First Communion

I remember very little about my own first communion preparation.  Perhaps the sisters treated us to sublime theology that I have all forgotten, but I suspect they knew better than that.  The thing I remember most clearly was being told that if the host gets stuck on the roof of my mouth, under no circumstances am I to stick my finger in my mouth to scrape it off.  I also remember learning that while it’s probably best to just let the host dissolve in my mouth, it is permitted to chew “respectfully”.  This was apparently a new relaxation of discipline, and my mother was a bit scandalized by it, and to this day when I bring it up she tells me that she would never chew.

I’ve come to see the wisdom of those holy sisters.  If instead I had been told that what matters is not any such physical details but my interior disposition, I would have concluded that the whole thing is make-believe, because only when the act itself is unimportant does one’s attitude matter more than correct performance.  What I did learn was that the Eucharist is something real, something serious, something gravely important.  This intuition leads to a sense of holiness and the presence of God, and this is the most important thing.

With my daughters, I have tried to convey the sense that something important happens at the consecration, that this is the moment to pay special attention.  I used to point then at the host and cup and say “Look.  The body of Jesus.”  And I would whisper a blessing.  “Let His blood be upon us, and on our children.

Now Julie is old enough for the sacraments.  In our parish, sacrament preparation has been handed off to the parents.  I’m not sure how good an idea this is in general, but I was eager and confident that I could do a better job with my own daughter than a standard class.  It turns out that guiding the learning of second graders is not quite the same as teaching college students.  Here I report for the benefit of other parents my successes and failures.

Last fall, we prepared for First Confession.  I think that went pretty well.  I got Julie to know all the commandments and drilled her in some sin vocabulary such as “idolatry”, “blasphemy”, and “piety”.  I think her favorite part was when I would make up fake confession scenarios, inventing preposterous confessions to show how it works.

Let me tell you a story about my First Confession preparation.  We also went over the commandments, so the teacher had to tell us what it means to commit adultery.  She said that it means looking at yourself naked in the mirror and laughing.  Presumably, she meant that it has to do with failing to respect one’s body, but it pleases me to think of how many second graders went on to confess to our priest their guilt of the sin of adultery.  I decided to give Julie the real meaning.  (For comparison:  idolatry may mean by extension any attitude that puts a creature before God, but directly, literally it means worshipping the representation of a false god.  One must learn the direct meaning first before appreciating the extensions.)  For some vices, I would give a corresponding virtue, in the case of adultery this being fidelity, illustrated by Penelope, since we had not long before finished reading Mary Pope Osborne’s Tales from the Odyssey.  My student knows the difference between mortal and venial sins, which puts her in a better way than quite a few Catholics.

This Saturday, Julie will be confirmed and then receive first communion.  This is the restored order.  In my day, confirmation came much later, during junior high.  The new order does have the advantage that the Eucharist is seen as the culmination of the other sacraments.  The disadvantage is that it’s a lot to cram into one year, and there’s a danger that many parents will think their child is done with religious instruction after he or she is confirmed.

I find the purpose of confirmation the most difficult to explain.  The assigned workbook and the Catechism speak of it as completing or deepening the reception of grace from baptism.  I don’t know how to say this without devaluing baptism, which would necessarily have to have imparted grace in an incomplete or superficial way.  We are told that confirmation is not a coming of age rite of passage, which is too bad because that at least would be something distinct.  My take is that baptism’s grace makes us children of God, but confirmation’s grace prepares us for an active role in the Church, as continuers of Christ’s priestly, prophetic, and regal work.  Hence my main innovation was to buy a bunch of kid’s books about girl saints.  Julie has no patience for theology, but she loves to listen to stories, and hopefully these got across the sense that being a Catholic is serious business and can require a great deal of courage and determination.

“Gifts of the Holy Spirit.”  I remember coming away from my own confirmation a bit disappointed that I was not noticeably wiser, more understanding, etc.

The first communion material was mostly about the parts of the Mass, and I’m afraid I failed to find a way to make this interesting or even to insist that she remember more than Liturgy of the Word vs. Liturgy of the Eucharist.  As I said in my last post, I find rituals more interesting in the abstract than the concrete.  Remembering what stayed with me in my own first communion preparations, I’ve been very sketchy on theological propositions.  Julie occasionally expresses incredulity, e.g. about things like the real presence, which is a good sign–shows she’s paying attention–but alas she seldom cares enough to listen long to my replies.  Usually she seems to accept what I say.  I think the communion lessons would have gone over better if I had worked in more narrative material, as I did with the other sacraments.  A couple of times we read the Last Supper and Passion stories in her children’s Bible, and those were the only times she seemed interested.  That and when I told her that she shouldn’t stick her finger in her mouth if the host gets stuck.

For each sacrament, we used the Our Sunday Visitor material recommended by our parish.  I skipped nearly all the activities because I couldn’t see how they teach the student anything.  (It’s stuff like, “Think of a time you got a gift from someone.  Draw it.”  Stuff that’s supposed to be fun but feels like homework.)  With just readings, discussions, and practice, we were able to get through everything with two half hour evening sessions each week.  This is probably shorter than the Church would like, but I thought it best not to provoke a rebellion.

I fear I have done a poorer job this spring than I did in the fall.  Preparing for two sacraments is a fair amount of work, and had much less good will from my student to work with this semester.  This is understandable.  Julie was losing patience and energy as the school year went on, and I have been increasingly busy myself.  Fighting with her I suspected would be counterproductive.  I’ll admit that I often bribed her with snacks.  Now we’re as ready as we’re going to be.

6 Responses

  1. Bonald, you yourself were the one who awoke me to the real meaning of the Eucharist. I remember that I had a Catholic upbringing, but I remember not a single thing from it. My parents were (and still are) lax and so was my attention. Now, I am not saying that what worked on me would work on someone that young, but I think it might be an effective idea to readapt your own teachings for someone of that age and mindset.

    You talked about the need for a narrative with your daughter, but in your preliminaries to Catholicism, you say that by receiving the Eucharist, we are participating in the narrative of Christ’s sacrifice by joining a part of Him to ourselves. And because we desire this union, it causes us to shape the story of our own lives in such a way that we can receive it. We can’t just avoid mortal sin, we have to engineer the circumstances of our lives in such a way that we even avoid the temptation.

  2. If instead I had been told that what matters is not any such physical details but my interior disposition, I would have concluded that the whole thing is make-believe

    It’s OK if you don’t genuflect, as long as you respect God. Huh? You know, have respectful thoughts as you don’t genuflect.

    Modernity and nominalism are such awful things. If nothing matters but what’s going on inside your head, then nothing matters, period. Because what’s going on inside your head is one thing I am sure doesn’t matter.

    Not only do I not know what’s going on inside your head, you don’t know what’s going on inside your head. How could you? You can not be held to account by any earthly agent for what’s happening there. Furthermore, you know this to be true. So, your scope for self-deception is infinite.

    It is a vicious god modernity worships. Unless Universalism is true, Heaven is an empty, lonely place for them. And Hell is packed full of the surprised. No wonder they tend to become Universalist squishes.

    This Saturday, Julie will be confirmed and then receive first communion. This is the restored order.

    How common is this, traditional, order now? We used to live in a diocese which does it confirmation then communion, but now we live in one which does it backwards with the years-long gap.

  3. In the “action speaks louder than words” category, if you act like it’s important is shows that you think it is.

  4. I think if you act like it’s important it is important. Not only is “fake it till you make it” a good idea, but faking it is making it.

  5. > How common is this, traditional, order now?

    The diocese of Spokane is using the restored order, and I’ve heard from my mother that my hometown of Pana, Illinois is switching to it next year. That’s only two data points, but they’re the only ones I have.

  6. You are allowed to chew!!

    What kind of hippies govern your diocesis?

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