A celebration for the whole community

It’s time to prepare for Communion season

By the time this article is published the ‘are we there yet?’ questions will have been replaced by the sight of bouncy castles in front gardens, children’s photographs on church walls, grannies and granddads criss-crossing the country trying to be in two churches at one time.

Yes, the First Communion season has arrived. It is easily, with the exception of Easter, my favourite date on the parish calendar. With each new group of children receiving the Body of Christ for the first time I always think about the command of Jesus at the Last Supper: “Do this in memory of me.”

First Communion day provides a parish community with the opportunity to respond to Jesus’ ‘not forgetting request’ in a beautiful manner each year. For that reason, First Communion Day is a celebration for the entire parish community and not an exclusive occasion for the families and friends of the communicants.

This of course was also the reason why we would have pushed hard for parishes to celebrate First Eucharist on a Sunday to encourage participation by the wider community. Sadly there still are parishes that want to promote the ‘privatisation’ of sacraments or at least they don’t want to ‘impose’ a First Communion celebration on the rest of the Eucharistic community

The man of the cross

Clearly we have some work to do to help Eucharistic communities to believe that they are just that.

Who is the greatest?

Recently President Obama made his first official visit to Pope Francis at the Vatican. The photograph on the front of most papers across the world the next day was of the two leaders sharing a joke with each other their faces alight with laughter.

I visited one of the primary schools in my parish that morning and the teacher in the senior room was showing the photograph of the two leaders meeting each other. Just before I came into the room the teacher had asked his class as they looked at the photograph: “Which of those two men is the most powerful?” One girl in the class spoke up and said very naturally: “Sir, I don’t think it is either of them, it is the man hanging on the cross on the wall behind them.”

Wow!  For me this is one of the quotes for 2014. I also suspect it will form part of my homily for First Communion this year. In the midst of all the other wonderful aspects to First Communion celebrations we must never forget that the most important person is “the man hanging on the cross behind them”.

A life-long relationship

When we set out over 10 years ago with the Do This In Memory programme of preparation for First Eucharist and First Penance we were very conscious that really the ‘first’ celebration of those two sacraments was not really the important one at all.

In other words we believed that what we were preparing children for is a life-long relationship with their faith and with the Eucharist in particular. We still believe that very strongly but some commentators might suggest that the programme has failed if children and their families do not continue to come to church regularly after First Communion day and perhaps the second Communion is not received until Confirmation.

This indeed would be a very sad situation and I suspect some serious conversation needs to happen at diocesan and national level as to whether we continue to ‘offer’ the sacraments to candidates and their families who purely see these moments as rites of passage isolated completely from any kind of faith commitment.

This is a discussion which must include Baptism. It is pointless lamenting parents’ and children’s lack of commitment to Confirmation and Eucharist if we do not take preparation for Baptism seriously. If we welcome candidates for Baptism we can say very little about ‘withholding’ or even ‘postponing’ Confirmation or Eucharist.

Leaving that discussion aside, in recent times I have come to a gradual conclusion that while Do This in Memory or any other parish-based preparation for the sacraments like First Eucharist is in the first instance, just that, a preparation  it could also  be something  else. The months of preparation can be an ideal opportunity to reach out, to connect  to a group of families who want the best for their children and that somehow  includes them being part of a faith community.

This involves not just the priest, or the school but the whole community reaching out and creating an atmosphere where the First Communicants and their families see this parish community as a place where they feel welcome and would like to belong.

I guess that means I’m back to where I started.