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Starting Point

What is that bread?


My visits to Brazil are to matar saudade, that unique Brazilian expression that translates literally “to kill nostalgia/loneliness/homesickness.” The expression has a haunting quality that is much more Brazilian than Portuguese.

On my last visit in the capital city of Brasilia, I stayed in the home of dear friends, Idê and Edson Bittar-Barra, who are parishioners of the Curé d’Ars, where I had been pastor for four years. My hosts and I spoke of Brazil, Brasilia, church and mutual friends. Always, at one time or another, we will speak of Edinho, their only son, who died while I was their pastor. He is a bond between us.

The couple informed me that they wanted to publish something about their experience dealing with the sickness, treatment and death of their young son. Did I have any remembrance of him that I could write about? Indeed I did. I have never forgotten the child.

It was Brasilia, 1968, in the apartment of Idê and Edson. “Padre,” Idê asked, “could we have a few moments to talk privately?”

I don’t recall the occasion of the party. I was with a small group in the living room, talking and enjoying a glass of wine when Idê joined us. When a lull developed in our conversation, she asked to speak to me alone.

“Padre, I want to talk to you about Edinho.”

I felt immediate apprehension. Her 2-year-old son was under treatment for terminal illness. A beautiful, bright little fellow, his treatments caused him to gain weight, which gave his small body a deceptive appearance of health.

“My husband and I have arranged for a Mass for our son on his birthday, May 25. We hope you will be celebrating the Mass and will join us for the party afterwards. His grandfather, uncles, aunts, cousins and family from both sides will be with us.”

I was relieved; I had feared bad news. She continued, “We have a favor to ask of you as our pastor. We would like our son to make his first Communion on his birthday.”

“Idê,” I stammered, “he is only going to be 3 years old! How much can he understand? Don’t you think he is too young?” Evidently, I did.

“Padre,” she said solemnly, “you know how sick our son is. This is very important to his father and me. Edinho should have the opportunity for first Communion. And you know how bright he is -- much beyond his years.”

I am sure I explained that there was a minimum age to receive first Communion, and although the idea was beautiful, it just did not seem possible. Then someone joined us, or Idê was called away to her guests. Our conversation ended. I felt I had made my point. Edinho was too young.

The months passed quickly, and the day of Edinho’s birthday arrived. Our small church building was filled with family and friends of the Bittar-Barra family. Idê, Edson, Edinho and his sister, Ana Paula, were seated in the first pew.

I went to the sacristy to vest. Idê followed me with Edinho in her arms. “Padre, are you ready?” she asked.

I hesitated. “Ready? Well, yes.”

“I mean are you ready to give my son his first Communion?”

“Idê,” I said with some frustration, “we talked about this. I thought you understood that he was too young.”

“Padre, please! His father and I are expecting this, his grandfather is here, so many of the family. All await my son’s first Communion.”

Edinho, dressed warmly in a brightly colored knitted poncho for the cool May morning in Brasilia, wore a puzzled expression as we spoke. I looked at this beautiful child, hesitated, then said, “Let me talk to Edinho.”

Idê gave the little fellow over to me. I carried him to the vesting table and stood him up so that he was eye level with me. I began by congratulating him on his birthday, saying how wonderful that his parents and family could be present and how happy everyone was for him. He smiled broadly.

“Edinho,” I said, “in the Mass after we all pray and the priest holds up the round piece of bread and the cup and the bells are rung, the people then line up and come to the priest and he puts the small white pieces of bread into their mouths. They all have their hands joined and they return to their seats and pray … ”

As I spoke the child’s expression turned serious, his eyes narrowed, and he concentrated to understand what I was saying, what I wanted from him.

“Edinho, the small white bread that the priest puts into the mouths of the people -- do you know what this is?”

With a solemnity and intensity that only a 3-year-old can bestow, he said, “Yes, Padre!”

“What is that bread, Edinho?”

“Jesus, Padre! Jesus!”

I was awed by the simplicity, directness and seriousness of this terminally ill child who responded so directly to a profound mystery of faith. I embraced him and said, “Yes, Edinho, it is Jesus.”

Edinho came to the altar in the arms of his father. I broke the host in two and gave half to each. Three-year-old Edinho made his first Communion.

Less than four months later, I was at the grave when they lowered the body of Edinho in the ground. I have never forgotten the blessing of Edinho’s first Communion.

Yes, Edinho, it is Jesus.

Pray for us, Edinho.

Fr. William F. Eckert is associate pastor at St. Mark’s Parish in Pittsfield, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, May 25, 2001