For 60 children from the Marian parish in Atok, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was the day of their First Holy Communion; for more than 40 of them, it was also the day of their Baptism. The children, prepared by catechists in their native villages, were admitted to the Sacraments after an examination by the parish pastor. They arrived in Atok on Thursday before Saturday’s solemnity to take part in the retreat. For two days, they prayed, participated in catechesis, and picked up necessary instructions. Those who were already baptized also went to Confession. There was time for playing and shelling beans from the mission’s field. Catechists and animators, Marian seminarians staying in Atok for pastoral practice, the cook, and the older girls who serve children meals all took part in working with the children.
The young catechumens impressed all observers with their discipline and sense of the sacred. The children were very attentive during the long church services, carefully participating in the celebration. The usually joyful and exuberant singing that accompanies every step of the celebrations became calm, melodic, and subdued during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Although the level of their faith is ultimately a mystery between them and God, it was obvious that the reception of the Sacraments was a deep experience for them.
All elements of the Saturday liturgy presided over by the parish pastor, Fr. Francis Filipiec, MIC, were celebrated slowly and solemnly. During the Litany of the Saints, the patrons of each of the 60 kneeling children were invoked. The priest blessed the baptismal water in a metal bowl held by two catechumens, and the rite of baptism took place. Then each child went back to the priest, who dressed him/her in a white robe and presented the newly baptized child of God to the Church. Putting robes over the girls’ heads required a lot of attention, and sometimes a woman’s help, to avoid destroying the elaborate African hairstyles. This was followed by the ceremony of light. Although the children held in their hands only simple candles made from animal fat, they shone just as brightly as the ornate candles held by children in Poland. The children remained extremely solemn, even though the Divine Mercy choir put such a great effort into bringing life to the ceremony that our feet twitched to dance. After receiving Holy Communion, some of the kneeling children hid their faces in their hands. The fact that the liturgy lasts four hours does not surprise nor tire out anyone. Beautiful celebrations are definitely the strong suit of the African Church.
During the Sunday liturgy — a shorter one; it lasted only three hours — the Baptisms of eight infants and very young children were performed, as well as the blessing by the eldest member of the princely family who wants to be a Catholic and began his preparations for baptism. With cheers and waving branches, he is solemnly escorted back home after the Mass. The surrounding crowd sang an improvised song in Maka, the local language, that translates into English as: “Dad Gilbert, God has called you to entrust you with a mission. Do not refuse. Go and preach the message.”
When the religious celebrations come to an end, the First Communicants proudly display the rosaries received on Saturday, wearing them around their necks. The focus slowly moves to the soccer field — one of the main passions of the local youth — where the match will take place. The mission is slowly vacated, though there will always be someone there who seeks advice or support, or a small group of children wanting to play in a clean, friendly environment.