaphor, guys! It was about taking what I had tried to teach you into yourselves, to make it a part of yourselves, dummies! Oh, why did I even try…”

  • Emily

    Living in the Philippines, Catholicism is everywhere and the fact that I spent my elementary years in a not-so-religious-but-so-Catholic school, I am no exception about the communion wafer.

    I was 8 years old when the idea of communion entered in our studies (since the school wants their students to have their 1st communion at the age of 8). They explained that the simple white round thing eaten in the church is the body of Christ. I had doubts, since how can Christ divide himself into a thousand pieces and how can he fit in a wafer that has the same size of a five peso coin.

    Also, our Christian Living teacher told us that after eating the wafer, Christ will enter in our hearts. But how? I thought food goes to the stomach.

    But I found myself taking my first communion because everyone was doing it. During my first communion, I remembered that they dip the wafer into some kind of wine which was so bitter. I didn’t felt any kind of holiness, all I know was that combination of tasteless wafer and bitter wine was disgusting.

  • Cathy

    I always wondered where the waffers come from. Do they come in a packet that says “Jesus Crackers”? I also wanted to know why they did not use something tastier. Maybe there would be more catholics if they used Oreos.

  • Cait

    I had to go to catechism and have my first communion, etc, and I always thought it was a symbolic thing. I’m pretty sure they explained that we were eating Jesus, but it never occurred to me that they thought we were literally eating him – always a metaphor to my mind.

    It wasn’t communion that put me off of Catholicism so much as confession – I could never think of anything bad I had done (at least nothing bad enough to tell a priest – I never killed anyone or got in huge trouble with my parents, etc), and I didn’t understand why anyone needed to know. Apparently I really wasn’t paying that much attention in catechism.

  • Grimalkin

    Okay, let’s forget the whole communion thing for a second. Is that little girl sitting on Playboy Bunny sheets?? She’s a child! What on earth are her parents thinking?? So much for Christian modesty…

  • Catherine

    @ cathy

    back in the day, they were made by nuns. Now, you can order them from various companies online.

    I went to a big parish, and I just remember them coming in a large, clear plastic bag. The priest used to let us kids eat the un-blessed broken ones. Why we even wanted them, I don’t know. They have absolutely no flavor.

  • If I recall correctly, I was taught that it was symbolic. So it wasn’t nearly as hard to swallow (no pun intended). Literal transubstantiation (I was taught) was something that Catholics did.

    See, the primary thing that I learned about Lutheranism, at least Missouri Synod style, was exclusion. That’s what helped push me toward atheism.

  • 5ive

    Grimalkin! I was totally stuck on the same thing! maybe it is different in England?

  • I don’t remember much about communion until First Communion. I was young but I remember being pretty excited even though the seeds of doubt had already been sown in my mind. I just wanted to be able to do what the grown-ups were doing since I’ve always been in such a rush to be older for whatever reason.

    I remember them saying when the priest blessed the wine and the wafer that it BECAME the body and blood of christ. But again, by the time I got my First… I didn’t really believe it. I think I just wanted an excuse to drink the wine…

  • When I was at school they used to give us drink (usually milk) and cookies. I was a milk monitor for a year. If someone had told me that it was blood and flesh I would have been sick. What a horrible thing to say to someone who is so impressionable.

    Playboy sheets and clothing have been popular with increasingly younger kids for some years in England. I think the connection to the porn industry isn’t even considered. Not that I’d ever buy them for my kids.

  • Pamela

    Just skimmed, didn’t read all the comments…did anyone else notice that the first girl interviewed was sitting on a Playboy Bunny blanket?!?!

  • This is where it needs to be remembered that there is diversity within Christianity. Transubstantiation is a Catholic teaching, not a Protestant one.

  • philosophia

    I think the first time I heard about transubstantiation was in history class at high school. Something about Catholics and Protestants bickering over it in 16th century England? It was a while ago and history was not my favourite subject, so forgive me if I’m vague on the details. At the time, I simply assumed it was one of those silly things they believed in back then. It took a full semester of Religious Studies at university and repeated confirmation from the blogosphere for me to realize that people really do still believe the cracker literally becomes Christ.

  • Josha

    I remember learning about transubstantiation in religion class in middle school when I was 11. I had just been baptized into the Catholic church and I actually won a book about miraculous experiences of transubstantiation. My family went on a road trip and I brought the book. The book contained stories about when the communion wafer itself actually turned into flesh and blood. Catholics believe it becomes Christ but remains in the wafer form, but this book told stories of times when people bit into the Eucharist and they tasted blood and flesh. I read a couple of these gruesome stories, getting sick and disgusted. For awhile after I was afraid I would get a Eucharist that would actually turn to flesh in my mouth. Even looking or touching the book would make me feel ill so I had to hide it from plain sight.

  • Now if they’d said Jesus was in a Bojangles chicken biscuit, I might just believe it.
    Those things are awesome!

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