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Saturday, May 17, 2014

"Tradition" and "tradition" in the first communion liturgy

Portrait of the author as a young Catholic
I looked at a recent copy of Worship the other day that was on the topic of First Communion, and realized that I had written something about this topic a few years ago, albeit much less studied and dispassionate. Last year I posted one article about first communion here, which addressed my nagging concerns about understanding and faith, and I stand by that. But in this later article from 2008, I was looking at the paradigm of first communion itself, and thought I'd update it a little bit, take out all the snide stuff that won't matter in a few years, and see if there's anything worth considering. I will also add the issue and author of the piece in Worship so you can follow up for more erudite thoughts on the subject.

The idea is that we focus on the children so much, and, by extension, mom and dad, that God gets lost in the ritual, at least the paschal God, the culturally resistant Jesus.Trying to put my finger on exactly what the problem is, though, is more difficult. In practice, it’s not the dressing up, not really. In general, people underdress for mass, so it’s good to see kids actually put on something other than shorts, a commercial t-shirt, and flippies for mass. Parents too, for that matter. Is it the Q&A “homilies” with the kids, looking for the quick laugh, the “Art Linkletter” moment? All the self-congratulatory applause? (There’s a kind of applause that says, “Thanks be to God,” like you hear at an anniversary mass, or when an unjustly embattled bishop or priest enters a supportive assembly; this is the kind that just says, “Aren’t they cute? Aren’t we great?” I mean, in my opinion, which is the only one I have.)

It strikes me that one of the problems (and one of the answers) might be that there is no prescribed ritual for first communion for born Catholics, not in this country, anyway. In some cultures and in the Eastern part of the Church, the initiation sacraments are received together, even when they are administered to children, so first communion is received by an infant after being baptized and confirmed in the same liturgy. But in our country, for example, there is just the legality of having children receive the sacrament “at the age of reason,” which is considered to be at the age of 6 or 7, so the sacrament is received in the second grade. Beyond this there is absolutely no guidance for how first communion is to be celebrated.

Or is there?

First, let me suggest a couple of bad paradigms. Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first: marriage. The obvious thing here is the tradition get-up for kids at first communion, with expensive clothes that suggest little brides and grooms coming to the altar. Besides the bizarreness of the very idea, there’s the whole a priori problem with the general Catholic perception of the sacramentality of marriage underlying this, that marriage is primarily for and about the couple. This is obvious in the whole “it’s our special day” cult of weddings. Weddings, like all sacraments, are primarily actions of God in Christ. They are about something God is doing, and to which we, as human beings called into relationship with God, are called to respond. So, until we can fix what the general Catholic thinking is about the nature of marriage as a sacrament, it’s better not to make it a template for what first communion is.

Second, there’s the paradigm of graduation, again with the special clothes, the processions, the sense that something is ending, rather than that something is beginning. In the parish, we've even had the DRE and school principal come out and give a testimony about how well the children have been prepared, and their names are all called like a roll, and they all stand. Yes, just like graduation. Of course, every sacrament by its nature sits at a threshold, a cusp of experience, expressing what has gone before it in poetry, music, movement and prayer, and then propelling us into a future changed by the moment. Graduation is a gradus, a step forward on an understood journey; it is a commencement, a beginning of something. But the sense in the Church can be (and this is pronouncedly worse at the confirmation liturgy) that we’re finally done with a bunch of classes, and this celebration, its parties and gifts, are the carrot on the end of the stick. Again, the focus is on the receiver, not the giver, so anything that smacks of graduation in the first communion liturgy ought to be rooted out too. The less we ever think, as Christians, that we’ve arrived anywhere, the better off we’ll be, the less prone to judging others, the more interdependent we’ll be in the journey of faith.

So what paradigm could we look to in forming a celebration for first communion that makes sense, that doesn’t focus on the recipient so much as it does on the divine Giver, and the grace poured out upon the entire community in the celebration of the day? You probably know, if you know me at all, that my suggestion will be the RCIA. I think I’m on solid ground here; the General Directory for Catechesis says, at paragraph 59,
“The model for all catechesis is the baptismal catechumenate when, by specific formation, an adult converted to belief is brought to explicit profession of baptismal faith during the Paschal Vigil. This catechumenal formation should inspire the other forms of catechesis in both their objectives and in their dynamism.” 
While this general rule applies specifically to catechesis, it refers to the RCIA, which is a rite. So the question becomes, what does the RCIA say about the way that new Catholics receive first eucharist? Well, it doesn’t really say anything special. It mentions that it is appropriate that the neophytes might present the gifts at the Easter Vigil. It says nothing, however, about receiving the Eucharist specifically from a priest, for instance, nor that the reception of the Eucharist is a time for kindly words or group hugs. The way we come to the Eucharist, first time and every time, is as a body, as part of the Eucharistic community. All this other rigmarole is just fluff; it has nothing to do with the sacrament, and it has everything to do with America’s love affair with all things cute, making first communion into an Anne Geddes photo op.

(The truth in advertising act requires that I admit that, at the Easter vigil in the parish, the neophytes and newly confirmed receive first at the table. This arises from the same impetus as first communion, I think, and is misguided, or at least poorly imagined. Whereas I can understand welcoming the new Catholics to the table first, I don’t understand the need to make it so different in kind from the experience of the rest of the community, you know, why it needs to hold back the extraordinary ministers from performing their role simultaneously. I know there is some disagreement about this among Catholics, too. But now you know the whole story.)

At the very least, the rule of primum non obfuscare should apply: first, do no harm. What is being communicated about the roles in the Eucharistic celebration when the whole community’s coming to the table is held up so that each first communicant and her family receives only from the priest? What does this have to do with the theology of the sacrament as we have it?

I don’t have any problem with the kids being in the opening procession, bringing up the gifts, or “dressing up,” as long as parents make clear that it’s for some reason other than family vanity. I don’t have any problem with families making a big deal out of first communion in the home with a big dinner and party for extended family and friends, or for the parish to have a reception after each celebration of the sacrament; that’s what’s supposed to happen. It’s just these strange additions to the sacramental celebration itself that are so wearying to me. Somebody ought to tell priests to remember their own first communion, that it’s not about their Art-Linkletter banter with the kids, because none of us remembers a moment like that from first communion. We need to focus on the essentials and do them well: participation in the liturgy by everyone, preparation of the kids and parents to do the responses and songs; how to use a hymnal or worship aid; how the Eucharist is just 1/168 of a week, less than 1%, and what we should be doing the other 99.4%
A 1958 first communion class from St. Fidgeta's

For about ten years at St. Anne, we thought it was important to try to have first communions as part of the Sunday celebrations, but it was too radical a concept in the ghetto Catholic mentality of Chicago to do that 100%, so we kept the option for a special Saturday afternoon celebration and also offered the opportunity to celebrate on Sunday. The trouble (for me) is that the restructuring lacked the courage to break with certain aspects of the (small t) tradition, and so certain “cutesy” aspects described above were retained for two Sundays at all the parish masses. So I guess you could say that we were doing the wrong thing for the right reason, which must be the second-greatest treason in Eliot’s demonography. Thus, somehow, liturgically speaking, more wrongs make a right, and the end justifies the means. Hello, grooviness; goodbye, integrity. (Note: now, in 2014, we're back to all-on-Saturday first communions, with three kids on a Sunday morning for one reason or another, about 2%.)

Sigh. I just get the feeling that we’re not really getting it, that we’re just all trying to make each other feel good about our compromises with life and the liturgy, and we really don’t want to take up the challenge of preparing the liturgy to energize adults, and commission them to form the children. It’s easier, though, to have children jump through hoops and “graduate” to first communion and dress up and receive their unleavened diploma. I know it’s not God’s last chance with anybody. I’m one of the few people who even gives a dang, which is an indication that I’m probably way off base. But there’s something deeply unsettling about this thing to me, and it’s not just that Mass takes an extra ten or fifteen minutes for all the sideshows. I’ve been to very long liturgies that seemed right to me. This doesn’t seem right at all.

But, I don’t have to suffer through it any more, for reasons that aren't worth enumerating here. Nothing will change, but I’ll keep singing the same old boring song, to wit, “The liturgy changes us; we don’t change the liturgy." How did it get to be the Sisyphan work of a layperson to try to advocate for the integrity of the liturgy against the insouciance of the clergy? Even more weirdly, how did I become the conservative factor in the equation, when all my life until arriving in this parish I was considered something of a liberal?

It is a kind of time warp: from the perspective of 1970s liturgy, I suppose the 21st century does seem conservative. This might be God’s idea of a joke, and if so, I think she needs a new writer.

A couple of interesting perspectives, one from Ireland, a social justice priest Fr. McVerry who wants to push the age of first communion higher, and one from the PrayTell blog.