Non Solum: Should we “scrap” First Communion?

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!







15 responses to “Non Solum: Should we “scrap” First Communion?”

  1. Bill deHaas Avatar
    Bill deHaas

    Excellent analysis using real examples.
    To add – this has also been a point of conflict in the US. For example:
    a) merging or blending parish elementary school 1st Communion kids with public school/CCD 1st Communion kids (too often – they are kept separate – think tribes)
    b) focus years ago that *parents* decide child’s readiness rather than just accepting that they are in 1st grade – then, 1st Communion becomes a family celebration rather than a school/class function
    c) issues around expense of *white* clothes, etc. – is this even necessary for 1st Communion?
    In addition, everything you wrote about Irish 1st Communion can be paralleled with US parishes that primarily deal with Hispanic Quinceaneras – have experienced families that go into debt to compete with cultural pressure and spend upwards of $20,000 on this event. In the process, not much spirituality.

  2. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Jack Feehily

    Part of the renewal of the sacraments associated with Vatican II involved moving away from practices influenced more by culture than sound theological and liturgical principles. Corporate first communion was celebrated as a “class” event made up predominantly of parish school second graders. CCD participants were add ons in such parishes. These events in many places involved so many children they had to have a special first communion Mass on a Saturday morning to accommodate the throng of family members. Great emphasis was placed on teaching children how to walk in procession, how to position their hands, and how to actually receive communion. Little emphasis, if any, was placed on teaching the children how to celebrate the Eucharist and how to participate in it fully, actively, and consciously. FC Masses were nothing short of sacred Kodak moments that preceded the parties for each individual child at home. In the 38 years I have been a pastor the readiness for FC has been determined by parents and catechetical leaders on an individual basis. We ask them to select a date during the Easter season that the child can begin receiving communion with family and the parish family members at their customary Sunday Mass. Preparation focuses on teaching the children and parents how to offer Mass more intentionally through their active participation. We also teach them about how Jesus is truly present in the Mass and in HC and why he is truly present—so that they can do holy things like loving and forgiving, like being kind and considerate. The children place banners on one of the walls which are on display through Corpus Christi. Our problem doesn’t involve lavish dresses but recognizing parents who are not attending Mass regularly.

    1. Fr. Khouri Giardos Avatar
      Fr. Khouri Giardos

      We have a similar process in my parish but not only catechists and parents help decide if a child is ready: instead the pastor also meets with he child and parents. I have told a number of parents that their child is not well prepared and I am not talking about folding hands and step marching in procession. I am talking about worshiping at Mass on Sundays and being able to state in very simple terms what the Holy Eucharist is and why we worship. Parents whine, threaten, beg, cajole and demand. I never change my mind but tell the parents that if they will come to Mass and teach their child what the Holy Eucharist is and why it is important to be part of the parish I will consider admitting them to Holy communion. (I know the only way to track this is by putting an envelope in the collection or register for online giving; but I never mention money). Some say this is a reward for “jumping through hoops”, so is getting a driver’s licence, getting married in the Church and other assorted things. Too bad. We also do not have a communal celebration with the boys dressed as butlers (we had a time when ties and tails were common) and the girls like tinkerbell…the dresses are ridiculous and a throwback from the time when the Lord in the Holy Eucharist was the “spouse of the soul” and we sang about hiding in Jesus wounds. We are generally past that kind of piety. Again an uproar came from parents regarding dress…now they all wear white graduation type gowns.
      Ah, to be in the Eastern Church were the Sacraments are correctly received.

  3. Nancy Dallavalle Avatar
    Nancy Dallavalle

    Humble observations from the cheap seats here…
    1. I was struck by a Lord & Taylor page 3 ad in the NYT, many years ago, that featured several young girls in first communion dresses running through a field, beautifully photographed. The caption was “For that first walk down the aisle…” Deep sigh.
    2. Recognizing the danger of having “conformity” replace “catechesis,” as Jack Feehily notes, I did find, particularly for those in public schools, that the sense of a “class” going through the formation is valuable, as the children get a sense of Catholic identity — one hopes, without this simply being tribal.

  4. Alan Johnson Avatar
    Alan Johnson

    Further to the comments about the Irish experience …… some years ago a friend who was Head of an inner city Catholic primary school in Liverpool (UK) tried to dissuade mothers from dressing their daughters up like little princesses/brides for 1st Communion. She was met with outrage by mothers who berated her for trying to impose her snobbish “middle class” values on them and was told that it might be the only time some of the mothers saw their daughters walk down the aisle in white.
    It is treacherous ground where tribal non-practising “Catholics” come into contact with the Church.
    I seem to remember that parishes were encouraged (just in the UK?) to do all sacramental preparation in-house using parish catechists, rather than farm it out to the local catholic school. I wonder how often that happens.

  5. Alan Griffiths Avatar
    Alan Griffiths

    I think this might be a question of ‘who owns First Holy Communion?’ I mean that in Catholic cultures (in the broadest sense) ownership rests with the catholic population, whether or not they go to Mass on Sundays, indeed notwithstanding the degree of their personal adherence to the Church and its teachings.

    Ownership, on this score, would not rest with either the clergy, the Church authorities or the lay leaders who constitute the core body of most parishes, but with anyone who, for whatever reason, identifies themselves as Roman Catholic.

    How legitimate is it for such core groups to say who may and who may not make their first Communion? Recently in the Parish I live in, people were being told effectively that unless they were at Sunday Mass their children would not be admitted to the First HC Programme. One Parish Priest I know actually took a register, something which was greatly resented by those subject to it.

    Might such policies be regarded as a sort of ‘power grab’ by an elite, designed to exclude the rest?


    1. Fr. Neil Xavier O'Donoghue Avatar
      Fr. Neil Xavier O’Donoghue

      Hi Alan, yes the point of who “owns” the Sacraments is a very valid question.

      If the answer is Christ of the Church, then those who are encharged with the administration of the parish, should have a big say in what actually happens in the church on the morning of the First Communion.

      Unfortunately, there are horror stories on every side. Some priests treat people very badly. However, there is also a tendency on the part of non-practicing “parishioners” to demand special treatment, that makes life very hard on those who regularly attend the parish.

      There is also the cultural phenomenon whereby the Sacrament itself is lost in all the celebrations. A teacher recently told me how one of the children in her First Communion class did not show up in the parish church on the morning of her First Communion. On Monday morning she asked the child if she had been sick. The child said that no, her family were running late on the Saturday morning and took the little girl straight from the hairdresser’s to the restaurant and skipped the bit of the First Communion that was being held in the church!!!!

      The problem is how to put some decorum in the celebration keeping a balance between the legitimate needs of the non-practicing families and having a true celebration of the Sacrament. The parish priest and those who work for the parish are all too often caught in the middle and no matter what they do, they will be severely criticized by somebody.

      1. Alan Griffiths Avatar
        Alan Griffiths

        I absolutely agree about the Parish priest and others being caught in the middle. But at least as far as priests are concerned, I guess that bearing blame is part of what we take on at Ordination!

        Culturally, First HC might well evolve into a secular ‘coming of age’ celebration for children, and its liturgical content be lost. I wonder also whether the same thing might happen with Baptism and Confirmation, also of cultural expectation and also events which the clergy seek to root more profoundly in people’s faith, such as that may be.

        My exposure to a Confirmation preparation course in a parish where I was living was to learn that the candidates had proposed to the Parish Priest that there was ‘too much religion’ in the course. This was because they had been asked to attend a retreat day.

        As culture and Church grow further apart, this will remain a sticky one.


  6. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    “A teacher recently told me how one of the children in her First Communion class did not show up in the parish church on the morning of her First Communion. On Monday morning she asked the child if she had been sick. The child said that no, her family were running late on the Saturday morning and took the little girl straight from the hairdresser’s to the restaurant and skipped the bit of the First Communion that was being held in the church!!!!”

    Oh. My.

    1. Roger Durand Avatar

      Oh my indeed……

    2. Christopher lazowski OSB Avatar

      Not First Communion, but the same sort of thing. My monastic community is in France (diocese of Rouen); in France, as in other countries influenced by the French “Code civil”, religious marriages have no civil effect, and clergy face criminal penalties if they celebrate a religious marriage if a civil ceremony has not preceded it. The Church also requires a preceding civil wedding, in order to ensure that the religious marriage has civil effect. I was recently told of a case where a parish priest near here waited over an hour one Saturday afternoon for a wedding party to show up, then locked the church and left, as he had another commitment. During the week, he ran into the mother of the bride, and mentioned what had happened. She apologised profusely, and explained that the civil ceremony had begun late, and that people had been celebrating afterwards with such enthusiasm that they forgot about the church bit, and went straight to the reception.
      One advantage of living in a country with a common law tradition is that, as religious marriages have civil effect, people actually have to take part in them if they want to be married!

  7. Samuel Goyvaerts Avatar
    Samuel Goyvaerts

    A lot of good and very recognizable questions at the end of your article, but very hard to give answers…
    We have very much the same situation in Belgium.
    Just a few anecdotes:
    – families are asked to attend two or three masses during the preparation period, but if the parents even show up, only half of them receives HC, they just remain seated during communion (while preparing their children for it…).
    – during the FC celebration last year, a child received HC, but tucked it away in her purse… when asked why, she told the catechist she did not like the taste of the wafer and her mother (who did not liked the taste either) told her to just ‘put it in your purse and throw it away later’… Can you imagine?

    I even heard of FC without eucharistic celebration, just (infantilized) liturgy of the Word and distribution of HC…

    Churches are empty, certainly families with children do not attend and in this context, FC seems to be a pastoral opportunity to reach out to a lot of people. Very difficult situation, with a lot of pain involved…

    1. Alan Griffiths Avatar
      Alan Griffiths

      While I appreciate the ‘pastoral opportunity to reach out to a lot of people’ point, and while I can testify that there are cases where this works in bringing people to some sort of regular Mass participation, I think that for so many, the secular assumptions prevail, that the Church is a provider of services, that the customer avails themselves of those services without commitment, and that, in fine, the customer is always right.

      It’s those assumptions that in the long run will dictate how these issues of First HC, Baptism and Confirmation develop, maybe into some sort of coming of age ceremonies without deep Catholic reference, rather in the way that funerals are going right now.


  8. Tim Brunk Avatar
    Tim Brunk

    Interested parties may wish to consult these sources on First Communion and consumerism:

    Jo-Ann Metzdorff, “The Consumer Culture and Family Faith Formation, Practice and Preparation for First Holy Communion,” (D.Min. thesis, Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington NY, 2007).

    Peter McGrail, First Communion: Ritual, Church and Popular Religious Identity (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), esp. chapter ten.

  9. Donna M Eschenauer Avatar
    Donna M Eschenauer

    I read this with great interest and concern.
    May I invite you all to read my book, First Communion Liturgies (Liturgical Press, 2014). I offer some pastoral suggestions that are rooted in my own experience of over 20 years. I envision first communion to be integral to parish life, celebrated in the midst of the community. Formation must include the child, the family and the parish.

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