First Communions

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter J. Daly

4/27/99

 

First Communions

 

            This coming weekend, some 62 fresh faced and innocent children from our parish will line up for their First Holy Communion.  It is one of the high points of parish life and one of the touchstones of Catholic culture.  I love it.

Like many parishes, we have to divide the kids up into small groups.  So, we have three special "first communion" masses, because there are so many relatives crowed into the pews, ready to document every precious moment.  Some years it looks more like a media stakeout than a liturgy.  The average middle class parish has more camera equipment than CNN.

It is a moment everybody remembers.  Even famously "fallen away" Catholics, like Madonna, have their yellowed first communion pictures pasted carefully in their photo-albums.

Why?  For one thing, I suppose, the kids look good.  Parents are not accustomed to seeing their little ones all dressed up, let alone marching in straight lines, with their hands folded and eyes gazing heavenward.  Our little ones look like so many ceramic statues in a religious goods store.  What parent doesn't melt before such a vision?

Prudent pastors know not to tamper with first communion customs.  It is the "third rail" of liturgical reform.  Change in other areas of parish life may be permissible, but children are fundamentally conservative.  Don't try doing away with the procession, or the photos, or the special song.  And above all, don't touch the clothes.   

            A few years ago a priest friend of mine at a fairly liberal, upper middle class parish in Milwaukee tried to do away with the special clothes, the veils and dresses for the girls and the white suits for the boys.  He told the parents to bring their kids to communion at a regular Sunday mass, to emphasize that it was an ordinary part of family life.  He was almost lynched.

Former revolutionary,  baby boomer, "flower-power" generation descended on the parish auditorium for a heated meeting.  They demanded the traditional clothes.

These were the kind of parents who tried to engage their little ones in conversation and made them watch PBS.  But they were helpless when their seven year old girls were in tears, yelling, "I want the dress."  The boys appeared a little less attached to those white ties, but thought dressing up was cool.  In any case, they did not want to be left out or shown up by the girls.  The brief flirtation with "every day" clothing was abandoned.  I certainly never tried to replicate the "Milwaukee experiment" after I heard about the parental furry.

The clothing and the "group think" aside, there is something wonderful and disarming about first communion.

For years the children have been carried up