Many Catholics hold fond memories of receiving the Eucharist for the first time. For some, mere mention of the words “first Communion” triggers a flood of memories in which celebrations and frilly white dresses hold a prominent place.
While the sacrament itself hasn’t changed, a significant shift has taken place over the past several decades in the philosophy behind preparation for first Communion, according to Sister of St. Joseph Karen Dietz, coordinator of sacramental catechesis for the Diocese of Rochester.
For example, many adult Catholics prepared for and celebrated their first Communions with their classmates in Catholic schools or their parishes’ religious-education programs. Yet it was more than 20 years ago that the diocese began encouraging parishes to operate their sacramental-preparation programs separately from the regular curriculum of religious education or Catholic schools, Sister Dietz said.
“Not all children are ready at the same time for every sacrament,” she explained.
Since preparation for first Communion is based on readiness, there is no specific age — or grade level — at which children should celebrate their first Communion, Sister Dietz said, although most children begin preparation around the age of 7.
According to diocesan sacramental guidelines, “A child in the process of Christian initiation is led gradually according to personal capacity to participate fully in the Eucharist.” An individual child’s readiness to celebrate the sacrament is determined by the child himself, his parents and the parish, Sister Dietz said.
“Listen to your kids and see what they want,” she advised. “The first sign they are ready is there’s a real desire for the sacrament. With this sacrament, it’s usually pretty obvious.”
Children will often demonstrate desire for the Eucharist by asking their parents when they’ll be able to go up and receive Communion, she added. Diocesan guidelines state candidates for first Communion should also be baptized, participate regularly in the worship life of the parish, have an age-appropriate knowledge of Jesus and the Catholic faith, and be able to distinguish Eucharist from ordinary bread.
Family readiness is just as important as individual readiness, Sister Dietz said, because a child’s family should be his or her primary source of faith formation. A family also needs to commit to regular Mass attendance, since a child who has just made his or her first Communion isn’t usually able to get to Mass alone.
The parish is responsible for welcoming children, providing them with lifelong faith-formation opportunities, and providing parents with the support they need to fulfill their role as primary educators of their children, according to a parents’ guide to first Communion published by the diocese.
The family’s role
Within the past two decades, many diocesan parishes have started placing more emphasis on family involvement in first Communion preparation, Sister Dietz said. As an intergenerational approach to preparation has gained popularity, parents have been invited to attend and participate in catechist-led preparation sessions and to conduct their own preparation sessions with children at home.
Parent response to this new approach has generally been positive, Sister Dietz said.
“Usually at first they’re resistant to it because parents don’t feel they have the skills. But once they’ve done it they’re usually really glad because it’s such an enriching experience for the whole family,” she said, noting the change represents a cultural shift. “The parents have to spend so much time apart from their children that they prefer this approach. It always makes it fun, and it makes it far less academic and more of a spiritual exercise.”
Family involvement is a large component of first Communion preparation at St. John of Rochester Parish in Fairport, according to Judy Swagler, religious-education coordinator. Children attend three sessions at the parish, where they learn about the Mass, the Eucharist and the proper way to receive it. Over a period of several weeks, the children also work from a first Communion textbook at home with their parents.
“I think (families) like to be involved. We tell the parents this is not something scary, you’re learning with your child,” Swagler said. After completing the program, one woman even told Swagler it changed her life, and she was grateful for the opportunity to sit and talk about such meaningful things with her daughter.
Parents and children enrolled in a similar family-based preparation program at the St. Anthony/St. Patrick cluster in Elmira also work from a first Communion textbook at home, said Rose Bennett, religious-education coordinator. Bennett gathers the parents twice during the program for a “refresher course” in theology and other things they should know when preparing their children for first Communion.
Families enrolled in the preparation program at Holy Family Parish in Auburn attend three weekly sessions, according to Nancy Smith, faith-formation administrator and liturgical coordinator. Separate but concurrent sessions are held for parents and children. At the adult sessions, parents receive the tools and information they need to help their kids prepare for their first Communion, something many parents are grateful for, Smith said.
Through preparation programs, diocesan catechists try to connect first Communion with baptism, which is about belonging to the community, Sister Dietz said. In keeping with this theme of community, most diocesan parishes now hold their first Communion celebrations during regularly scheduled parish Masses.
“Sacraments are parish celebrations. We don’t think it should be separate because it’s part of what we do as a parish,” Bennett said. “We celebrate first Communion the whole weekend, so that the Mass that the child usually goes to is the Mass where they celebrate their first Communion.”
Celebrating the sacrament in the context of a parish Mass helps children understand when they receive the Eucharist, they are starting a pattern they’ll hopefully follow for the rest of their lives, Sister Dietz said.
Including first Communion celebrations in parish Masses also takes some of the emphasis off the event itself and puts it back on the sacrament, where it belongs, she said.
“There’s more of an emphasis on the action of the receiving of first Communion and less of an emphasis on the party. We really need to focus on what it is that we’re doing,” Sister Dietz said.
The parish community at St. Anthony/St. Patrick is involved with the first Communion preparation of its youngsters through the Prayer Partners program, which began more than 10 years ago, Bennett said. Through this program, parishioners are paired with candidates and encouraged to pray for and send notes or cards to them.
“It’s a way for everybody in our parish to participate in our first Communion program,” Bennett said.
Many parishes encourage the candidates, their parents and family members to take part in the first Communion liturgy as lectors, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and gift bearers. At Holy Family, one child places a wreath on a statue of Mary during a small May crowning during the first Communion celebration.
“Every child gets to do something. It kind of makes the kids feel more at home in church,” Smith said.