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.


  1. I've been bothered by this ever since my own First Communion. I was only in the second grade, but I noticed they were spending an inordinate amount of time and effort teaching us to walk in straight lines and enter the correct pews. There wasn't much emphasis on what the Eucharist truly was.

  2. I thought one of the saddest things I have heard of was told to me by one of our nuns. She said one parent just dropped their kid off, all dressed up, and told her that she would see her later when she came back to pick her up. The mother was not even going to stay for the ceremony. How awful.

  3. Again I agree with you 100%.........

    I am glad though that when my grandchildren had their First Holy Communion celebration 2 years ago there was no picture taking until after the mass.

    The one thing that really bothered me was seeing that they were taught to receive our Lord in the hand. I know that it shouldn't have surprised me, but that was the first Holy Communion celebration I've been to in about 30 or more years, and I thought that the church at least made it a point to have First Communicants receive it on the tongue.

    The kids were waiting in the back of the church for about 30 min before mass began, and I decided to try and teach them to receive our Lord on their tongue, but some of them kept saying that they were taught to receive Him in their hand. The teacher came by and heard me saying that, and made quiet gestures that this is what they were taught and that I shouldn't just leave it at that.

    Afterwards I talked to the pastor about it, and he felt bad that he didn't know that this was what they were taught, and said that he will definitely change it for the next year......thank God for that !.......unfortunately 2 yrs later he was moved to another parish.

    My 3rd grandchild will be making his first communion next year at the same parish, and I'm curious what they're going to teach him. I think that I'm going to talk to the pastor about it at the beginning of the school year.


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