In modern Ireland the celebration of a child’s First Communion has become a big event. It is one of the most significant and memorable days of a child’s life and most people in Ireland today who were raised as Catholics remember the day of their First Communion. Culturally it was seen as an important day in a child’s life and in the first half of the twentieth century when Ireland was a much poorer country, it was a mark of identity and pride. Indeed many attribute Pope Pius X’s Quam singulari decree on the age of First Communion to the experience of the young Irish orphan Little Nellie of Holy God. This young girl was in the care of the nuns of the Good Shepherd Order in Cork. At four years of age, she was dying of tuberculosis and desired to make her First Communion prior to her death. The nuns were impressed by here holiness and maturity and brought her case to the attention of their chaplain who in turn received permission from the bishop to grant the child’s wish. When the fame of Little Nellie reached the ears of Pope Pius X it was the sign he was waiting for to lower the age of First Communion.
Due to particular historical circumstances, the vast majority of the primary schools in the Republic of Ireland are under the patronage of the Catholic Church (while in the North of Ireland, most children from Catholic families also go to Catholic schools). This has led to most religious education taking place in the school context, and most children receiving their formation for First Communion (and Confirmation) from their primary school teachers.
When I made my own First Communion in 1979 there were few issues with the preparation taking place in the context of my primary school. Every child in the school attended Mass with their families on Sundays. This was the case from the foundation of the modern Irish state until the 1990’s. At most one could complain about the gradual commercialization of First Communion, the cost of the First Communion suit or dress and the party that the family throws for the child. The tradition also developed of friends and neighbors giving the child money to celebrate their First Communion (it has been estimated that the typical child “makes”€1,400 for their First Communion today). This is a deeply encroached cultural phenomenon and in Ireland one can still hear people insulting someone by passing the comment that a certain individual still has their “Communion money.”
Today this has led to some particular pastoral issues as the actual practice rates of Catholicism (particularly among the younger generations) has plunged. This means that the majority of children still make their First Communion, whether or not their family habitually attends a Catholic Church on regular Sundays. A 2015 study by Karl Kitching and Yafa Shanneik of the cultural significance of First Communion in Irish primary schools found that many “Catholic families approach [First Communion] more as a cultural ‘coming of age’ than a matter of spirituality, closeness to God, or church belonging.” There is also the pastoral issue that is occasionally raised by a non-practicing Catholic teacher preparing a class of children who mostly do not attend their local parish for their First Communions.
Additionally, recent immigration has led to a significant number of children in Irish schools no longer coming from Catholic families. There is a certain social stigma to not making your First Communion. This leads to some tension, given that many non-Catholic children attend the local Catholic primary school and can feel excluded when they don’t make their First Communion with their classmates.
However, for most priests, the issue is not with the non-Catholic children, who are often incorporated into the First Communion Masses in other ways. The problem is with the commercialization of the celebration, particularly for the little girls. Some families go overboard spending thousands on designer dresses resembling My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and there was a case when the daughter of a man who had just completed a prison sentence for murder and was unemployed arrived for her First Communion in “a horse-drawn Cinderella carriage” with the family spending an estimated $10,000 on the celebration. Indeed while these are a little exaggerated, the Bouncy Castle industry in Ireland relies on First Communions for the bulk of their business.
This situation led to one Irish parish to decide to do away with a common celebration of First Communion altogether. Fr. Tom Little of Askea Parish in County Carlow decided not to celebrate a common celebration of First Communion and instead invite the children’s families to chose any parish Mass in May or June, where they would come and bring their child to receive their First Communion there. This would have better integrated the practice of First Communion into the parish worshipping community. However, when the parents found out they organized protests and the national media reported that Fr. Little had “scrapped” the children’s First Communion. There was lots of outrage expressed in the newspapers and the local radio station. The outcry soon forced the parish to reverse their decision.
I believe that this is an issue that bears reflection. Theology clearly prefers the unity of the Sacraments of Initiation and even the original ordering of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.
However pastors and liturgical and catechetical ministers who live in the real world must deal with real situations. Sometimes the wisdom of Solomon is needed in balancing a true respect for liturgical theology and tradition with the spiritual good of people. How does one cope with parents who are adamant that their child receive a Sacrament and yet show little evidence of ever wanting to practice the Faith? How does one respect the fact that, to this day, a child’s First Communion is often the most important day of their whole childhood and yet the actual celebration of the Sacrament in the parish church seems to be little more than an excuse for a party and immoral excesses? Is the goal of a beleaguered parish simply to keep people happy and should not hurting people’s feelings be the ultimate pastoral objective? Or, to put the question positively, how can a parish use the cultural phenomenon of First Communion to reach those who normally don’t practice to help them meet Christ and avail more of everything that Christianity has to offer?
Moderator’s note: “Non solum” is a feature at Pray Tell for our readership community to discuss practical liturgical issues. The title comes from article 11 of the Vatican II liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium: “Therefore there is to be vigilance among holy pastors that in liturgical action not only are laws for valid and licit celebration to be observed, but that the faithful should participate knowingly, actively, and fruitfully.” (Ideo sacris pastoribus advigilandum est ut in actione liturgica non solumobserventur leges ad validam et licitam celebrationem, sed ut fideles scienter, actuose et fructuose eandem participent.) May the series contribute to good liturgical practice – not only following the law, but especially grasping the spirit of the liturgy!