First Holy Communion…then what?

Jesus should not be ‘taught’ only to be forgotten

There is nothing to match the intensity with which little children prepare for their first Holy Communion; except, perhaps, the intensity with which they play. It’s well known that children are quick to establish rules for their play, and they can be quite strict in the application of those rules. On the lips of an eight-year-old, the words “he’s cheating” are a damning indictment.

For these thoughtful little people, sacramental preparation is just as serious as play, and they take to the set movements and gestures of liturgy as readily as ducks to water. The artless solemnity of children in procession, or tentatively reading prayers, is a delight to those who are more liturgically seasoned.

It’s not just the externals, of course. At the heart of preparation for first Holy Communion is a continuing focus on Jesus: Jesus the Good Shepherd, who goes looking for the lost sheep; Jesus who invites himself to the home of Zacchaeus, whom he has just invited down from the tree; Jesus who shares a Last Supper with his closest friends; Jesus who loves the children. Yes, Jesus looms large at this time, and his presence is made tangible through prayer, art and song.

Whatever the validity of some of the criticisms of contemporary religious education, it certainly has its strengths. I have no recollection of learning prayers such as the Confiteor or the Gloria by heart as a child, but in my classroom visits I routinely hear small children recite such prayers in chorus, without prompting… and very proudly! It is good to know that those young memories are being enriched in this way.

Prayers memorised in childhood can be a lifeline in some of the fearsome moments of adulthood.


Ritual, song, art and prayers, all focused on the person of Jesus, and all leading to a wonderful celebration of first Holy Communion. This is Catholic faith and education at their loveliest. And then?

From the school’s point of view, the intensity can’t possibly last. There is much to be learned, other art to be done; there are new songs to sing, fresh posters to be hung on classroom walls. There will still, of course, be time for prayer; the Faith will still be taught. But the school cannot maintain the earlier momentum. It is at this time that role of home and family is crucial as never before, and it is at this time that many of the little scholars find the earlier enthusiasm replaced by silence and indifference. All too many of the children now begin to encounter the reality that it wasn’t, after all, about a life of friendship with Jesus. It was just a big day, with lovely suits and dresses. A lovely day, undeniably, but only a day.

Cold water?

Am I pouring cold water? I most certainly am. But let me identify my target. I think that the paraphernalia of first Holy Communion day, from clothes to photos to bouncy castles to long, leisurely meals for the elders, are just wonderful. This is a family time, best done in style. But what do we communicate to small children when after teaching them about Jesus we are embarrassed to refer to him? When we pump up their enthusiasm only to let it collapse? Do we not risk training them in deep inconsistency?

Perhaps this point should be stressed: Jesus is taught insistently, and then treated as someone unimportant. He is loved only to be forgotten. Like any priest, I would very much like to see the children making their second Holy Communion, and their third and fourth. But my deepest concern here is not with consistent religious practice as such; rather, it is with consistency in our dealings with little children. Without committed, lasting follow-on, the abiding lesson will be a lesson in inconsistency.

The school has done its job and it continues to do it. But if the home does not follow suit, then the gap between these two essential spheres of a child’s life will communicate – albeit subliminally, but very powerfully – that all that enthusiasm was for nothing.

I wish that every Catholic parent would realise that the first Holy Communion experience – the preparation and the big day – carries an element of risk for their child.

Unless there is a clear intention of accompanying children in the practice of their faith afterwards (and in practice, this includes bringing them to Mass), then the one big lesson is that it didn’t matter. And if it didn’t matter, then maybe it doesn’t matter – maybe it doesn’t matter whether there is any real congruity between what we say and what we do. We can let our enthusiasms and our commitments drop, in the way that a child drops a toy.

What are we communicating to the children?