Q: My great-niece was to receive her first Holy Communion and has been told she need not wear the traditional white dress, nor receive Communion with the other children who are also to receive their first Communion. She can attend any Mass and just go up and receive Communion. I have protested to the parish priest about this and have received a short reply stating that white dresses are too expensive for some mothers. No mention of the other questions I put to him. Has the parish priest the right to do this? — D.S., Woy Woy, Australia
A: There are several levels to be dealt with in this question.
From a canonical standpoint we could say that, strictly speaking, the parish priest is within his rights in not organizing a special first Communion service. If he has ascertained that the child is sufficiently well prepared, and has made first confession, then he can authorize the child to receive Communion at any Mass with no special vesture or any special service.
This is in part because, unlike baptism or confirmation, first reception of Communion is not a distinct sacrament but rather participation in the holy Sacrifice as the culmination of the process of initiation. In most Eastern Churches all three sacraments are given together to infants.
Nor does the missal have a special rite or Mass for first Communion, distinct from other Masses. Indeed since it is customary in many places to celebrate first Communion on Sundays of late April and May that often coincide with major solemnities.
At the same time, from a pastoral point of view, the practice of a special celebration for children receiving Communion for the first time is well established in the Latin Church and has proved its worth in many ways. Above all, when well prepared, it can be a very special experience in a child’s life and can emphasize the importance of full participation in the Church’s sacramental life. It can also be a good opportunity for the spiritual regeneration of a whole family.
It is true that, objectively speaking, receiving first Communion at a regular parish Mass rather than in a special celebration constitutes the same material act. Subjectively, however, it is likely that without some external means of underlining its importance, its deeper meaning will be lost on most young children.
Admittedly, the external elements are not the heart of preparation for first Communion, which should be primarily doctrinal and spiritual, albeit adapted to 7-year-olds. Yet, we should neglect no means to help bring this deeper meaning home.
Because of this, while showing respect for the priest, in this case it would be good to inform the bishop of this particular pastoral practice, since he might have a different criterion as to its wisdom for the good of souls.
The priest, however, has brought to light a real pastoral difficulty. In certain societies, ostensibly spiritual moments such as baptisms and first Communions have sometimes degenerated into social events and given rise to unhealthy and un-Christian competition among families vying for prestige and show. Indeed, sometimes families have felt pressured into engaging in needless and ill-affordable expense on such occasions.
One solution to this problem is very common in Italy and some other countries. The parish either rents or sells to parents a standardized alblike habit that is set aside for children receiving first Communion. It is usually the same for boys and girls, although in some cases girls wear a white headband. This solution eliminates any social distinctions and puts all the emphasis on the reception of Communion and not on superficial elements.
In the long term, when such a solution is practiced, parents end up preferring it as it frees them, not only from excessive expense, but also allows them to concentrate on the essential elements.
This is just one possible solution to a difficulty that is real in some places. There might be others also. It is important to seek solutions which overcome the difficulties while conserving and enhancing those elements which have proved their pastoral effectiveness.
We must recognize, however, that the older traditions of the special white dress for girls also had its advantages, especially when such clothing was carefully kept and used within families or was especially made by family members.
I know of at least one family in which the fabric of the mother’s wedding dress was later transformed into the baptismal gowns and first Communion dresses of the children. This is a beautiful way of symbolizing the spiritual fruitfulness that also comes with marriage.
The difficulties arise when such traditions are lost, and there is more emphasis on outward appearances.
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