If you have young children either in your immediate family or in your extended family, chances are good that you attended a celebration of first Holy Communion this past spring. And even if you did not attend a family member’s first Holy Communion, I would bet that you attended a parish celebration of this sacrament, as many parishes appropriately choose to celebrate the sacrament during a Sunday Mass.
Celebrating first Holy Communion in this highly public way is quite fitting, as young children are not only receiving the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus for the first time, but also solidifying their ties to the church, which is a public and communal reality.
For this very reason, the church has made it clear that the celebration of first Holy Communion on a Sunday, “the day of the Eucharist,” is the most appropriate way to celebrate the first reception of this Sacrament of Sacraments.
The church is even more clear that prior to making their first Holy Communion, children are to celebrate their first confession. This teaching was recently reiterated in “Redemptionis Sacramentum,” (paragraph 87).
In our own diocese, as early as 1973, my predecessor, Archbishop Leo Byrne, reminded every priest in this local church of the universal church’s mind on this matter in response to the experimental practice of delaying first confession until after first Holy Communion. As the archbishop pointed out at the time, such a delay is clearly not the mind of the church, and he rightly asked that it cease to be practiced in this archdiocese.
One objection to the church’s clear teaching on this matter is that children are not capable of grave sin, and therefore are not obligated to make a confession before their first Holy Communion.
Leaving aside the debatable claim that children are incapable of grave sin, while it is true that sacramental confession and absolution are the ordinary means by which mortal sin is forgiven, we don’t celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation only to have such grave sins forgiven. There is also the constant need to ask forgiveness for the small failures and little betrayals that mark our daily lives.
It is said that Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and Pope John Paul II received the sacrament of reconciliation frequently, as many as several times a month, in fact. It is difficult to believe that either the Holy Father or Mother Teresa often fell into mortal sin. And, yet, they saw fit to come to confession regularly because they knew that they were called to be perfect, as their heavenly Father is perfect.
And quite apart from the forgiveness of actual sin, there is also the powerful grace of the sacrament — grace that is needed if we are to persevere in our daily struggles with sin and temptation, struggles that can slowly weaken us in our capacity to avoid serious sin.
Children need this grace as much as anyone else. Anyone who honestly believes that children do not do things that are wrong has not spent much time with kids.
Instilling good habits
Giving children the opportunity to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation before first Holy Communion also helps to establish a habit in our young people, a habit that hopefully will last a whole lifetime.
If we have guests coming over to dinner, it is an act of love to prepare for their visit by tidying up the house and making special preparations. Even more so in the spiritual life, we must strive to prepare well for the visit of the Lord into our hearts. How well we all need to remember this fact, young and old alike.
This, of course, is not to say that every time we attend Holy Mass we are obligated to make a sacramental confession. But as St. Paul reminds us in his first letter to the Corinthians, it is, in fact, extremely important to examine our hearts before we receive our Lord in Holy Communion (1 Corinthians 11:27-32).
If we are aware of serious sin, we are obliged to make every effort to approach the fountain of mercy that is confession, so that we may partake worthily in the Banquet of the Lamb. Celebrating first confession prior to first Holy Communion helps to communicate this scriptural lesson to our young people.
I urge all of us, young and old alike, to examine ourselves before we approach the table of the Lord. May we have the courage to ask the Lord for his forgiveness before we receive him in so intimate a way as Holy Communion.
And then, with the faith of a little child, we will with clear conscience say “Amen” to that heavenly gift which is the body and blood of Jesus.
God bless you! The Catholic Spirit