First Communion, Without Pomp

Author: Father Edward McNamara LC


First Communion, Without Pomp

By Father Edward McNamara, LC

ROME, 15 July 2014 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: My great-niece was to receive her first Holy Communion and has been told she need not wear the traditional white dress, nor receive Communion with the other children who are also to receive their first Communion. She can attend any Mass and just go up and receive Communion. I have protested to the parish priest about this and have received a short reply stating that white dresses are too expensive for some mothers. No mention of the other questions I put to him. Has the parish priest the right to do this? — D.S., Woy Woy, Australia

A: There are several levels to be dealt with in this question.

From a canonical standpoint we could say that, strictly speaking, the parish priest is within his rights in not organizing a special first Communion service. If he has ascertained that the child is sufficiently well prepared, and has made first confession, then he can authorize the child to receive Communion at any Mass with no special vesture or any special service.

This is in part because, unlike baptism or confirmation, first reception of Communion is not a distinct sacrament but rather participation in the holy Sacrifice as the culmination of the process of initiation. In most Eastern Churches all three sacraments are given together to infants.

Nor does the missal have a special rite or Mass for first Communion, distinct from other Masses. Indeed since it is customary in many places to celebrate first Communion on Sundays of late April and May that often coincide with major solemnities.

At the same time, from a pastoral point of view, the practice of a special celebration for children receiving Communion for the first time is well established in the Latin Church and has proved its worth in many ways. Above all, when well prepared, it can be a very special experience in a child's life and can emphasize the importance of full participation in the Church's sacramental life. It can also be a good opportunity for the spiritual regeneration of a whole family.

It is true that, objectively speaking, receiving first Communion at a regular parish Mass rather than in a special celebration constitutes the same material act. Subjectively, however, it is likely that without some external means of underlining its importance, its deeper meaning will be lost on most young children.

Admittedly, the external elements are not the heart of preparation for first Communion, which should be primarily doctrinal and spiritual, albeit adapted to 7-year-olds. Yet, we should neglect no means to help bring this deeper meaning home.

Because of this, while showing respect for the priest, in this case it would be good to inform the bishop of this particular pastoral practice, since he might have a different criterion as to its wisdom for the good of souls.

The priest, however, has brought to light a real pastoral difficulty. In certain societies, ostensibly spiritual moments such as baptisms and first Communions have sometimes degenerated into social events and given rise to unhealthy and un-Christian competition among families vying for prestige and show. Indeed, sometimes families have felt pressured into engaging in needless and ill-affordable expense on such occasions.

One solution to this problem is very common in Italy and some other countries. The parish either rents or sells to parents a standardized alblike habit that is set aside for children receiving first Communion. It is usually the same for boys and girls, although in some cases girls wear a white headband. This solution eliminates any social distinctions and puts all the emphasis on the reception of Communion and not on superficial elements.

In the long term, when such a solution is practiced, parents end up preferring it as it frees them, not only from excessive expense, but also allows them to concentrate on the essential elements.
This is just one possible solution to a difficulty that is real in some places. There might be others also. It is important to seek solutions which overcome the difficulties while conserving and enhancing those elements which have proved their pastoral effectiveness.

We must recognize, however, that the older traditions of the special white dress for girls also had its advantages, especially when such clothing was carefully kept and used within families or was especially made by family members.

I know of at least one family in which the fabric of the mother's wedding dress was later transformed into the baptismal gowns and first Communion dresses of the children. This is a beautiful way of symbolizing the spiritual fruitfulness that also comes with marriage.
The difficulties arise when such traditions are lost, and there is more emphasis on outward appearances.

* * *

Follow-up: First Communion, Without Pomp [7-29-2014]

There were a couple of comments on our July 15 article on first Communion. One reader asked about the plenary indulgence attached to the ceremony.

Effectively, in No. 42 of the Handbook of Indulgences, a plenary indulgence is granted to those who receive Communion for the first time and also when one devoutly assists at a first Communion ceremony.

This grant, at least implicitly, shows that the Church approves of holding such celebrations even though no official liturgical rite exists. If there were no ceremony, then the indulgence would always apply to the communicant but not necessarily to those in attendance.

An Eastern Christian expressed some perplexity as to the Lain practice as opposed to the Eastern practice of giving Communion and Confirmation along with infant baptism. He referred to a 1938 document from the Holy See, which I have been unable to trace, that suggested that an en masse communion, with special clothes, could be avoided. Not knowing the context, I cannot comment, other than saying that there would be nothing surprising in this recommendation in compelling circumstances, such as in times of generalized economic hardships.

Other points, such as the why of first confession before first Communion, would require a detailed examination of the practice of confession in Latin and Eastern practice. Frequent use of the sacrament of reconciliation, even without the presence of grave sin, has been fostered in the Latin Church, whereas use of the sacrament has been less frequent in some Eastern traditions and often linked to reception of Communion.

In order to grasp the logic behind the Latin practice, it seems useful to go back to the 1910 decree Quam Singulari, which still forms the basis for current practice:

"The pages of the Gospel show clearly how special was that love for children which Christ showed while He was on earth. It was His delight to be in their midst; He was wont to lay His hands on them; He embraced them; and He blessed them. At the same time He was not pleased when they would be driven away by the disciples, whom He rebuked gravely with these words: 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for of such is the kingdom of God.' It is clearly seen how highly He held their innocence and the open simplicity of their souls on that occasion when He called a little child to Him and said to the disciples: 'Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.... And whoever receives one such little child for my sake, receives me.'

"The Catholic Church, bearing this in mind, took care even from the beginning to bring the little ones to Christ through Eucharistic Communion, which was administered even to nursing infants. This, as was prescribed in almost all ancient Ritual books, was done at Baptism until the thirteenth century, and this custom prevailed in some places even later. It is still found in the Greek and Oriental Churches. But to remove the danger that infants might eject the Consecrated Host, the custom obtained from the beginning of administering the Eucharist to them under the species of wine only.

"Infants, however, not only at the time of Baptism, but also frequently thereafter were admitted to the sacred repast. In some churches it was the custom to give the Eucharist to the children immediately after the clergy; in others, the small fragments which remained after the Communion of the adults were given to the children.

"This practice later died out in the Latin Church, and children were not permitted to approach the Holy Table until they had come to the use of reason and had some knowledge of this august Sacrament. This new practice, already accepted by certain local councils, was solemnly confirmed by the Fourth Council of the Lateran, in 1215, which promulgated its celebrated Canon XXI, whereby sacramental Confession and Holy Communion were made obligatory on the faithful after they had attained the use of reason, in these words: 'All the faithful of both sexes shall, after reaching the years of discretion, make private confession of all their sins to their own priest at least once a year, and shall, according to their capacity, perform the enjoined penance; they shall also devoutly receive the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist at least at Easter time unless on the advice of their own priest, for some reasonable cause, it be deemed well to abstain for a while.'

"The Council of Trent, in no way condemning the ancient practice of administering the Eucharist to children before they had attained the use of reason, confirmed the Decree of the Lateran Council and declared anathema those who held otherwise: 'If anyone denies that each and all Christians of both sexes are bound, when they have attained the years of discretion, to receive Communion every year at least at Easter, in accordance with the precept of Holy Mother Church, let him be anathema.'

"In accord with this Decree of the Lateran Council, still in effect, the faithful are obliged, as soon as they arrive at the years of discretion, to receive the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Eucharist at least once a year.

"However, in the precise determination of 'the age of reason or discretion' not a few errors and deplorable abuses have crept in during the course of time. There were some who maintained that one age of discretion must be assigned to reception of the Sacrament of Penance and another to the Holy Eucharist. They held that for Confession the age of discretion is reached when one can distinguish right from wrong, hence can commit sin; for Holy Eucharist, however, a greater age is required in which a full knowledge of matters of faith and a better preparation of the soul can be had. As a consequence, owing to various local customs and opinions, the age determined for the reception of First Communion was placed at ten years or twelve, and in places fourteen years or even more were required; and until that age children and youth were prohibited from Eucharistic Communion.

"This practice of preventing the faithful from receiving on the plea of safeguarding the august Sacrament has been the cause of many evils. It happened that children in their innocence were forced away from the embrace of Christ and deprived of the food of their interior life; and from this it also happened that in their youth, destitute of this strong help, surrounded by so many temptations, they lost their innocence and fell into vicious habits even before tasting of the Sacred Mysteries. And even if a thorough instruction and a careful Sacramental Confession should precede Holy Communion, which does not everywhere occur, still the loss of first innocence is always to be deplored and might have been avoided by reception of the Eucharist in more tender years.

"No less worthy of condemnation is that practice which prevails in many places prohibiting from Sacramental Confession children who have not yet made their First Holy Communion, or of not giving them absolution. Thus it happens that they, perhaps having fallen into serious sin, remain in that very dangerous state for a long time.

"But worse still is the practice in certain places which prohibits children who have not yet made their First Communion from being fortified by the Holy Viaticum, even when they are in imminent danger of death; and thus, when they die they are buried with the rites due to infants and are deprived of the prayers of the Church.

"Such is the injury caused by those who insist on extraordinary preparations for First Communion, beyond what is reasonable; and they doubtless do not realize that such precautions proceed from the errors of the Jansenists who contended that the Most Holy Eucharist is a reward rather than a remedy for human frailty. The Council of Trent, indeed, teaches otherwise when it calls the Eucharist, 'An antidote whereby we may be freed from daily faults and be preserved from mortal sins.' This doctrine was not long ago strongly emphasized by a Decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Council given on December 20, 1905. It declared that daily approach to Communion is open to all, old and young, and two conditions only are required: the state of grace and a right intention.

"Moreover, the fact that in ancient times the remaining particles of the Sacred Species were even given to nursing infants seems to indicate that no extraordinary preparation should now be demanded of children who are in the happy state of innocence and purity of soul, and who, amidst so many dangers and seductions of the present time have a special need of this heavenly food.

"The abuses which we are condemning are due to the fact that they who distinguished one age of discretion for Penance and another for the Eucharist did so in error. The Lateran Council required one and the same age for reception of either Sacrament when it imposed the one obligation of Confession and Communion.

"Therefore, the age of discretion for Confession is the time when one can distinguish between right and wrong, that is, when one arrives at a certain use of reason, and so similarly, for Holy Communion is required the age when one can distinguish between the Bread of the Holy Eucharist and ordinary bread—again the age at which a child attains the use of reason. […]

"After careful deliberation on all these points, this Sacred Congregation of the Discipline of the Sacraments, in a general meeting held on July 15, 1910, in order to remove the above-mentioned abuses and to bring about that children even from their tender years may be united to Jesus Christ, may live His life, and obtain protection from all danger of corruption, has deemed it needful to prescribe the following rules which are to be observed everywhere for the First Communion of children.

"1. The age of discretion, both for Confession and for Holy Communion, is the time when a child begins to reason, that is about the seventh year, more or less. From that time on begins the obligation of fulfilling the precept of both Confession and Communion.

"2. A full and perfect knowledge of Christian doctrine is not necessary either for First Confession or for First Communion. Afterwards, however, the child will be obliged to learn gradually the entire Catechism according to his ability.

"3. The knowledge of religion which is required in a child in order to be properly prepared to receive First Communion is such that he will understand according to his capacity those Mysteries of faith which are necessary as a means of salvation (necessitate medii) and that he can distinguish between the Bread of the Eucharist and ordinary, material bread, and thus he may receive Holy Communion with a devotion becoming his years.

"4. The obligation of the precept of Confession and Communion which binds the child particularly affects those who have him in charge, namely, parents, confessor, teachers and the pastor. It belongs to the father, or the person taking his place, and to the confessor, according to the Roman Catechism, to admit a child to his First Communion.

"5. The pastor should announce and hold a General Communion of the children once a year or more often, and he should on these occasions admit not only the First Communicants but also others who have already approached the Holy Table with the above-mentioned consent of their parents or confessor. Some days of instruction and preparation should be previously given to both classes of children.

"6. Those who have charge of the children should zealously see to it that after their First Communion these children frequently approach the Holy Table, even daily if possible, as Jesus Christ and Mother Church desire, and let this be done with a devotion becoming their age. They must also bear in mind that very grave duty which obliged them to have the children attend the public Catechism classes; if this is not done, then they must supply religious instruction in some other way.

"7. The custom of not admitting children to Confession or of not giving them absolution when they have already attained the use of reason must be entirely abandoned. The Ordinary shall see to it that this condition ceases absolutely, and he may, if necessary, use legal measures accordingly.

"8. The practice of not administering the Viaticum and Extreme Unction to children who have attained the use of reason, and of burying them with the rite used for infants is a most intolerable abuse. The Ordinary should take very severe measures against those who do not give up the practice. "His Holiness, Pope Pius X, in an audience granted on the seventh day of this month, approved all the above decisions of this Sacred Congregation, and ordered this Decree to be published and promulgated …"

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