A Season of First Communions
We are in the middle of First Holy Communion season. Although there is no fixed liturgical feast for this, many parishes across South Africa choose a Sunday in October or November as the date when children receive Jesus in the Eucharist for the first time.
This is a defining moment in the life of a young Catholic. And it can be a defining moment for a parish community. There can be a real sense of excitement and joy to see the next generation of Catholics walk solemnly and slightly nervously into a packed church. One of the miracles of this day is that the children often bring with them relatives and family friends who are not regular churchgoers but who want to share in the celebration.
There are extra flowers, processions with candles, hymns and readings delivered by the youngsters themselves — and, of course, the dressing up. A suit and tie for many young boys is something special; but, for the girls, a pretty white mini-wedding dress can be an absolute thrill.
Unfortunately, the dressing up has become controversial; parents sometimes try to outdo each other in how elaborate their child’s outfit is, often those who can least afford the extra expense. Unfortunately, the dressing up has become controversial; parents sometimes try to outdo each other in how elaborate their child’s outfit is, often those who can least afford the extra expense.
So sensibly some parishes have put a brake on this by limiting what children can wear or by providing a uniform outfit for everyone — a white altar server’s robe for example — so that all children, rich and poor, can appear equal before the community on that day. This kind of solution works since it can still make a special day even more special.
My mother is a great seamstress and, since she made Communion dresses for half the parish, I was not going to be excluded. So I remember vividly — even though it was 43 years ago! — my own First Holy Communion day dressed in a specially tailored white suit, at least outwardly appearing like a little angel.
But I am pleased to say that I was also conscious of quite what an important step this was in my own life.
The Eucharist is the culmination of our prayer as Catholics — the constant and visible reminder of Christ’s continued presence among us — so it is not surprising that the day when someone can receive it for the first time is so significant.
But though it comes at the end of an intense year-long course, the day of First Communion should not be seen as a completion of a process but rather a high-point of an ongoing journey.
The Catechism taught us the phrase that a sacrament is the “outward visible sign of an inward invisible grace”. Though the signs happen at a moment in time, we should not imagine that graces from God come just as specific instants. They can be ongoing and enveloping, more like a mist than a passing shower or a thunderstorm.
Thus, the act of First Communion, for the child and for the community, is a visible moment to celebrate what has led to that point (the nurturing of the child in the life of the Church) and also of what will proceed from that point (the renewed and more mature involvement of the child in the life of the Church). If those are missing, no amount of dressing up can take their place.
We are conscious of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist — that is why we treat the host with such reverence and genuflect towards the tabernacle. This concrete and visible reminder of Christ’s presence can be helpful to us because, often, the other ways in which Christ is present are less immediately visible.
Since the Church is Christ’s body (as St Paul tells us), we should be able to see Christ present there. But sometimes we are so busy bickering with each other or competing for the priest’s attention that we fail to see Christ in the presence of those with whom we share our pews. Or sometimes we are so busy looking forwards to Christ in the host that we fail to look to the side and notice Christ in the frail old lady or the lonely teen or the stressed young mother who needs our help — or just a friendly smile.
It is wonderful that the sign of peace — the one moment when we have to acknowledge the presence of Christ in those around us — happens at the most solemn part of the liturgy. I am shocked when some priests regard this as optional rather than intrinsic or, worse still, see it as something for the people of God but not a gesture that they need to make.
We are also called to see Christ in the poor — not just the attractive, cheery, grateful ones but the mean-spirited, belligerent, ungrateful, difficult ones.
Each morning as I walk from my car to my office at the Denis Hurley Centre, I walk right past the open door of Emmanuel cathedral and, even if I do not go in, I pause to bow toward the tabernacle — a moment to remember Christ’s presence in the Eucharist so that I will remember his presence in the people I will meet through the day. I am delighted that so many families in Durban have decided that they do not need to buy their children yet another rosary for First Communion and that instead a pledge in their name to feed the hungry has been chosen as a better gift for the occasion — it is in giving that we receive.
We must be careful that we do not treat Communion as being like Popeye’s spinach, a superfood that will give us extra strength in the fight. But symbolically it does play a role a bit like that. The effect on me in receiving Communion should be to remind me that the graces that I have received are so great (and so undeserved) that I must now share them with those around me, especially those in need.
Remember that the very name “Mass” is stressing the very last words of the service—we receive Christ so that we can be “sent out” to share Christ.
I have a wonderful memory of this from when I worked in a L’Arche community many years ago, a place where adults with learning disabilities share their home and their lives with able-bodied people who can help them.
The spiritual life of L’Arche members is taken very seriously and so a Mass in the house was very special to all the people present. A regular bottle of wine was opened so that the priest could consecrate part of it during the Mass. But then after Mass, one of the disabled members in great procession carried the rest of the bottle of wine to the dinner table where we all shared it over our meal.
It was a wonderful symbol of the way in which the community that was created by the act of communion at Mass could flow over into our community as a household, all of us different members of the same body which is Christ.
As St Augustine put it so succinctly: “Receive what you are — the Body of Christ; become what you receive — the Body of Christ.”