It was April, and Emilia Wojtyłowa was feeling worse and worse. Her son Karol’s First Communion was only a month away and she couldn’t even get out of bed. There was no cure for her severe myocarditis. She died on April 13, 1929, and her departure plunged her husband and two sons into profound grief.
Karol Wojtyla’s First Communion
In 1929, there were two primary schools in Wadowice: one for girls and one for boys. Both were located on the market square, in municipal buildings. In both schools, the children were prepared for First Communion at the same time. The ceremony was scheduled for May 25.
Karol was then a seventh grade student at the boys’ secondary school, which was named after Marcin Wadowita, a famous Polish priest, theologian, and academic. Karol had been studying there since 1926. He was preparing to make his First Holy Communion at the parish of Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
All the families wanted their children to be well-dressed for the occasion, and that included getting new shoes. However, the group of children was so large that there were no shoes left in the stores in little Wadowice. Mrs. Zofia Pukłowa, leader of the women’s scout troop and mother of one of the girls, Danusia (a friend of Karol’s), asked a local merchant who traveled to larger cities for goods to look for suitable footwear. He agreed, and at the last moment brought from Bielsko some elegant white shoes with bows.
So in the Communion photo, 9-year-old Karol is seen wearing white shoes with a strap, bow and heel. His friends in the photos are wearing the same.
Zofia Pukłowa also took Karol to the local photographer’s store, and that’s when the photo was taken. It has been reproduced many times over the years.
Karol, young and slender, stands on the right side of the vertical frame dressed in a white shirt with a large sailor collar, shorts just below the knees, stockings, and buckled shoes—all white.
He inherited the clothes from his older brother, Edmund. This was the result not only of the modest budget of the newly widowed father Karol Wojtyła, but also of the custom of that time.
There was something sacred about communion clothes; they were not worn after the ceremony or adapted to other uses. They were passed on from one child to another, and in between they were kept in drawers protected with mothballs. They were a memento of an exceptional encounter.
Karol holds a candle decorated with myrtle in his right hand. His hair is very short and his eyes are focused. Next to the child, on a table covered with a fringed tablecloth and under a bouquet of lilacs, is an image of Jesus.
Today, this memento of receiving the sacrament 93 years ago belongs to the collection of the Archives of the Museum of the Family House of the Holy Father John Paul II in Wadowice. The picture hung on the wall of his parents’ bedroom above the bed. The picture was given to the museum by the pope himself. Before handing it over, he kissed it and said that it should be hanging where it belonged: on the wall of his family home.
Dear children, the Lord Jesus loves you!
During his pontificate, John Paul met on various occasions with First Communion children. At that time he spoke of the importance of those first moments of the visit of the living Jesus, but he also assigned them tasks, and encouraged them to persevere and have frequent encounters with the Lord in Holy Communion. On June 7, 1997, while visiting Poland, he told children who had just received First Communion:
Dear children! The Pope comes to you today to tell you in the name of the Lord Jesus that He loves you. Certainly the priests and sisters who have taught you have spoken about this many times. But I want to say it once more so that you will remember this happy news all your lives. Jesus loves you!
A little while ago you experienced this in a special way — when Jesus came for the first time into your hearts. You received him under the appearance of bread in First Holy Communion. (…)
For a person who loves is ready to give to the person he loves all the most precious things he has. In this world, the Lord Jesus did not have many things to offer to the Apostles. But he gave them something more — he gave them himself. From then on, when they received this most holy Food, they could always be with Jesus. He himself lived in their hearts and filled them with holiness. This is what it means that Jesus has come into your hearts. He is in you, his love fills you and makes you become always more like him, always more holy.
An unforgettable encounter
He also often recalled the day of May 25, 1929, when he himself came before Jesus in the Eucharist for the first time. In his letter to children at Christmas of 1994, he wrote:
Dear friends, there is no doubt that an unforgettable meeting with Jesus is First Holy Communion, a day to be remembered as one of life’s most beautiful. (…)
I remember as though it were yesterday when, together with the other boys and girls of my own age, I received the Eucharist for the first time in the parish church of my town. This event is usually commemorated in a family photo, so that it will not be forgotten. Photos like these generally remain with a person all through his or her life. As time goes by, people take out these pictures and experience once more the emotions of those moments; they return to the purity and joy experienced in that meeting with Jesus, the One who out of love became the Redeemer of man.
Books consulted by the authorfor this article:
D. Gruszczyńska, “W Wadowicach wszystko się zaczęło…”
John Paul II, “Autobiography.”
John Paul II, “For the Children: Words of Love and Inspiration from His Holiness Pope John Paul II”
John Paul II, “Gift and Mystery”