First Communion: Questions from an Eastern Christian

My daughter attend a Catholic elementary school. In the coming weeks, there will be many festivities surrounding First Communion. Her second grade class has been preparing for First Communion for several months, and there are special sessions, prayers, banners, and parties to go along with the actual Rite of Communion. We have explained to some teachers and parents that our daughter received Communion the day after she was baptized, and that Orthodox children are regular communicants from the very beginning of their inauguration into the Communion of the Holy Spirit and the Communion of Saints.

Elsewhere, I have written about this issue from the perspective of the Church responding to God’s invitation to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit over and over again, as everyone in the Church labors to become Christ-bearers for the life of the world. This is, more or less, the Eastern Christian perspective. Comprehension of the tenets of faith is important, but ultimately, communion with God is a gift to be received, even for those who do not appear to fully understand.

My question for friends in the Western tradition: can you imagine your Church celebrating the communion of infants who have been fully initiated into the Church? Can liturgical scholarship form parish practice? Or is the power of First Communion as a crucial rite of passage too formidable for the communion of infants and small children to be restored in the West?

I write this with a desire to understand – not to byzantinize.

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32 comments

  1. We are surrounded by dioceses who have totally different practices. Some have Grade 1, some Grade 6, some Grade 7. First Reconciliation, First Communion or Confirmation can be everywhere, from at baptism to Grade 8. Beyond this, our schools have over 1/3 non-Catholics in attendance. The problem is sacraments that are school-based and not faith-parish-based. It is easy for those within the faith community to adjust, but when the curriculum being taught (often by a teacher with minimal contact with church) says “everyone will receive XXXXXXXXXX” simply because that is what their program states is the objective.

    The ramifications are far reaching … a child is now restricted by the teachers from receiving Holy Communion at school Masses because the curriculum says they are preparing. A child makes First Reconciliation even though they have not even been baptized or expected to meet church participation requirements for Confirmation even though they don’t even attend the Catholic church. In one case the children were all confirmed but Holy Communion was something they did in Grade 6 where they came from. Try to get the school’s head around that!

    It is nearly impossible to win the conversation when you are up against the curriculum, a “grading system” and an administration.

    I applaud parishes where sacramental preparation is a parish activity and removed from the school system. I envy their celebrations where not only the candidate, but the parents and sponsors, have been involved and the church is full of people who are not strangers. I see their growth as those families remain in contact with the parish rather then “graduating from church” after Confirmation.

    The school, “school-Masses” and “school-sacraments” confront us with an artificial picture that 60 years ago may have been true but today, with our schools diverse and multi-faith we have to open our eyes to what is really in front of us.

    We are no longer monochromatic but too often we behave that way.

  2. Let me throw out another incendiary or two, as I look to lead music at my parish’s celebration in a few hours today:

    Linking this sacrament to an academic system has a subtle pelagian whiff to it: the notion that a person can earn grace by intellectual achievement. That advocates of persons with disabilities have had to overcome obstacles (and in some places, still do) does nothing to persuade me otherwise. Likewise children of parents with “irregular” unions.

    We could look more strongly at our First communion practices. But I suspect we won’t. Too bad, because it is the first sacrament of exit for Catholics from the Church, in a very real way. Some people talk about Confirmation or college, but they’ve been blinded by the accidents of Catholic schools, and that parents are disengaged from a full, conscious, and active participation in the formation of their children.

  3. Even though it is a practice that dates on from Pius X in the early 20th century, First Communion around the age of seven is pretty ingrained in Latin Rite Catholic culture. Those who wish to restore the sacramental sequence of Baptism-Confirmation-Eucharist have tended to focus on putting Confirmation at the time of first Eucharist (which requires no change of Canon Law), rather than moving both back to the time of Baptism (which would require a canonical change).

    All my children were prepared via parish-based programs, so I have no direct experience of school-based programs. But I imagine they could only make things more confused.

  4. I heard recently from a pastor that he has a lot of kids in RCIC whose parents are Catholic. They’re getting the ‘restored order;’ not by communing them as infants, but by delaying baptism until they’re old enough to get everything at once. I really don’t know what to do with this datum. My experience in parish life was that the kids we had in RCIC where either part of families coming in ‘en masse,’ or Catholic families that were returning to a long ago abandoned practice of faith, but apparently he has practicing families who just delay.

      1. @Todd Flowerday:
        Yeah, but, there is. You might think there shouldn’t be. You point out that it’s not a term that exists in the official liturgical books. But it very much is part of the faith lives of many Catholic parishes in the US, at least. It’s a convenient shorthand for “the RCIA as adapted for children of catechetical age.”

  5. But, that confusion aside, I wonder, Nicholas, if living through this can help you see why this practice has such staying power? I do, personally, see value both in administering sacraments as soon as possible, but also in giving young Christians experiences of rites and less-ritualized forms of feasting that teach them on a profounder level than more academic forms of catechesis ever could and that they can remember and cherish. Infant baptism and first communion around seven does seem, to me, to be a fitting way of combining that ‘both-and.’ We give them baptism quam primam, and we give them an experience of first communion that they get to remember.

  6. In all the parishes I have served in over 40 years we have observed the principal of readiness which results in parents and re directors determine when a child appears ready to begin receiving communion. We start the immediate prep program in the fall and invite parents to choose a Sunday in Easter if possible. We may have 1 or as many as 4 first communicants at a given Mass. After communion the children come into the sanctuary where they receive their certificates to a resounding affirmation expressed in applause. The children receive communion with the Mass community of which they have been a part for years. If I had my druthers I would encourage a shift to 4 th grade when the experience of a first confession begins to make real sense. I would also prefer to confirm them right before communion. In the latter case, we would be left free to develop a non-sacramental rite of passage during the upper high school years. I’m also in favor of letting parents postpone baptism if they choose.

  7. Adam Booth: Where does this priest live? Is it in the South or some other place where there might be strong Baptist influence?

  8. I think it would be more likely for baptism to move to childhood (and then, presumably, all sacraments of initiation can be celebrated at that time). similar to Adam Booth, I notice parents seem to be baptizing children later and later, some as late as one year old or two. I think with the urgency of baptism diminishing (at least as far as my experience), someday it could become common practice.

  9. I would like to contribute two thoughts to this conversation:
    First: There are developing patterns of First Communion as explored by Paul Turner in Ages of Initiation and in my First Communion Liturgies. In the early Church until about the 16th century there is evidence of “baptismal Eucharist.”
    Second: Regarding Todd and Adam’s comments about “RCIC.” There is no such thing and it is extremely important that we put an end to using this shorthand. Language is important. There is one Catechumenate in a parish and children of catechetical age, canonically, are considered adults. Therefore, RCIA is for them.

    1. @Donna Eschenauer:
      I think the lingo is important. Unlike some of my RCIA colleagues, I don’t have too much of a problem with acronyms. CICCA is a sub-topic in RCIA. I’ve known parishes that don’t confirm children of catechetical age. Those places are misapplying Rite of Baptism, however you slice it.

    2. @Donna Eschenauer:
      Donna, I understand your insistence on a single name; however, in my parish we have three different offerings, if you will, of RCIA – one for adults, 18 and older, one for children age 7 to about 12, and another for teenagers (13-17). (And that’s just in the English language program.) All three groups participate in the rite of acceptance, of sending, of election, and of initiation, however, we use appropriate materials for each age group, we have different teachers for each, they meet at different times. Since many of the parents of the children and teenagers speak English as a second language, if at all, it is convenient to have a way of succinctly identifying to the congregation, to the teachers, to the pastor, to the parents to which group a particular announcement or handout refers. Brevity is also an issue because most of our materials for the under 18 group are translated into Spanish for the sake of the parents. What do you suggest if not RCIA, RCIC and RCIT? Or en espanol, RICA, RICN and RICJ?

      1. @Julie Boerio-Goates:
        Yes, it seems that you are adapting catechesis, age appropriately, and this is exacting what you should do in my view; however, there is no need to distinguish this with a “program title.” It is still one Catechumenate.
        When I did this, all of the catechumens gathered for the Liturgy of the Word on Sunday, were dismissed, and then went to another location for catechesis. here we had separate sessions for different age groups.

  10. As a former pastoral assisitant to a German Catholic Community in Italy it was my duty to prepare school children (age 8-10) for First Communion. We had no Problems at all.
    My daughter, when she was 5, asked me if she could also “eat the Holy Bread so that Jesus could come to her”…I prepared her and she received her First Communion on the 6th January that year. Later in School, she followed the notmal catethetic preparation over the parish and had her “big” Communion at 10.
    Since we don’t have confirmation after Batism, there is no full Initiation at that point.

  11. I’m in favor of full initiation for infants, mainly because I think our expectations of an “experiential” element of childhood sacraments is inflated. It’s not always this wonderful experience that adults would like to imagine it is. Most of the Catholics I know remember the day of their first communion, but they remember it as uncomfortable (the clothes were not easy) and sometimes disappointing because “nothing happened” that they could discern. When I was a child, there were also bizarre stories told to children to emphasize the real presence. I didn’t hear this myself, but I know people who were taught not to chew the host because “it would hurt Jesus,” and these poor credulous little kids fretted over it sticking to the roof of their mouth. Today, the catechesis is better, and the families are more involved, so I hope it is a more holistic experience. Still, I worry a bit that we expect the Holy Spirit to come “on time” and epiphanies to happen on our schedule if we’ve prepared well enough, in a sacrament by sacrament order, and it all ends up being a bit disappointing, aside from the party afterwards. Because memorable spiritual “experiences” don’t always happen at the sacramental moment, even when we’ve done our homework. Or so it seems to me.

  12. Nicholas, part and parcel of why we need the Eastern Church with us. The Western Church is so wrapped around Christ, faith and reason, doctrine and dogma that hours and circles are regularly circumscribed… spiritual and mystical foundations and solutions, along with the Holy Spirit are largely missing. Religion without foundational spirituality is simply part of the picture..

    Bring on the Spirit and the mystical, please!

    1. @Donna Zuroweste OP, BCC:
      East and West need each other, yes. But … the West certainly doesn’t lack spiritual and mystical foundations. In part, the institution distrusts them. And most Christians, East and West both, ignore them or are ignorant of them. Canonists and beancounters in ascendancy.

  13. I can imagine it — and would wholeheartedly support it. I’ve always found it odd that we Westerners baptize our infants, then effectively excommunicate them for 6-7 years.

    I’m not convinced, though, that parishes would accept the practice, for reasons others have stated above. And if we were to move toward infant communion (and confirmation), we might want to consider alternate ways of marking rites of passage.

    P.S. Your name is really familiar to me. Are you originally from the Minneapolis area, and did you attend Robbinsdale schools? If you’re the Nicholas Denysenko I think I remember, I’m thinking you would have been in my brother’s class.

  14. The practicalities matter. Communing with a spoon from a chalice where both species are available makes communing infants and small children much easier. In the Latin-rite churches I know, the closest one could come to that is intinction, and I rarely encounter that. It also has its problems.

  15. If words matter (and I think they do) I wonder about the propriety of saying that seven-year-olds are participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Though canonically “adult,” they are not adults in any ordinary sense of the term. If we want one term for both then “catechumen” would seem a better term.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:
      Yes, canon law doesn’t really refer to such persons as adults. Rather, it says that the prescriptions for baptisms of adults would be applied to them, which is not the same thing as saying they are adults.

      The quest for precision is a double-edged matter..

    2. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:
      Catechumenate directors are fond of the word “process,” as opposed to “program. I think “process” is a better term. For everybody, even the baptized and ordained. If we are to examine seven-year-olds, does that mean other age groups are also drawn into the question? Like a twenty-something in seminary preparing to be ordained as πρεσβύτερος is really an “elder”? Maybe he (or she) is really a prodigy–and I would hope that we are open to such discernments.

      Back to topic, there is an overarching organization to the initiation rites. There is a General Introduction, a parallel to the GIRM. In the numbered sections that follow, 252-330 cover “CICCA” and the rite is pretty clear about the distinctions. A seven-year-old is a catechumen until the rite of election. Then she or he is a member of the elect. After baptism, a Christian.

      As you know, many pastoral ministers do little examination beyond what they need to get through the next liturgy–and this includes clergy. But a good amount is in the rite. Much of what we think of as guesswork is not.

  16. Paragraph 38 of the Easter Vigil in the Roman Missal refers to “Catechumens” being presented at that point for baptism. Becoming elect does not make someone stop being a catechumen, it just makes them an elect catechumen. I hadn’t really thought about Fritz’s point before, but it makes a lot of sense to me.

    I also think it’s really problematic to go around saying things “don’t exist” when they do. Argue they shouldn’t, by all means. Point out the official books don’t mention them. But, the idea of telling people that things they encounter in the parishes are mere figments of their imagination seems a bizarre form of liturgical fundamentalism.

    1. @Adam Booth, C.S.C.:
      I had noticed the terminology of “Catechumens” Easter Vigil, and I believe also in the prayers for the Masses at which the Scrutinies are celebrated. I wondered why the “Elect” wasn’t used. Thanks, for this clarification.

    2. @Adam Booth, C.S.C.:
      Hi Adam,
      You raise a good question about language and what we are trying to do other than police the boundaries. Let me take a crack at it, and see if this makes sense.

      I think the statement that “RCIC doesn’t exist” means that the acronym doesn’t refer to any of our actual ritual books. And this is true. Having worked for many years with parish volunteers and professionals to implement the catechumenate, I can report that people are indeed out there looking for a book called “Rite of Christian Initiation of Children.” There isn’t one.

      OK, beneath this linguistic phenomenon is a set of assumptions. One default assumption is that children and adults can’t possibly be doing the same thing and we NEED a different instruction book. We have put so much energy into the Christian nurture of children in graded catechetical programs and sacramental preparation programs corresponding to age groups, and it is so ingrained in us that developmental stages determine what you do, that we find it hard to conceive of catechumenate in any other way. Yet we must.

      Most important, people find it hard to imagine (second assumption) that the main thing — really the main thing — about the catechumenate is the rites. But it is. And the rites are essentially the same for anyone above the age of reason.

      I know some will wave their lesson plans and say catechesis is the main thing. Put simply: we don’t trust our rites. But it actually works better if we think of it in these terms. Even the chapter on children in the RCIA contains only a few, limited adaptations for children, and refers to Part I of the book for the most essential descriptions of stages, periods, what takes place and why. Plus, the liturgical adaptations for children in the ritual text have been challenged by the best practitioners, because kids do fine with the adult form of the rites. (Election, 3 Scrutinies, etc.)

      So, the point of insisting upon RCIA rather than RCIC is to make clear what paradigm we are using. As soon as you give it another name (RCIC), the shift to a school/catechetical paradigm is fairly inevitable. It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s just that we do 99% of our ministry with children is some form of schooling. Community is extra, sponsors are extra, rites are extra. RCIA challenges all that.

      1. @Rita Ferrone:
        Thanks, Rita, this is helpful. I’ve also had good experience doing the ‘adult’ rites with children and adults together, but accompanied by a dual-track catechesis program (which covered the same topics in each track each week, but in different ways; the two tracks also had some catechetical sessions and social time together). I do take your point that we need to stress that the rite is common, even if the catechesis is differentiated, but I also want to take seriously Fritz’s insight that children participating in this rite aren’t doing so through some legal fiction that they’re “make believe adults” but are genuinely doing it as children.

      2. @Adam Booth, C.S.C.:
        Adam, thanks. Dual track catechesis with common rites and community building gets it about right, I think. I agree with Fritz’s and your point about “make believe adults.” Definitely not! It’s “come as you are…” 🙂

  17. What an enriching discussion!

    At my daughter’s school this morning, all but three of the children in her class were taking formal photos for First Communion. The three non-Catholic children were describing their non-participation in varying ways. I confess openly here that I could not relate to the experience, as a “cradle” Orthodox Christian. Some of our parishes have a formal rite of passage for “First Confession,” which includes formal clothing, but I honestly think this is an adaptation of Western First Communion.

    Two points for reflection and one additional observation:

    1) I cannot get myself to look beyond Communion as a holy meal all are called to partake of. Recently, my mother was hospitalized and I wanted to arrange for her to receive Communion because she was able to swallow even though she had extensive brain damage. The totality of her human condition rendered her a fully participating citizen of the Church, even though she would not have been able to respond to questions about the cognitive aspects of faith.

    2) Threshold rites can be meaningful: it seems that the historical trajectory of sacraments have resulted in their fulfilling multiple functions, including threshold rites, even if that was neither the intent nor the foundational theology of the sacrament;

    3) In my study of Orthodox lay perspectives on the Liturgy, I’ve been struck by the number of adults who remark on their appreciation for children participating in Communion. They tend to refer to children lining up to receive with everyone else. Perhaps it is an emotional reaction for some of them, but it is still powerful.

    And finally: my own hope for the Western Church is the she would be her best self, which is the same hope I have for the Eastern Church.

  18. The introductory part of the RCIA states that ‘the sacraments of Christian Initiation are Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.’ It appears to mean Eucharist as a repeated event, it definitely does not say First Holy Communion. I find when I have, occasionally, asked people whether they do feel they are getting a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, they generally admit that they rarely think of it in those terms.

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