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Restoring The Sacred The Need To “Re-Sacralize” First Holy Communion Day

April 26, 2018 Featured Today No Comments


As April wanes and May draws near, many parishes are preparing for the great annual occasion of First Holy Communion.
Over the past five decades, in all too many places, this sacred rite has been banalized and desacralized by silly music and “stage props” that have turned one of our supreme acts of sacred worship into a celebration of the self, to make children feel how “special” they are, with cameo photos of the First Communicants pasted all over the frontal of the altar and construction paper flowers with the children’s names plastered across the church walls, as well as the ever-unhelpful loaf of table bread and cluster of grapes as a centerpiece for all this, not terribly conducive to convincing a child that he or she is actually receiving the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord.
All too often, the children have been trained only for Communion in the hand, as if this were the normative way to receive, with no mention whatsoever of Communion on the tongue.
One of the underlying false assumptions in resorting to shallow and juvenile gimmicks when presenting the mystery of the Holy Eucharist to children is that they can’t possibly be expected to understand the doctrines of Transubstantiation and the Real Presence. Yet in reality a young child’s mind is in a way even more readily receptive to these teachings than many an adult is.
In his 1920 book Divine Contemplation is for All, Dom Savinien Louismet, OSB, cites the observation of a Protestant nurse who had much experience with children. The woman complained that children “are all born Catholics, and take quite naturally to pictures and medals and rosaries,” a trait that she as a Protestant wanted “to be taken out of them” (Divine Contemplation Is for All, London, Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1920, p. 76).
Of course, for us as Catholics this natural disposition of children is a very welcome gift from God. Thus it is that a child’s mind, unencumbered by the cynicisms of adulthood, is well disposed to receive the simple truth that since God can do anything, He can certainly change in an instant bread and wine into His Body and Blood, and that by this means He comes to visit our hearts and spend time with us.
There is a remarkable letter that the young Italian lay mystic St. Gemma Galgani (1878-1903) penned to a boy named Mariano as he was preparing for his First Communion Day in the autumn of 1901. Gemma took the occasion to express everything that her own First Holy Communion had meant to her, as well as to express her grief at the thought of those who do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Her letter, written in words trembling with deep emotion, is a veritable catechesis upon the meaning of Holy Communion.
The following is only a short excerpt of what she had to say to the child:
“A few days more and then, my dear, you will no longer belong to earth; Jesus awaits you, awaits you eagerly. . . . The day so desired by you is no longer far; rejoice with Jesus, raise your eyes to Heaven, and see . . . Jesus is there . . . present in the holy tabernacle. You will not perceive him with the material eyes of the body, but you will feel Him in your heart, when for the first time you will receive Him, and will sense His dear presence. . . .
“Have no fear to draw near to Him, go with confidence to Jesus….And when you will be washed from sins by means of confession, when your tongue will receive for the first time the immaculate flesh of God, O Mariano, Mariano. . . .
“. . . O may the Heart of Jesus be always present to you! It is the Heart of a God (not frightening to you), but is a Heart human and approachable . . . a singular Heart, a great Heart, the King of all hearts” (letter of Gemma to Mariano Giannini, written in the name of Cecilia Giannini, September 6, 1901, in Lettere di S. Gemma Galgani, Postulazione dei Pp. Passionisti, Rome, 1941 pp. 455-457 — my translation).
As for the thanksgiving that we are to render to our Lord following the reception of Holy Communion, whether for the first time or for the five-hundredth time, the following words of St. Thomas More (1478-1535) on this subject are so lucid that even a child can grasp their import:
“Now when we have received Our Lord and have Him in our body, let us not then leave Him alone, and get us forth about other things, and look no more unto Him . . . but let all our business be about Him. Let us by devout prayer talk to Him, by devout meditation talk with Him. . . .
“For surely if we set aside all other things, and attend unto Him, He will not fail with good inspirations, to speak such things to us within us, as shall serve to the great spiritual comfort and profit of our soul. . . . Let us not lose this time therefore, suffer not this occasion to slip” (A Treatise to Receive the Blessed Body of Our Lord, Sacramentally and Virtually Both, in The Workes of Sir Thomas More Knyght, sometyme Lorde Chauncellour of England, wrytten by Him in the Englysh Tonge, ed. William Rastell, London, 1557, p. 1268).
Nineteenth-century texts speak of special retreats to prepare children for their First Holy Communion, and there was a custom of having children renew their baptismal vows on their First Communion Day. An English Catholic devotional manual composed for children who had yet to receive the Holy Eucharist provides the following “Prayer when preparing for First Communion”:
“O divine Jesus, who when on earth didst receive children with the tenderness of a father, and didst command that they should not be forbidden to approach thy sacred person, I see that thou art in the Holy Eucharist the same God of goodness and mercy; and thou invitest me not only to approach thee, but to receive thy adorable Body and Blood.
“I rejoice to think that this happiness will soon be mine, and I bless thee for thy goodness in bestowing upon us, weak and sinful children, the most precious of all thy gifts. O my God, I beseech thee to prepare my soul by thy grace for so great a mystery; and permit not, I most earnestly beseech thee, that I should receive unworthily…enable me, by a good confession, to purify my heart from every stain of sin; and may my first Communion be to me, and to all who are to receive with me, a happy pledge of our eternal union with thee in Heaven” (The Child’s Guide to Devotion, compiled from Approved Sources, with Numerous Engravings, London, Burns and Lambert, 1850, p. 51).
In a sequel to the above book, a prayer book for children following their First Holy Communion, there appears the following simple but ardent prayer for their subsequent Communions:
“O Lord Jesus, the God of my heart and the life of my soul, as the hart pants after the fountains of water, so does my soul pant after thee, the fountain of life, and the ocean of all good. I am overjoyed at hearing the happy tidings, that I am to go into the house of the Lord; or rather, that Our Lord is to come into my house, and take up His abode with me. Come, Lord Jesus, and take full possession of my heart for ever! I love thee with my whole soul above all things; at least, I desire so to love thee. It is nothing less than infinite love that brings thee to me; oh, teach me to make a suitable return of love!” (A Prayer-Book for the Young, after First Communion, including Devotions for Confirmation, and a Variety of Occasional Prayers, Novenas, Litanies, etc., London, Burns and Lambert, 1852, pp. 2-3).

A Foundation Of Love

What takes place between a child and our Lord at the moment of Holy Communion is often quite hidden. For even though the children’s parents, their pastor and their religious instructors have done everything possible to explain what the Holy Eucharist is, children are in many cases going to be distracted by the necessary “externals” of their First Communion Day.
Little girls, being little girls, get all excited about their First Communion dresses, and the boys may very well be dreaming about what special presents their parents will be giving them for this festive occasion. Even in the lives of the saints, we don’t always find something remarkable recorded about their First Communion Day.
Nonetheless, if children have been properly prepared for the reception of this sacrament, a foundation has been laid in their souls that in the years to come can eventually lead to a lifelong love for Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Sooner or later, with the help of God, a child will come to perceive what Mother Mary Loyola (1845-1930) has summed up so eloquently in a post-Communion reflection she composed for First Communicants:
“God has given you now the greatest Gift He can give you in this life. Not till He receives you into Heaven and shows you His Unveiled Face can He give you anything greater than He gives you now. What can you give Him back? Give yourself to Him as He gives Himself to you — without reserve. Give Him your heart in return for His. Give Him your love, for He loves you dearly. Give Him all that you have and are, now that He has given you all that He has and is” (First Communion, London, Burns and Oates, 1911, p. 429).
Postscript regarding the March 29 “Restoring the Sacred” essay, “The Funeral Rites of Christ Crucified” (p. 3B): The “Office of Readings” is incorrectly identified in parenthesis as “Lauds”; the Office of Readings is in fact the post-Vatican II equivalent of the office of Matins. Mea culpa!

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