The Pastoral Opportunities of First Communion
Explaining the importance of the Eucharist starts at home
The gray, slick cover of this small book brings back memories of an event that radically changed me. A golden crucifix, embedded inside the cover, indicates that it is my first Communion book, given by my grandmother.
This icon of the past has special meaning, for this same first Communion class recently celebrated our 70th grade-school graduation. We got together for Mass and a party afterward to recall the early years that embedded into our psyches a deep commitment to the Eucharist.
We firmly believe that the Eucharist is the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross — his body and blood, soul and divinity. We first believed it as children. Through the years, this belief sustained us in our joys and sorrows. The Eucharist is at the center of our lives. When we made our first Communion, nearly all parents of my classmates were active Catholics. They went to Mass weekly and received Communion.
Today a major shift has occurred in parental attitudes toward weekly Mass and other elements of the Catholic lifestyle — frequent attendance at Mass, Friday abstinence, Lenten fasting, prayers, statues and crucifixes in the home, and Marian devotions. It is obvious that the Catholic home climate is not the same as when I was a child.
Since Catholic families have changed, and the secular world challenges their Catholic life, parishes need a new approach to faith formation. The Catholic climate of the home cannot be presumed. Hence, parishes are wise to focus on each family’s faith journey. In sacramental preparation, parishes can help parents intentionally reflect on steps along their way.
Pastoral opportunities of first holy Communion center on this journey of faith rather than on specific activities, prayers and rituals for first Communion. While the latter are important, it is vital that parishes motivate Catholic parents to participate actively in the parish’s life and to work toward establishing a Catholic home environment that sets the foundation for lifelong faith. This goes beyond suggesting how to celebrate a beautiful first Communion day.
This article addresses Catholic parents, but it recognizes the need to adjust for mixed marriages or when parents are not active Catholics. Regardless, pastors are encouraged to strive for the ideal and ask God for guidance. They can invite parents to make first Communion an opportunity to delve more deeply into their own faith and to reflect on how to enhance their children’s faith, so that children’s first Communion is a spiritual step on their faith journey.
Setting the Foundation
First Communion is not an isolated event in a child’s life. It is a step along a journey, the significance of which rests on how a parish nourishes the faith of parents and children. In other words, first Communion preparation is grounded in how a parish addresses faith formation in marriage preparation, at a child’s baptism and in the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Confirmation. Such preparation relates to what already has taken place. Sometimes this is not very much.
Theoretically, first Communion culminates the rites of Christian initiation, which began with baptism. As a rite of passage, it celebrates the transition from being a child of God in baptism to beginning a Eucharistic journey with Jesus as a member of the Christian community. This celebration can be viewed in the light of an ancient Chinese ritual called “Passing Through the Gate.”
In this celebration, some weeks after a child is born, the family and community gather before a large bamboo gate, constructed by family members for this rite. Passing through it in union with the family and assembled community symbolizes the completion of the birth process. Before this happens, the child is not a full member of the community. When parents, relatives and friends carry the child through the bamboo gate in procession, the child’s initiation into the community is complete. In so doing, the child becomes a full member, thus completing the cycle.
In the Eucharist, baptized persons receive the body and blood of their Savior. It is their gate to eternity. In so doing, they metaphorically pass through the gate of the Eucharist. If already confirmed, they complete their incorporation into the Body of Christ.
Let us now review key steps along the road to first Communion. These begin with a couple’s marriage.
First Communion preparation is an ongoing process that first takes root when a Christian couple gets ready for marriage in the Catholic Church. Setting the stage for a Catholic home climate begins here. For pastors, this means focusing marriage preparation on helping a couple see the value of intentionally setting priorities to enhance their family’s faith. This is vital today, considering the pressures on family life.
Such priorities might include getting comfortable praying together, attending Mass each Sunday and learning how to create a religious home climate. It also includes a concern for the poor, Christian responsibility for those in Third World countries and social justice.
The second step on this faith journey takes place when parents have their children baptized, thus beginning the child’s initiation into the Catholic faith. Once again, parents need to be reminded of the importance of keeping faith as a central priority in their lives and the lives of their newly baptized children. Subsequently, they will receive the Sacraments of Reconciliation, Eucharist and Confirmation, whose order of reception varies from place to place.
Proximate preparation for first Communion starts when children receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and prepare to receive the Eucharist for the first time. The vibrancy of a Catholic climate in the home and parish is the foundation for what first Communicants internalize on their special day.
First Communion Faith Journey
First Communion never can be merely an assembly line of innocent little boys and girls with hands folded, dressed in white and blue, who are camera-ready for one day in their lives; rather, it is the culmination of a slow accompaniment of children and families along their path toward God, long before first Communion day arrives.
This preparation process challenges a parish to recognize that more is required pastorally than preparing for a nice celebration of four separate events: marriage, baptism, reconciliation and first Communion. This “more” requires a pastor and staff to consider where the parents are on their faith journey, the attitude they have toward their children’s faith, and how to encourage parents to be more intentional about their journey of faith. This is a difficult task with no single road map to follow, for each pastoral situation is different. Such accompaniment requires patience, wisdom and the sensibility to recognize that every child and family are on different paths to God. The path each one takes needs to be respected and supported. This is illustrated by the following episode.
An orphaned, intellectually challenged child named Joshua attended Mass regularly with an older adult woman and three children. He was about 10 years old and never went to Communion. Presumably, he was not Catholic, yet he wanted to receive the Eucharist. I wondered how much he knew. One Sunday I talked with him and his adopted mother. During our conversation Joshua said, “I know about Jesus.” His adopted mother and I were surprised when he said, “Grandma told me I was baptized, and she taught me about Jesus and his people.”
Then he spoke about the Trinity, Jesus and the Church in a simple way. Joshua already had received instruction from a grandparent in her home. The Catholic climate that she established for him before she died and what she taught him set the stage for his first Communion. In due time, he received it after we talked and got his baptismal record. His story reminds us of Pope Francis’ injunction to reach out to the borders — to accompany people where they are in faith (cf. Mt. 25:40).
Parents need to make the Mass an essential part of their week. This means that a parish needs to develop a positive attitude toward active Church participation. What does this imply in practical terms? Let’s begin with the parish and then turn to the family.
Catholic Climate in the Parish
A vibrant parish centers around the Eucharist and the other sacraments, but it also includes solid catechesis on all levels and a sense of welcome for whomever comes to the parish. It also demands flexibility, knowing that every child and family is at a different faith level.
The pastor strongly influences the climate of a parish. He is the leader of the parish community and sets the tone for what happens there.
To develop a positive parish climate, the pastor must strive to be a spiritual man and let his parishioners see him praying and acting charitably and justly outside of Mass. This includes welcoming everyone who comes into church, regardless of their age, socioeconomic condition or ethnic background. It means being kind and charitable to the poor and downtrodden. When the pastor focuses on the Catholic climate of the parish, this attitude will permeate the parish staff, school and organizations within the parish.
The pastor can’t do this alone; he needs the staff and parishioners to help him. He can develop an attitude that speaks with conviction about the importance of establishing a Catholic home climate.
Catholic Climate in the Family
A vibrant, faith-filled climate of the home is the most powerful influence on a child’s spiritual growth. This climate places God at the center of family activities. In such a home, family members acknowledge God through prayer, religious symbols such as a crucifix and statue of Mary, and regular church attendance. It also encourages a lifestyle that reflects Jesus’ care for the poor and downtrodden as an aspect of family life. Such an environment enhances a family’s spiritual growth and influences parents and children.
When a climate like this exists, the values it reflects set the stage for a child’s first Communion. Jesus already exists in this home. When time comes to receive him for the first time, children can better appreciate that Jesus will soon come into their hearts through the Eucharist. In a special way, they understand that they are children of Mary, like Jesus. A Christian home sets the tone for a better appreciation of Christian values and a better understanding of right and wrong.
From a pastoral viewpoint, the pastor’s task is to encourage parents in sermons and teaching to acknowledge their responsibility to prepare their children for life by directing their early faith formation through seeing the value of the Eucharist.
Today’s Catholic textbooks, first Communion manuals and internet materials provide parents and teachers with first-class resources, including suggestions for holy Communion preparation. They enhance greatly how to get the children ready to receive Jesus for the first time.
The usual process of preparing for first Communion includes gathering the children’s parents to explain their parental role as their children prepare. Because many adults have a rudimentary knowledge of their faith and are inactive churchgoers, pastors are encouraged to have several sessions with the parents. These explain what is happening and stress parental responsibilities at this important transition in their child’s life.
These parental meetings before children receive first Communion are excellent entrance points for the pastor or a parish religious leader to inspire and motivate parents to look deeper at their own faith and the faith formation of their children. At this time, they can appreciate more fully that children’s first Communion is not a one-time event, but the beginning of a lifelong deepening of a child’s relationship with Jesus. How this happens largely depends on how much parents and family contribute.
Seasoned catechists stress that many parents today have little idea of the importance of reflective prayer. They recommend that preparatory sessions for a child’s first Communion model what such prayers can mean for parents. To do this, some catechists prepare a prayer space in the children’s classroom and conduct a reflective session for parents with music, songs and a simple Taizé prayer. This provides a model for what parents can do in their homes. Through reflective prayer, they can better comprehend the meaning of their child’s first Communion.
Parents are encouraged to intentionally make first Communion a highlight of the children’s year, to do everything possible to learn more about the faith themselves, to prepare their children spiritually and emotionally, and to teach them the basics of the Faith in age-appropriate language. The family and parish climate significantly affect how children internalize the instruction they receive on the vital aspect of their journey of faith.
When Jesus’ disciples realized children were on the outskirts of the crowd that followed him, Jesus invited them to come to him, thereby placing them in the heart of his community. Today we remember that children are the future of the Church, and first Communion is a vital step on their journey. May parents, pastors and catechists accept enthusiastically their privileged responsibility to help children under their care to come to Jesus and enter the heart of the parish community!
There is no more appropriate time to remember Jesus’ words “Let the little children come to me” (Mt 19:14) than at first Communion.
FATHER ROBERT J. HATER, Ph.D., a Cincinnati archdiocesan priest, is an internationally known author and lecturer. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Dayton and resides at St. Clare Parish in Cincinnati.
‘THE LIGHT OF SUNDAY FOR ALL OUR FAMILY’
In October 2005, Pope Benedict XVI met with children who recently had received their first Communion. One child, Giulia, asked the pope to explain to their parents why it was so important to go to Mass every week. The following is her question and Pope Benedict’s answer.
Giulia: Your Holiness, everyone tells us that it is important to go to Mass on Sunday. We would gladly go to it, but often our parents do not take us because on Sundays they sleep. … Could you say something to them, to make them understand that it is important to go to Mass together on Sundays?
Pope Benedict: With a daughter’s respect and love, you could say to them: “Dear Mommy, dear Daddy, it is so important for us all, even for you, to meet Jesus. This encounter enriches us. It is an important element in our lives. Let’s find a little time together, we can find an opportunity.” … In brief, I would say, with great love and respect for your parents, I would tell them: “Please understand that this is not only important for me, it is not only catechists who say it, it is important for us all. And it will be the light of Sunday for all our family.”