St James Cathedral - Seattle, WA

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Forgetting About the Eucharist at First Communion

Happy Easter!  The Easter season is easily referred to as "the Sacramental Season" because of the large number of sacraments that are received during these 50 days.  During the 2012 Easter Vigil celebrations alone, there were 120,000 people received into the Church in the United States, some 43,000 of those were baptized.  In the weeks after, bishops are busy traveling to various parishes for confirmations.  Deacons and priests are often ordained during this season.  There will also be countless 2nd or 3rd graders making their First Communion, and this is where I have to make a confession.

I have a really hard time with First Communion Masses.  Don't get me wrong- I love the Eucharist.  I love going to Mass.  I look forward to my own children making their First Communion, and witnessing the First Communion of many nieces/nephews in the family.  So what's the problem?  It's all the pageantry, distraction, and everything else that goes along with a First Communion Mass that probably shouldn't. 

A couple years ago, I attended a First Communion Mass of my wife's nephew.  Of course, I'm in my usual area, walking back and forth along the rear aisle of the church while carrying my son.  It was a little harder since the church was packed; a lot of people standing in the back.  Many of them like me, a visitor from another parish.  Others are not Catholic, or perhaps haven't been to church in a while.  Then I see it during communion: behind the last pew, a First Communicant is posing as her father takes several pictures.  She's still chewing; she hasn't even swallowed the host after making her First Communion!  The family are alternating who's in the picture and who's taking it.  Meanwhile one of the greatest things to ever happen to this girl has occurred, and they are caught up with getting a picture of her in her pretty dress.  And of course, the Mass is still going on around them.

Girls wearing pretty white dresses, boys looking dapper in their suits- their parents have obviously taken a lot time, effort, and money for their child to look just right.  (BTW: If the First Communion outfit costs more than a chalice, then you've spent too much.)  Looking their best for such a momentous occasion is important, but has the dress or the suit become the highest priority?  Maybe it's not just the clothing; is it the pictures?  Maybe it's the party planned afterwards?  All this commotion seems to have become more important than the actual reception of the Eucharist, and therefore has taken the reverence and meaning away from the real reason why everyone is gathered around the altar in the first place.  

When we take the Eucharist out of First Communion, we lose sight of what really matters.  First Communion becomes reduced to only a milestone in a child's growth, like a kindergarten graduation.  Then for us adults, receiving Communion becomes just something we do. For many others, it's even worse- something they don't do since they aren't attending church regularly. (Some statistics show regular church attendance as low as 20% in some areas.) If the child is from a family that doesn't attend Mass regularly, then his/her First Communion might be more accurately referred to as "First/Last Communion" or "Only Communion," since we don't know when we'll see them in church again.

[I realize that to some I'm coming across as an insensitive, incense-breathing papist.  Please know that I'm not writing about this just to complain; this really seems to be a big disparity in my opinion.]

Many places continuously try to address this problem with different ways.  At my parish, announcements are made prior the Mass, asking that there be no photography during the liturgy (except for the parish's photographer).  They also ask everyone to maintain a sense of reverence in the church, so as to set an example in front of the 2nd graders.  Before the big day, there are often preparatory classes or retreats for the communicants and their parents so that the meaning of First Eucharist can be emphasized as more than a reason to have a party or dress up for church.

Teaching and instruction are essential, but it can't stop there.  I think a big part would be how we regularly attending Catholics approach the Eucharist.  Sometimes we treat it as too common or ordinary. We can easily take it for granted (the link refers to a previous blog post on this topic). However, if we approach the Eucharist as it really is, an encounter with Jesus Christ, then it will never become common or ordinary.  The reality is that each and every participation in the Eucharist brings us immeasurable grace; and seeing this realization is blocked by our own humanness, unbelief, and our ability to sin.

If we really believe that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of our Lord, then every time we receive Communion will be as special to us as the first, and we would never want it to be our last.  If that's the case, then maybe every week all of us should be getting dressed up, taking pictures, and throwing a party; not because it's something we do or even a milestone, but because we want to celebrate how much God loves us and how we get to encounter Him through the Eucharist. 

On a similar note, here's some neat Catholic cocktail party talk:

With his decree Quam Singulari, it was Pope St Pius X (papacy 1903-1914) that changed the age of discretion to 7 years old, thus moving First Communion to 2nd or 3rd grade.  He did so to encouraged frequent (and even daily) reception of communion.  Prior to then, it was not common for Catholic laity to receive communion every time they attended Mass. First Communion was not until age 12 or 13 for Latin rite Catholics.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Who Covered Up All The Statues?

I've been asked this question a lot lately since more places started doing this before Holy Week.  To answer the question directly- I have no idea who.  I think the question people really want to know is- Why are the statues covered? If you're not sure what I'm talking about, it is probably the custom of your parish or worship site to do this only on Good Friday (which has been the liturgical norm until now).  This is probably one of those things that we do every year, but a lot of people may not know why.

The requirement in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) is that on Good Friday, the altar is to be bare, without cloth, candles or cross.  The cross that is normally visible is covered, so that more focus and emphasis is given on the cross that is used during the Good Friday liturgy.  Images of saints such as statues or icons are also covered since these are rather celebratory and signs of the Resurrection.  You'll also notice that candles (which remind us of Christ being the light of the world) are used minimally- only for the Blessed Sacrament and the cross that is used for the Good Friday liturgy.  All this is done as a stark and sobering reminder that our Lord suffered and died on this day.

In a lot of places, the custom of veiling or covering of statues and icons is done before Good Friday.  Some of this is liturgical innovation that has become more widely accepted, and some of it is following an older tradition.  Before the liturgical revision in 1970, it was the norm to cover crosses and images during the Passiontide, the last two weeks of Lent.  They were then uncovered at the Easter Vigil when the Gloria is sung.  When the liturgy was revised after Vatican II, this custom of covering crosses and images during the last two weeks of Lent was left up to the conference of bishops in each country, and the US bishops did not elect to include it.

The new 3rd Edition of the Roman Missal (RM III), now permits the covering of crosses and statues beginning on the 5th Sunday of Lent:
In the Dioceses of the United States, the practice of covering crosses and images throughout the church from this Sunday may be observed. Crosses remain covered until the end of the celebration of the Lord's Passion on Good Friday, but images remain covered until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.
This is why more places started doing it this year.  Personally, I'm not sure about covering the cross before Good Friday, but during the last two weeks of Lent there is some value to fasting from the externals (such as the images of saints) so that our focus is directed more to the essentials- the altar and the cross.

Minneapolis-St Paul's Fr Paul Hartmann gives a good analogy for this, comparing the covered images to presents that are gift wrapped.  We know they are there.  We may know what's in package, but they are covered or wrapped in anticipation of the occasion we're about to celebrate.  In this case, the celebration is Easter, and the imagery of saints and other representations of heaven can be considered small gifts from our Lord on the occasion of His resurrection.

On a funny note, when somebody asks me why the statues are covered, I like to joke and say, "Because it's easier than removing them."   Then I watch for the perplexed look on the individual's face.  They actually do remove them in some places, but this is not done often since statues can be pretty heavy!

May you have a blessed Holy Week, and a joyous Easter. 

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