First Communion: Past and Present

The First Communion season is coming up, and as your correspondent writes this, she is about to hurry off to a London parish where parents of First Communion children will be meeting. They have invited me to give a talk about “Celebrating the Church’s feasts and seasons” so, while the children are receiving their instruction from the parish priest in the church, we’ll be in the parish hall enjoying a tour through the rich traditions of the Church’s year, with information on customs, cookery, music, and more. In my experience, there are many parents’ groups such as this, approaching their children’s First Communion with dedication and commitment, and also with joy and a sense of a family landmark being reached which will become a cherished memory.

The tradition of First Communion – white dresses for the girls, jackets-and-ties for the boys, commemorative certificates, gifts, a celebration in the parish hall after Mass – has been long established. In London, the sight of children spilling out from church into the piazza after a First Communion Mass at Westminster Cathedral brings tourists staring from buses and passers-by pausing to enjoy it all. And all across Britain, there will be activity in the planning and preparation – special cakes baked and decorated with white and silver trimmings, balloons and other decorations arranged for the parish hall, lists drawn up of who-brings-what for the buffet.

But there are also specific problems today. For some, it’s become an opportunity for lavish spending: a stretch limousine to take the child to church (I’m not inventing this!), a dress designed to look as much like a Royal Wedding bridal gown as possible with train and tiara, an expensive hotel lunch. Children have come to expect gifts of money. And all this among families from lower-income groups, who are always the most enthusiastic about putting on a great show for the day.

“I found that a group of parents in the parish had got together to hire a stretch limo – causing all sorts of tensions, including hurt feelings among other families who were excluded from the group,” sighed a parish priest. Another had been given a beautiful hand-sewn First Communion dress of exquisite workmanship, purchased by a loving grandmother – unwanted, because the child involved had already been bought another dress which she preferred. “I badly want to pass this on to a family who would appreciate it,” said the priest “But they’re all already buying their own and don’t seem to want to know…”

It’s all rather different from my own memories in the vanished Britain of some decades ago. In those days, the Catholic newspaper, the “Universe,” appealed for people to send white dresses to poor parishes where the priest would be able to make good use of them for families desperate for their little girls to wear a traditional frock for this special day. I remember my mother packing up carefully the white dress which had been worn first by my sister and then by me. She had made it herself – her first venture into serious dressmaking. (Over the years she was to make us many more, the grand finale being my wedding-dress in 1980!).

And in mainland Europe, it was the same. Back in the 1950s, Father Werenfried van Straaten, founder of the international charity “Aid to the Church in Need,” appealed for people to send white dresses so that children from refugee families could have a beautiful First Communion Day. Many of these children had been born in the poverty of post-war Germany’s ruined cities or camps for displaced people from Eastern Europe.

Today, the challenge is to keep everything focused on the great spiritual reality at the heart of it all, avoiding the possibility of it becoming a secularised celebration. There are lovely books that make beautiful gifts. The children of 2011 will be receiving missals with the new translation of the Mass, and Catholic Truth Society has been busy with some books of fine workmanship, gold-edging and all, well worthy of this special year. And there are books about Christ with stories from the Gospels, books about saints, books of popular prayers – along with statues, crucifixes, medals, rosaries…all ideal ways of commemorating the day.

Children usually enjoy First Communion classes, and in recent years we seem to have moved on from the rather vague “Jesus invites you to a celebration,” which was the muddled message that formed too much of the instruction given in the 1970s and 80s. Instead, parishes today are able to use materials based on the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” and benefit from the work done by the Maryvale Institute, or some of the New Movements in the Church, in training parish catechists. Music, too, has moved on – although not always far enough, as some rather dreary ditties which first emerged in the 1970s still dominate in too many parishes.

The renewed emphasis on the Eucharist, which was a hallmark of the papacy of Blessed John Paul and has been central to that of our present Holy Father, means that children today make their First Communion at a time when parish devotion to the Blessed Sacrament is emphasised. They will be familiar with the idea of Adoration in a church where the Blessed Sacrament is at the centre of devotion, on an altar glittering with candles. They will know about World Youth Day and night vigils of prayer, and will expect to share in such things as they grow older. Going to confession, too, is something that is taught in a fresh way: in many parishes, this is presented as an opportunity for parents to return to a sacrament that may have been neglected or abandoned.<p></p>
At my First Communion, long ago, we sang: ”Welcome, welcome, welcome Jesus/In my heart forever stay./All my life I will remember/This my First Communion day.”