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Keeping the meaning in a child’s first Communion

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Editors Note: Here’s an article about First Communion that’s both timely and informative from 2009

ARCHDIOCESE — With first Communion season upon us, children will be soon be donning their finery for the joyous event as parents plan festive family gatherings to celebrate. But there is more to the occasion than a pretty white dress and a party.

While a child’s first Communion is indeed a cause for celebration and should be beautiful and memorable, the true focus of that holy and special day must remain the sacrament itself as the little ones are welcomed to the table of the Lord.

Area religious educators admit it can be a challenge to keep both parents and children focused on the meaning of first Communion rather than all the trappings. What is key, they say, is good, basic catechesis.

Terri Kerley, coordinator of religious education at St. Columban Parish in Loveland, said she has seen first Communion “become all about the party and the dress.”

To address the issue, said Kerley, “During the parent meetings I tell them if their child’s first Communion is their best Communion, then we’ve failed. True, this is the children’s first time, but people seem to forget that they will be receiving the sacrament every time.”

“I usually try to explain it to parents with the analogy that we have the kids’ table and the big peoples’ table during the holidays. When the kids finally move up to the big table, we don’t dress them up and make a big fuss, we just welcome them. It doesn’t matter what they’re wearing.”

What also helps parents grasp the true meaning of the occasion, Kerley added, are witness talks from their peers who have previously had a child receive their first Communion. These talks occur at the parent meeting, which is a standard part of sacramental preparation at St. Columban.

“For many parents, the talks are a revelation,” she said. “They’ll admit they thought it was about the dress or the kids singing. I think it helps that it’s coming from another mom and not the DRE. Peer communication is much more potent than what we can say.”

Another essential part of first Communion preparation, and an additional opportunity for catechesis, is a retreat held for both the children and their parents. While the retreat brings them together, the follow up is just as important, said Kerley. “We give the parents the materials and the books, but they’re responsible for going through them with the children at home. We make it clear that they are the first educators in their children’s faith. We also follow up at school and during religious education classes.”

A retreat held just for the children — a Jesus Day — is geared toward helping them understand the meaning of their first Communion. The entire day is focused on Jesus and the Eucharist, Kerley explained, and includes activities such as a prayer walk around school grounds, a tour of the church, the creation of a bookmark, and a special liturgy during which the children have the chance to sample the bread and wine. “It’s a fun, meaningful day for them,” she said.

Do the children really understand the significance of the sacrament they are about to receive?

“It’s hard to say,” Kerley admitted. “We instruct the kids as much as we can, but sometimes we have to leave it up the Holy Spirit. It’s a journey for them. They’re not going to get it all now. We’re just planting the seed and giving them the tools, information and experience to help it grow.”

At Incarnation Parish in Centerville, about 180 children will make their first Communion over 12 Masses in April. Each Mass will feature 14-15 first communicants.

But while the day is special for the children, the focus remains on the sacrament and the community, parish officials said.

“It’s not the whole center of the Mass,” said Paula Weckesser, coordinator of religious education at the parish. “It’s just a regular Sunday liturgy. We try to make it special for the children, but the special thing is that they are going to be receiving the Eucharist.”

At Incarnation, children making their first Communion and reconcilliaion, receive materials to work on with their families at home. There is also a retreat for the children that focuses on the sacraments.

At some parishes, children preparing for to receive Communion and reconciliation, attend classes at the church. The sessions include prayer and explanations of the sacraments. Many parishes also hold retreats for the children and their parents.

During the Masses at Incarnation, children sit in pews with their families, identified by small banners hanging from the end of the pews. As part of the Mass, the parish welcomes the children into Communion with the church.

The goal is to make the event special for the children, but not separate from the Mass, Weckesser said.

“We try to do the emphases on the Eucharist and nothing else,” Weckesser said. “Hopefully, we’ve tried to give them enough resources for them to know that the ‘specialness’ is receiving our Lord.”

Helping the children grow in the understanding of their faith as they prepare for their first Communion is the goal at St. Dominic Parish in Delhi.

Ann Andriacco, director of religious education, believes a straightforward approach is best in keeping the focus on the sacrament.

“I think we’re able to keep the focus, because we don’t allude to anything else,” Andriacco said. “We just remind the children and parents that this is what we’re about, this is what is central to our faith and this is why we do it.”

Just as at St. Columban, first Communion preparation at St. Dominic provides faith formation opportunities for the both the children and their parents. At the parent meeting the chance to ask questions is  “a great opportunity for the adults to reconnect with their faith,” Andriacco said.

On Jesus Day, typically held the Sunday before the children make their first Communion, parent volunteers assist as youngsters take part in a variety of activities. The portion Andriacco presents focuses on bread. “We sample bread from different countries and talk about how important it is to most people,” she explained. “We talk about the Eucharist being bread, but a different kind — that it’s actually Jesus. I tell the children we come together on Sunday to share Jesus, who gives us the strength to go out in the world and make a difference.”

“The kids get it on their level,” Andriacco said. “Our hope is that their knowledge and faith increases yearly and that they’ll understand in their hearts as adults.”

One issue that Karen Kane, director of the archdiocesan Worship Office, says her office often addresses with parents that seems to distract them from the sacrament itself is “the desire on their part to ‘involve’ the children more in the Mass, for example singing a song after Communion or serving as lectors. In our diocesan sacramental guidelines (spelled out in the document Sacraments for Young People), and from a Worship Office point of view, we strongly discourage these types of practices,” she said. “The reception of Holy Communion should be the focus and should be where parents and catechists spent their time and energy in preparing the children. What is most important is helping the children understand what it means to receive the body and blood of Christ. That’s the focus.”

Also important for religious educators and parents to remember, said Ken Gleason, director of the archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, is that first Communion should be held during a regularly scheduled Mass, and a special Mass should not be scheduled. The reasoning behind this, he explained, is that the children are joining the eucharistic community, and “it is hard to celebrate becoming part of the community when the community isn’t present.”

There is no ritual for first Communion, added Gleason, “While there are special rituals for baptism, confirmation, etc…the fact that the only ritual for first Communion is the usual rubrics for Mass tells us that we should not add anything to the Mass. It also implies that the second, third and fourth and so on, reception of the Eucharist ought to be just as special as the first reception of the Eucharist.”

He believes that the efforts of many parishes and parents to “make first Communion special” can detract from the meaning of the occasion.

“It means they don’t really appreciate what we are doing at Mass,” he said. “It would be impossible to come up with anything more special than what we are already doing.

“I wish we could help parents to see that we are bringing their children to the table, that they are now initiated into the eucharistic community, which has the honor and privilege of celebrating the sacrifice of the Lord and our subsequent salvation, including the intimate experience of Christ through the reception of His body and blood,” Gleason said. “There is no cute song or white dress that could top that.”

David Eck contributed to this story.

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