first communion memories

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Yesterday our parish celebrated the First Communion of nine young children in our parish. The boys processed into the church dressed in white shirts and ties. The girls were in white dresses, some in veils. Memories of First Communion Sundays past flooded my mind.

I remember my own First Communion, and the thrill of wearing my white dress and veil; both lovingly hand-made by my Mama. Our class had spent weeks preparing and rehearsing for the big day. This was in the days of the communion rail, kneeling, holding the paten below our tilted head, and sticking our tongues out to receive the Eucharist. Everything had to be done just right.

When the moment came, I went up to the communion rail with my Mama and knelt to say my prayers. Sr. John came swooping up in a panic. I forgot to take off my white gloves! She quickly pulled them off my hands while the priest was at the other end of the railing. The moment was ruined. I still have the memories of shame. I had screwed up. Or, the obsessive rules screwed me up. Sigh.

When my own children attended our parish Sunday school, I taught the First Communion class for several years. I still have much admiration for those who take on this special year. I had to prepare parents as well as children. How I hated being the go-between the priest and parents when requirements weren’t met. Too often, the children were innocent by-standers in the power plays. Sacramental moments became battle grounds.

But, I loved teaching the children the gift that the Eucharist is to us; a concrete gift of God’s love and presence. The moment of their First Communion was always an emotional one. But, so was their second, third and fourth. It was wonderful to see the young ones join the rest of the community in receiving the sacrament each Sunday after.

When our youngest was old enough for her First Communion, we were estranged from our parish. What to do? Thankfully, we were part of a wonderful faith community of friends and family. They helped us celebrate the big day with our dear friends at the Benedictine Monastery. Our daughter was surrounded by joy, love, and great music. One of our musician friends even wrote a special song for the occasion, ‘Simple Meal’.

The Eucharist is truly a sacrament of initiation, welcoming us to partake of sacred mysteries wrapped in the ordinariness of bread and wine. It is food for our journey, and a sign of our unity. It is a gift that we too often take for granted. First Communion celebrations remind us to stop and ponder how special is the gift.

What are your First Communion memories?

carrot before the horse – sacramental preparation

In yesterday`s blog post, I expressed my belief in an inclusive approach to catechetical programs. All children should be welcomed with open arms. Obsessively policing Mass attendance or judging the lifestyle or faithfulness of a family should not be the criteria for admittance into a parish catechetical program.  My favourite gospel scenes are those where Jesus puts the Pharisees in their place, and chows down with the sinners!

But, this open and inclusive approach is challenged in the sacramental preparation years; First Communion, Reconciliation and Confirmation. I struggled with this in my years as a First Communion catechist. I hated the “carrot before the horse” mentality of sacramental preparation. A long list of requirements was given to parents at the beginning of the year. If these requirements were not met, then the child would be refused the sacraments. I was stuck in the middle of many power struggles between priest and parents.

There is one case that remains burned in my memory. A mother had refused to take the child to Sunday mass all year, and was locked in a battle of wills with the pastor. She had been told that her son could not receive the Eucharist at this time, but she defiantly dropped him off for our last class before First Communion Sunday. Her son was a wonderful, sweet boy and a good student. He knew nothing of the battle going on behind his back. I had to hide my fury and pretend all was well, while building up the excitement for the rest of the class.

The pastor was the kind that was always ready for a fight, but his stance was not unique. Friends from other parts of the world have described priests who demand to see a bulletin from a visiting parish if you do not show up in your home church on a Sunday morning! A subsequent pastor in our parish had the Catechetical Director handing out attendance tickets at the end of mass to all the students. These were to be handed to their Catechism teacher at the next class. What a sad state of affairs. What an inhospitable welcome into our worshipping community.

Catechist’s have a difficult job already. Policing a child`s church attendance shouldn`t be part of their job description. It especially embarrasses the younger children who depend on their parents to get them to church. They shouldn`t have to squirm in their seats, mumbling out some excuse or another in front of teacher and class-mates.

On the other hand, many parents do not understand the connection between catechism classes and attending mass. We must seek better ways to encourage participation in our Sunday liturgies. Threats seldom work. With the First Communion parents I tried to explain it in this way…would you send your child for swimming lessons without ever letting them set foot in a swimming pool? How can we teach them about the Eucharist if they never attend mass?

When a parent has their child baptized, they promise to raise them in the faith. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a church community to form them in the faith. But the primary responsibility lies in the domestic church of the family. Parents are number one! Not the pastor, and not the catechist. The parish catechetical program cannot be a magic dispenser of faith. God can work miracles, but God works best with our cooperation and collaboration!