We turned into Sainte Mère Église amid a Sunday morning. Aside from an open patisserie and boulangerie, there appeared to be little stirring. The church wasn’t hard to spot. In a small French town, it is inevitably on the main square.

Our Lady of the Assumption dates to the 11th century and has a special place in D-Day lore. The town was the first retaken on June 6, 1944, by the 82nd and 101st Airborne corps. Pvt. John Steele’s parachute hooked on the church steeple during the descent when his C-47 pilot ordered his unit to jump short of the drop zone. Suspended, Steele wasn’t much help in battle, but he later became an iconic image in a war movie scene and is still there hanging there – in mannequin form. He’s been providing a boost to the local tourist trade for decades.

Church attendance has plunged in France, but the pews were surprisingly packed that morning. Then the opening hymn started. We turned back with the congregation toward the entrance. A line of children, boys in white dress shirts, girls in whiter dresses each carrying a red rose came shyly down the aisle. We had stumbled into first Communion day, and it was utterly delightful to see the beaming smiles on the faces of kids, parents, and grandparents alike.

Fortunately, I still have pictures of my own first Communion in which I’m wearing my white shirt and powder blue clip-on tie, head bowed slightly, looking at the open pages of a black prayer book with rosary beads strung across the middle. I wonder occasionally what the church and world would look like if we all strove to be as we were then, Jesus’ children, wiser than we have grown since.

We were at the beginning of a D-Day tour that drew us down the Normandy coastline toward the American cemetery. It was an utterly brilliant June day, in the low 70s, not a wisp in the skies, so unlike the cloudy, churning morning of the landing 76 years ago. Standing among the graves, I gazed down onto the beach, scattered with people of all ages. It was fleetingly disconcerting watching kids playing noisily in the sand below oblivious to the young men permanently interred under exquisitely manicured lawns marked by scores of crosses and Stars of David.

Then I realized that’s precisely why so many, some barely beyond adolescence, splashed so bravely through the same surf decades before, advancing toward pillbox nests now crumbling into the cliffsides — so boys and girls could prance upon pristine beaches cleared of barricades and mines.

That was in 2002. By now many, maybe most, of the grand-mères and grand-pères who would have been in the congregation at Our Lady’s church for that first Communion day have left us. Few of them would have met those camouflage and khaki-clothed young men who plunged into their town square and swam onto those sands in 1944, but now we pray that they have all been assumed into one great communion of saints feasting on the verdant lawns of a Kingdom greater than any we can imagine.

The blood sunk into the sands and hedgerows on D-Day and the months that followed had a purpose — that every kid carrying a flower into church would have the chance to grow up and lie under bouquets only after becoming grandparents themselves. The beaches upon which our children play will never be quite the Kingdom we seek, but standing there that day on a field of the fallen provided a glimpse of what it might be.

Jesus redeemed the world, but we are still working on redeeming ourselves. It helps to remind ourselves that the body and blood of Christ, so purposefully sacrificed, inevitably unites us across lands and languages. A couple of weeks ago we remembered the sacrifices of the dead on Memorial Day. As we approach the feast of Corpus Christi, we might also recall our own first Communion days when we loved Jesus so innocently and trusted that we would always live in a place where churches were crowded, children romped freely, and crosses are sunk sparingly into ever green fields.

Fr. King, a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, is an instructor of theology at the University of Portland.