Overhauling First Communion?

The Irish Jesuit social justice campaigner, Fr. Peter McVerry, has called on schools and churches to work together to radically overhaul the manner in which First Communions are conducted in order to reduce the financial cost for parents. Liturgists, get ready for this: Fr. McVerry would “abolish First Communion at seven and make it much later in a child’s life.” As it is now, it is “a fiasco.” He would push confirmation back to 16 or 17. Read the rest here.

26 comments

  1. Um… his heart’s in the right place?

    First off, changing the age is not going to make it more or less a big deal. Bar mitzvahs happen at 13ish. Quincenaras at 15. Legal drinking at 21. These are all heralded by expense and indulgence. The age is irrelevant.

    Further…

    >>He called for preparation for First Communion to be done in school and suggested that when parents wanted to bring their children to the church to make their first communion, “Let it be a private family affair rather than a community affair.”

    That only works if they go to Catholic School. Also, it IS a community affair, not a private one.

    >>In relation to his call for the age of Confirmation to be pushed back, he acknowledged that it might mean that many children wouldn’t go on to confirmation, but said that the current approach is not working.
    “What is the point of confirming a kid at twelve who is never going to pass the door of a church again?” he asked.

    Well that’s really dumb. They don’t come back once confirmed at 12? What do you think is going to happen if you do it at 15, 16, or 18, and make it feel EVEN MORE like it’s a graduation or a right of puberty?

    This is goofy, and not helpful.

    The expense thing is a serious problem. Here’s a serious solution:
    -Clear and consistent instruction from priests and all who represent the Church/parish in an official capacity as to the meaning of the sacrament and the appropriateness of certain ways of celebrating it.
    -Have the kids wear albs, owned by the parish. Provide strict instructions on what they will wear under the albs.
    -If the alb thing is a non-starter, organize (at the Diocesan or Deanery level) a first-communion-dress trading clearing house.

    1. “really dumb” and “goofy and not helpful” are not helpful language in a professional discussion.

      I think you are missing the point.
      Historically, confirmation and communion got separated from baptism as an entire initiation process.

      I suspect that many who respond negatively to this re-introduction of an already old point are not able to look at the issues impartially, not able to think outside the box.

      What are the sacraments intended to do?
      That is the basic question.

      We need look away from asking how comfortable we are about reforming present practices, or how are our educational goals going to be met, and ask instead about getting back to the origins and original purposes of the sacraments.

      I also think that you are missing the point about private family versus community event. What each family wants to do is probably beyond control of the priests and parishes, as it is now about family celebrations of baptism and wedding receptions. However, we can end the graduation ceremony tone of things by having each family, one or two per Sunday Mass bring forward its first communicant instead of having an orchestrated, and possibly competitive class exercise for first communion, following confirmation where it belongs, whether administered at the time of baptism or later.

  2. I know of no trend in my diocese towards extravagant spending on first communion. For more than thirty years, however, I have endeavored to make both the catechesis and celebration of first communion family centered. Following the accepted principal of readiness, each child is welcomed to communion when the parents attest that the child is ready. They receive in the presence of the people with whom they normally attend Mass rather than with their “classmates” at special masses which turn the whole thing into a Kodak moment.

    The catechetical guide the parents follow includes teaching children the importance of praying the prayers and singing the Mass. The children are taught that the bread and wine become the true body and blood of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and the words that Jesus spoke at the last supper. They are not ready for talk of substance and accidents, so no mention of transubstantiation at this stage of readiness.

    Since Eucharist is an Easter sacrament, the children receive communion for the first time at one of the masses on any of the Sunday’s of Easter. Sometimes there’s just one child, sometimes several. After communion the first communicants come to the altar and presented certificates while the people express their happiness with applause. Each child makes a banner bearing their name and it is hung in the church throughout Easter. I think it’s a step in the right direction.

  3. First, understand his frustration. But, there are better ways of handling this than trying to “hijack” the sacramental process to fit into his square social justice hole which seems to only reveal his grasp of one issue but not the church’s liturgy or sacramental process.

    If you are in an Hispanic church, these customs can be deeply ingrained and can create financial issues. We have had good success in working with all parents in terms of a consensual agreement, policy, and follow through in terms of what is appropriate for celebrations for the reception of these sacraments. Yes, it is hard work to change, modify cultural/family practices but it can work. Example – the second grade first communion classes (both catholic grade school and CCD – english and spanish) worked with all parents to arrive at a “contract” that stressed the need to not spend money on parties – rather, they agreed to join together in a parish party vs. individual families. Extra money was encouraged to be given for a local charity that was agreed upon by this classes parents. (not always perfectly followed but over a couple of years it worked and was signifantly appreciated)

    To be honest, he seems to be unaware of quincereas which can run into $15-20K in expenses. We have also addressed the funeral home rip offs.

  4. A couple of comments from pastoral experience.
    First, the point should be clearly made that the Holy Trinity
    ‘works retail and not wholesale’ in our lives — so the
    Sacraments should be given accordingly.
    Second, the Eastern Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, do what the Roman/Latin Church does for adults with the RCIA, and for ‘anyone of catechecisable age’ including small children (again since Vatican II’s revisions of the Ritual) — and so give Baptism, Confirmation, and First Eucharist whenever the Baptism takes place, even for and especially for infants.
    This removes the ‘graduation aspect’ of the Sacramental life
    pushed by the ‘catechetical complex’ in the Roman/Latin Church
    and provides for a ‘lifelong mystagogy’ in which ‘quantities of Sacraments’
    are not the question but an increasing living out a life ‘in
    the Presence of the Holy Trinity’. This Life is nourished immediately from the day of Initiation by the Mass and the reception of the Holy Eucharist (cf. John 6).
    Then and only then will the Irish Jesuit’s suggestions (as good-hearted as they might be) be seen as completely unconnected with sharing God’s Life as practising Christians as they are.

  5. Philip Sandstrom:Second, the Eastern Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, do what the Roman/Latin Church does for adults with the RCIA, and for ‘anyone of catechecisable age’ including small children (again since Vatican II’s revisions of the Ritual) — and so give Baptism, Confirmation, and First Eucharist whenever the Baptism takes place, even for and especially for infants.

    Yes, we Romans should also return to the custom of the administration of all the initation rites at infant baptism. After all, even the Tridentine rite of infant baptism presumed the completion of the catechumenate (albeit in an extremely truncated and perhaps perfunctory form). In my opinion (and that of the Easterners), infants require the graces of the Eucharist and Confirmation just as much as the adult faithful.

    Given that we Romans have not practiced this discipline for some time, perhaps first Holy Communion and Confirmation should be administrated during one Mass when children reach the age of reason.

    Why not this: have children receive sacramental absolution a few days before the Confirmation Mass. After the Confirmation rite and the Eucharist, the confirmands receive first Holy Communion during the communion of the faithful.

    I cannot see why this would not be theologically orthodox. The notion of confirmation at 17 or 18 is common in Protestant churches. I don’t see a historical basis for this in Catholicism or Orthodoxy.

    1. “Given that we Romans have not practiced this discipline for some time, perhaps first Holy Communion and Confirmation should be administrated during one Mass when children reach the age of reason. ”
      I endorse this approach.

      “Why not this: have children receive sacramental absolution a few days before the Confirmation Mass.”
      Why are you linking these three? Do you think children just reaching the age of reason likely have sinned mortally and need confession before communion when you are already suggesting confirmation before communion?

      Reads to me as a case of old habit dying hard rather than of consistent logic.

      1. EDIT:

        I wouldn’t be averse to the Orthodox practice of initiation sacraments first and then confession later, if there is a way to reconcile that liturgical theology to Roman practices. If this can be proven compatible, then sure, postpone confession. From what I understand, the old practice of confession before first Holy Communion was predicated on the idea that a child has a responsibility to confess at the age of reason. Also, I thought that this older practice was done to emphasize the importance of confession in a Christian life. There are other ways and times to offer a first confession, and I’d be open to those possibilities.

        Given current sensitivities about children’s participation in the Church, it might not be a bad idea to hold a parish reconciliation service for the first confession rather than use confessionals. A parish reconciliation service also allows a priest to explain the sacrament of reconciliation before it is administered. Parents and parishioners should also be invited to receive absolution at the reconciliation service. A reconciliation service also emphasizes that reconciliation is a sacrament of the Church, and not a solitary and personal sacrament.

  6. I don’t see anything wrong with receving the sacraments of initiation all at once as a baby. So long as first confession is given at the age of reason, and the Eucharist is regularly received in a different manner than normal food; so that as the child grows up he or she can see the obvious differance, and be taught by his or her parents to perform the proper reverences toward the Blessed Sacrament before he consumes the host. As in the Eastern church; they receive the Eucharist first with a profound bow and then a half genuflection, arms crossed upon their chest, with their mouths open to receive by intinction from the priest.

  7. I would love to see this issue addressed…not only in terms of the expense, but just the way that First Communion has essentially become a “class” that one takes in second grade and then “graduates” from after Easter by attending a Mass where you finally get to dress up and get your picture taken. When something has become an “inside joke” to the point that the Mass is often referred to as “Last Communion” because well over 2/3 of the kids and parents will not return the following week, and might return 6 years later at confirmation… at that point it is an issue that needs addressing.

    My pastor in a previous parish where I worked took some serious flack for insisting that families register in the parish and have a record of attending Mass (as determined by envelopes in the Sunday collection for the previous year) before even registering for First Communion. The class sizes dropped from about 90 kids to 35 the next year. It seems kinda harsh, but then again, if you won’t commit to attending Mass, what’s really the point?

  8. Here’s a comment from the NCR, about the Kansas Mass, that is, to say the least, interesting, from a Jeffrey Herbert. He seems to be suggesting that there is a connection between the post-Vatican II church and the sexual abuse of children by priests.

    “Pre-Tridentine Church”??
    Submitted by Jeffrey Herbert (not verified) on Jun. 23, 2011.

    “Pre-Tridentine Church”?? “The Real Church”?? And to attribute to Pope Benedict the desire to keep the laity “in their place” is both repugnant and vile. And when considering what exactly “fostered” the evils of priest sexual abuse…it occurs to me that the dates of the abuse indicated here are all from the post “real-church” period. I’m not drawing a cause and effect here, but let’s get the facts straight please.

    And why the uproar? So a group of priests feels that the liturgical form that best expresses forgiveness, unity and faith is the Extraordinary Form. You don’t feel that way. They do. They are the Priests, and they are the ones saying the Mass. You do not have to go. You don’t have to go to Mass at all. Why is this sticking in your mind?

    1. Here’s a comment from the NCR, about the Kansas Mass, that is, to say the least, interesting, from a Jeffrey Herbert.

      Someone’s been reading the Vox Clara guide to punctuation…

    2. Gerard;

      Excuse me, but I was implying what seems to be exactly the opposite of what you are claiming. You might also quote the comment to which I was responding as well…

      Hence why I added “I’m not drawing a cause and effect here…” as I don’t believe that “Vatican II” in any way caused the Priest sex-abuse scandal. The comment to which I was responding used the term “Real Church” to refer to the Church after Vatican II, but then claimed that it was the Church before Vatican II that was responsible for the abuse cited, although the dates for those incidents were primarily in the 1980’s. The dates didn’t match up, and the entire concept is a red-herring to begin with.

      And yes…I am aware of the John Jay Study. A big reason why the comment to which I was responding didn’t make sense…

      And what exactly does this have to do with First Communion anyway? I’m flattered and all that you take such an interest in my point of view, and I guess that’s a good first step. You really should take time to actually read rather than simply react though.

      And you really should, in responses, avoid the use, except where appropriate, of commas. I actually thought you were making a joke at first, and am still not really sure that you aren’t!

      1. I don’t think you are in much of a position to be telling people what they should or should not do. Your energies might be better spent improving your score, when it comes to the exercise of sound judgement.

        I’m still amused by your earnest efforts to portray Raymond Burke’s appearance in a galero as one big conspiracy.

        Perhaps too many of your school days were spent on the comma, and too few on the evils of the split infinitive.

      2. Gerard;

        You have no idea what position I’m in, so don’t lecture. You might recall that this entire thread is in response to you, and not of my initiation. If you’re going to ask my opinion, then you’re going to get it. I’m not sure what it is about me that makes you so hostile, but I’ll leave it at some type of personal foible that you are unable to get over.

  9. He obviously did not read the last John Jay Study – it documented and stated that, based upon the data they were given to work with, the highest number of abusers peaked in the 1960’s and early 1970’s and these abusers were trained and formed in seminaries prior to Vatican II.

    Oh well, why mess things up with documentation.

  10. Jordan Zarembo :

    Given current sensitivities about children’s participation in the Church, it might not be a bad idea to hold a parish reconciliation service for the first confession rather than use confessionals. A parish reconciliation service also allows a priest to explain the sacrament of reconciliation before it is administered. Parents and parishioners should also be invited to receive absolution at the reconciliation service. A reconciliation service also emphasizes that reconciliation is a sacrament of the Church, and not a solitary and personal sacrament.

    These seem like some good starting places.

    I greatly like the idea of parents and parishioners, especially the religious education team for good example maybe, showing their participation and and good example.

    1. We do our first reconciliations — actually all our reconciliation services with the children — as reconciliation services with parents and any other guests that care to come. Everyone is invited to individual confession and absolution. I almost always will have an adult approach me and say “I haven’t been to confession for years, tell me what to do.” It’s more work for me, for the catechists and for the priests, but I find it’s a wonderful experience and it does produce fruit. It’s worth it.

      1. I agree Terri and Tom. I sense a great resistance to reconciliation services in the conservative communities. Somehow, a “real” confession has to take place in a cramped phone booth. I have always sought face-to-face confession, even to the point of making regular appointments for confession to avoid the ‘box’. Self-styled traditional and/or conservative parishes need to get over the idea that a confessional box is “more penitential”. Penitence is in the willingness to cooperate in the grace of the sacrament, and not in dark secrecy.

        The reconciliation service is best for children. Maybe as young and older adults these Catholics might want to continue on with a reconciliation service as a permanent alternative to the traditional methods. I don’t see why one Saturday evening a month could be set aside for a reconciliation service. Heck, really savvy parishes could have Evening Prayer/Vespers and then reconciliation in the nave. That’s probably a bit too advanced, but maybe possible in some parishes.

      2. JZ has posted another good idea.

        We need to get Catholics away from the idea that the only kind of communal or liturgical prayer is what can be jammed into Sunday Mass in 55 minutes.

  11. Here’s a simpler solution: put confirmation and first communion where they belong, at baptism, and two of the expensive “fiascos” are instantly gone.

    1. Chris;

      Not sure I would word it quite that way, but I agree with you completely. It’s not so much that first communion and confirmation “belong” at baptism, but rather that all three might belong together as one act of initiation. Parishes, in the US at least, expend a great deal of resources on the maintenance of the current schedule of sacraments. The result is a “carrot-and-stick” situation that gives the impression that the purpose for attending religious formation classes is to receive sacraments, and perhaps worse, that the primary component of receiving sacraments in the church is the attending of classes. Thus, confirmation becomes the “end” rather than the beginning of one’s sacramental life in the church. Is it any wonder then that many youth leave the church when it is completed?

  12. @Jordan Zarembo: Liverpool Archdiocese has embarked on a project now to change the order of sacraments: Confirmation will be on Pentecost and delegated across all the parishes, with First Communion at Corpus Christi (Sunday) with First Reconciliation following in Advent. (How this will be be accomplished in future with talk of holydays reverting to their proper days in England and Wales will be interesting!)

  13. I am a little late to this party, but all I can think of is an article about an American bishop (cardinal?) hosting a very expensive gourmet dinner in full regalia. No cappa magna, but given the menu and wines served that night, it would have been gilding the lily. I’m sorry I can’t recall the name, so I can’t refer to the specific incident. However, the principle abides. Too many bishops are seen on a regular basis at the celebrations of the wealthy.

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