By Andrea Tornielli
The First Communion Mass in Rakovski is an exceptional event in the history of papal journeys.
Although it was initially planned differently, Pope Francis decided at the last moment to personally distribute the Eucharist under both species to 245 children from Bulgaria’s three Catholic dioceses.
It was the largest liturgy of First Communions celebrated by the Holy Father, and a break from the norm of Pope Francis’ pontificate, since usually he limits himself to distributing communion to deacons serving at the altar, without distributing the Eucharist to the faithful, except on very rare occasions.
All the Bulgarian children who made their First Communion this year received it from the Bishop of Rome.
Pope St. Pius X
It is in these moments that the Pope seems most at ease, when he exercises his pastoral duties and celebrates the sacraments for the people of God.
He follows in the footsteps of another pastor Pope, St. Pius X, who lowered the age of First Communion in order to give sacramental grace to every little Christian as soon as possible. The only requirement was that they be able to distinguish the difference between the Eucharistic Bread and the bread we eat on our tables daily.
This showed an openness and particular trust in the action of grace and, therefore, in the action of God through the Sacrament, rather than in the preparation of the Communicants. It is a vision of trust that oftentimes risks being forgotten.
Communion to children
In June 2016, Pope Francis, receiving a group of young people with disabilities, said: “When, many years ago – 100 years ago, or more – Pope Pius X said that communion should be given to children, many people were shocked. ‘That child doesn’t understand; he is different; he does not understand well…’. – ‘Give communion to the children,’ the Pope said, and from a difference he made equality, because he knew that children understand in a different way.”
Pope Francis seemed happy in the church of Rakovsky, which was flooded with sunlight and, at the end of Mass, also by a cascade of white and yellow rose petals.
That joy was seen in the off-the-cuff remarks he made when engaging with the children, to explain to each of them about how we truly identify ourselves: “God is our Father. Jesus is our Brother. The Church is our family. We are brothers. Our law is love”.
And our “surname”, he said, is “Christians”.