I don’t believe that there are many parents who aren’t concerned with the spiritual side
I don't think there's a single child who doesn't look absolutely lovely on their First Communion day. Whether they're in a top-of-the-range designer suit or a simple white dress, lovingly crafted by a grandmother or auntie, what stands out is the joy in the little faces, the sense of family pride and the knowledge that something very special is taking place. A lot of mythology has been built up about little divas arriving in limos, nails newly manicured and spray tanned from head to toe. My own experience is that this isn't the usual scenario and that most parents are pretty sensible when it comes to preparing for this important step on their child's spiritual journey. However, even the most grounded adults can find themselves being sucked into the seasonal frenzy about dresses and shoes, to carry a parasol or not, the right type of gloves or tie and numerous other trivialities that really have nothing to do with what First Holy Communion is all about.
Often it's not the parents themselves who are behind the overspending that some families find themselves immersed in. One woman I talked to bought her son's Communion suit on eBay, an online retail site. Her own mother was quite disapproving and hinted that the low price must be an indication of a shoddy product. Sometimes the high expectations are not our own, and the children themselves can be influenced by the school yard chatter about who's wearing what, the various outings that are planned for the big day and boasts about some uncle or another coughing up a few hundred euro to mark the special event. This year, Michael Murphy, the Mid-West regional president of the St Vincent de Paul, appealed to parents not to get into debt over Communion. He commented on how some people spend foolishly around this time and asked that they'd focus on the spiritual significance of the day which he feels gets lost at times. This year, there might be some easing of the financial burden for parents with Aldi retail outlets offering excellent value in Communion dresses for the bargain price of €24.99. Rob Farrell, Aldi Ireland's Group Buying Director said they were aware that First Communion can be an expensive time for families, but that their “fantastic offer” gives customers the chance to really make savings.
Sometimes, the biggest pressure on parents can come from themselves. Maybe some people remember their own mothers and fathers worrying about money and they want their own children to have what they feel they missed. This problem with this focus on all the trappings of the celebration of the sacrament could be eased if parents were more involved in good basic catechesis about the true meaning of the Eucharist. According to Terri Kerley, a coordinator of religious education in Loveland, Ohio, the main task in involving parents is helping them to see that the reception of the Eucharist is an initiation into a parish community which, in his words “has the honour and privilege of celebrating the sacrifice of the Lord”. He explains how it's important to encourage parents to view this intimate experience of Jesus as the centre of the celebration. No snazzy suit or designer dress can compete with that. The preparations have failed if parents and children get the impression that it's just the First Communion day that's important. Many a priest has sadly said that the Sunday after the First Communion doesn't see a huge surge in numbers attending Mass. Some children and families won't be back until it's time to prepare for Confirmation.
There's a cynical element in society that seeks to equate the celebration of a child's first Eucharist with some sort of beauty pageant, accusing parents of not really caring about Communion at all, but merely wanting a good day out and to impress the neighbours while they're at it. I don't believe that there are many parents who aren't at all concerned with the spiritual side, but they can feel a bit excluded, or that it's all up to the priest or the teachers in school. I remember a few mad panics about cardboard cut-out sheep and getting the cotton wool coat exactly right. My youngest daughter is celebrating her First Communion next year and is already worried about whether she'll have to sing a song or say a prayer. All these extras are important, but shouldn't distract from teaching children that the Eucharist is about Jesus coming to them in the most special way under the appearance of bread. Even young children can understand, at a simple level, how Jesus, as a loving friend, wants to give us a deeper share in his divine life and love. If, as parents we could start to renew our own grasp on this great mystery, the curls falling out on the morning of the Communion or the dress getting scorched with the hair straightener (my own unfortunate experience) wouldn't matter a bit. A trip to the zoo and a few refreshments would be as good as the finest gourmet spread and maybe our children would take something more from the happy day than the memory of a big party. No matter what the societal pressures, it's the attitude in a child's home that really shapes the occasion as a meaningful encounter with a loving God or a mere elaborate social whirl.