At 7:45 the cry went up: “It’s time to put on your dress!” Some 15 minutes later, a seven and a half year-old girl descended the stairs in white shoes, headband, and wearing the white organza dress that her mother had sewn for the event.In the weeks following Easter, in hundreds of thousands of Catholic households throughout America, the same drama was being replayed. It was Margaret’s First Communion Day.
The event has always been highlighted with special clothing. An early 1800 ceremonial book noted that clean white clothing is a symbol of the pure soul, and the white first communion dresses were common long before the white wedding gown first became popular in Victorian England. In more recent times boys wore suits with a large white ribbon on one arm, or a white suit.
St. Mary’s Church would see five children receive the Sacrament at the 9 AM Mass, the first of many such small groups to receive the Sacrament of the Altar across the next several weeks. The night before, I asked Margaret if she would like any advice on whether to receive the consecrated wine that day. Declining my offer she said simply, “I’m good.” Given the visiting relatives, and the commotion of getting ready for Mass, she seemed remarkably calm. Within Catholic tradition, First Communion has always been a major event. A spiritual writer admonished: “The first Communion is a day in paradise passed on this earth….the most solemn and important act of one’s life.”
What we take as normal for First Communion today, was not always this way. In ancient times Communion was shared with children at baptism, by fingering a few drops of consecrated wine into the mouth of the nursing child. Later young children were fed crumbs that remained in the sacred vessels. But over time things stiffened. The age of reception was pushed back. By the 18th century, first confessions took place at the age of seven, but Communion did not occur till the ages of 12 to 14 years. The spirituality surrounding the event also became more severe.
At 9 AM the choir led the congregation in the opening hymn, and the liturgy began to slowly unfold. The children were seated with their families. Most of them have been attending this same Sunday service for years. Finally, they will have the chance to fully participate in the Eucharist, as their parents and the community participates. In earlier times young people receiving First Communion were performing an act in which their parents seldom took part. Archbishop Hughes of New York described a typical Sunday in a Manhattan Church in about 1870 where at a 6:30 am Mass, only 15 of the 200 worshippers in attendance received Communion. It was not uncommon to find 30 year old Catholics who still had not made their first Communion, and many adults believed that Confession was a pre-requisite for any reception of the Eucharist by the faithful .
There was great concern about being worthy to receive the Eucharist. It was manifestly wrong to receive the Sacrament in the state of mortal sin. Another concern related to ritual practices. A seventeenth century manual spoke of the first form of sacrilege being the failure to observe the fasting, both from solids and liquids (including water) from midnight on the day of reception. Also, great efforts were made to assure that, apart from the tongue, there was no physical touching of the host by the communicant. This was why one kept one’s hands beneath an altar rail cloth. Altar boys nervously guarded the delivery of the host with a gilded paten lest the host accidently fall from the priest’s hands. The emphasis on the sacredness of the Eucharist overshadowed other aspects of the sacrament.
Little Margaret and a young friend, both standing on a booster step to reach the pulpit microphone, read the Offertory intercessions:
May we always love and forgive others as Jesus did, we pray.
May our parents, family and friends always show us the way to Jesus, we pray.
May we never forget that Jesus comes to help us each time we receive the Eucharist, we pray.
May all God’s children be safe and well fed, we pray.
To each petition the entire congregation answered “Gracious Lord Hear us we pray.”
The prayers are a far cry from the intense pleas featured in 19th century Catholic devotional. literature. In the course of the Mass, communicants were encouraged to privately recite a long list of prayers, during the Mass, including petitions to Mary, the Saints and the Angels asking for their help to worthily approach the altar. “Reflect,” one prayer book admonished the young person, “that you, a miserable creature, a poor sinner, are about to receive Jesus Christ.” In earlier times, communicants were excluded from the sanctuary. At St. Mary’s, as the consecration of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ approached, Fr. Mike, the celebrant, asked the five children to join him around the altar.
The First Communion Mass as we experience it today is the fruit of major changes that took place within the last 100 years. Reform began in 1910, when Pope St. Pius X, invoking the practices of the early church, decreed the age of First Communion would be reduced from 12 to 7 years, the age when the child “can distinguish between the Bread of the Holy Eucharist and ordinary bread.” It was a remarkable turnabout, given the deeply engrained customs. “This practice of preventing the faithful from receiving on the plea of safeguarding the august Sacrament, has been the cause of many evils,” the pontiff wrote, “… children in their innocence were forced away from the embrace of Christ and deprived of the food of their interior life.” Since the reforms of St. Pius X, the fasting requirement has been largely eliminated, and the common practice begun of receiving communion in the hand, and receiving the consecrated wine. The Communion rail, the traditional barrier, separating the sacred space of the altar from the portion of the church occupied by the laity has been removed.
Yet matters of substance have not changed. As children and their parents come up to receive the Eucharist, they do so not as isolated individuals but as members of God’s family. The lyrics of the music resonate of similar processions that have taken place through the ages, in which young or old, have processed to the altar in response to Christ’s invitation of Jesus to partake of his body and blood, soul and divinity.
Jesus said: “I am the Life,
Far from whom no thing can grow,
But receive this living bread,
And my Spirit you shall know.
I received the living God,
And my heart is full of joy….
For the first time the child joined the community of faith in the full celebration of the Eucharist. In the Gospel of St. Mark, Jesus instructs his apostles to “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for of such is the kingdom of God.” In its reformed liturgy of the Eucharist, the Church has brought young children to the Sacrament of the Altar in a wondrous manner.