Spring is a beautiful time of the year, filled with significant social and religious events – graduations and weddings, ordinations and First Masses, jubilees and anniversaries, Confirmations and First Holy Communions.
Mindful of that fact Pope Benedict recently spoke about the importance of preparing children properly to receive First Holy Communion. During a Sunday Regina Coeli address, Our Holy Father said: “The Church at Easter time usually administers First Communion to children. I therefore urge the pastors, parents and catechists to prepare this feast of faith well, with great fervor, but also with sobriety.” And speaking to children present at the audience who were about to receive Holy Communion for the first time, the Pope added, “you too will understand the importance of a personal encounter with Jesus.”
It is true, as the Pope said, that “pastors, parents and catechists” have a critical role in helping children understand the significance of receiving the Eucharist. While children of that age certainly aren’t expected to grasp the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the sacrament, they can be led to appreciate the joy of meeting the Lord Jesus, their Savior and Friend, in the Eucharist. We commend all those in the Church who share in this Eucharistic catechesis.
First Holy Communion, like many sacramental moments in the Church, is accompanied by popular customs that heighten the experience of the moment. It’s common for children to wear beautiful new white dresses or suits, to receive special gifts – prayer books, rosaries and scapulars in my day; money and even cell phones today I’m told – and to have family gatherings or parties to mark the occasion. While all of these things are fine in moderation, the Pope’s admonition to celebrate with “sobriety” is very timely. If a child is more focused on counting the First Communion cash than receiving the Lord Jesus, there’s obviously something terribly wrong.
It’s important to emphasize, though, that the catechesis for the proper reception of Holy Communion extends beyond the first time a child receives, and that every time we attend Mass we teach our children something about the meaning of the Eucharist. And keep in mind that we teach children about the Holy Mass and the Eucharist far more by what we do rather than by what we say. At this point, a good examination of conscience might be helpful.
Let’s start with the obvious. Do you attend Mass every Sunday, or just when you’re in the mood, or on special occasions? Faithful Catholics have a serious obligation, before God and the Church, to attend Mass every Sunday and Holy Day, and parents have a particular duty to ensure that their children attend as well. Parents – if you’re not attending Mass every Sunday, what are you teaching your children about the importance of the Eucharist?
And what about our preparation for Mass and our appearance at Mass. Do you wear decent and modest clothes that speak of the dignity of the occasion? This becomes especially problematic during the hot summer months when folks shed their outer garments and church attire is indistinguishable from beach attire.
Do you arrive on time and spend a few moments in prayer and reflection before Mass? Do you try to free yourself of secular distractions when you enter the house of God? Do you really need to drag along that bottle of water? Is the cell phone turned off? Do you absolutely have to text your best friend to confirm your plans for the rest of the day?
And my biggest pet peeve of all, one of the real addictions of our age – chewing gum! Do you realize the chewing gum during Holy Mass, and even while approaching for Holy Communion, breaks at least the spirit of the required Eucharistic fast? Do you recognize that such a vulgar practice – vulgar in the sense of being pedestrian – betrays the sacred encounter about to take place? And the chewing gum habit isn’t reserved just to kids by the way. From my perch at the chair, altar, and pulpit I see adults – men and women, parents and grandparents chomping away, with no awareness at all of how they look or the example they’re giving to others.
As you process forward to receive Holy Communion, what are you teaching your children about the sacred moment? Are you praying, focused on what you are about to do, or are you scoping out everything and everyone around you?
When you receive Holy Communion, do you know what to do? Do you reverently extend your tongue or your hands to receive the sacred Host? Do you say “Amen” to the proclamation of “The Body of Christ,” or do you invent some other personalized response? In distributing Holy Communion and proclaiming “the Body of Christ” I’ve had people respond, “Thank you,” “I believe,” “Yes I am,” and even “Go Steelers,” none of which is an approved proclamation for your meeting with the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.
And, finally, upon returning to your seat after receiving Holy Communion – or do you skip that part and rush to the parking lot? – do you spend some time in prayer and reflection, appreciating the real presence of God in your heart and soul, and thanking God for the precious gift He’s given you?
As we enter the First Communion Season, dear readers, I extend my congratulations and blessings to all the children who will have this first “personal encounter with Jesus” of which the Pope spoke. Let’s also recall that “Every Communion,” not just the “First Communion” is a sacred encounter with God, and that our Eucharistic behavior teaches lessons that will last a lifetime.