Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Question of Communion

This weekend our parish celebrated Confirmation and First Communion. As usual, I cried watching the First Communicants process in. There's something about watching seven-year-olds, the girls in white dresses and most with veils, the boys in Sunday best shirt-and-tie, walk in solemnly, hands held together as in prayer. They look a little nervous, a little wide-eyed, trying to remember all the instructions they've been given and feeling the eyes of the congregation on them.

Father N. was the presider. Besides being one of the administrators of the local Catholic high school, he's also over six feet tall. So he got down on his knees to give the children their First Communion so he would be at their eye level. Father N. is also an excellent homilist, with a talent for talking to teens, rather than above or below them.

He didn't fail tonight, discussing how the Eucharist brings Jesus into our lives so we can bring Him to our families and friends and the rest of the world. He stressed how Jesus's presence is real and that's what makes Communion so important.

Where was Father when I was trying to explain why Catholics don't let just anyone receive Communion?

The conversation was at a party. Most of us knew each other from the Boy Scout troop and we were enjoying a rare warm evening outdoors. A good friend of mine made the statement that she thought the Catholic religion was "snobby" and "elitist." Yes, she knows I'm Catholic as was another adult sitting in our area. And she felt that way because the Catholic Church won't allow non-Catholics to receive Communion at Mass. She especially seemed to think that it was terrible that Hubs can't receive, especially since we've been married for almost 30 years.

I tried to explain that it's because Catholics believe that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ, not just a representation. The Eucharist is sacred. And the Church wants to make sure that those who receive understand that.

"Well, who was the first priest anyway?" she said.

"Jesus Christ, of course!" I answered. I was a little shocked at her question and some of that came across in my tone. "And He passed His Authority to the Apostles who passed them down to modern times."

"Well, I still think your religion is snobby, " she replied.

"If it's any consolation, I can't receive communion in your church," I said.

"But that's because your church won't let you, not mine." (She's Presbyterian.)

The other Catholic tried to help me explain, but she really wasn't interested in a theological discussion. But watching the children receive First Communion today made me wonder if other Christian religions have a rite of First Communion. I suspect the Episcopalians and the Lutherans might (I know they have a rite of Confirmation). If communion is merely a symbolic sharing of a meal, then what's the purpose in making it a special event in a child's spiritual life? I also never understood why Communion was available only during certain services and not at every one--or available every day. Was it only to distinguish themselves from Catholicism? Isn't that kind of like cutting off your nose to spite your face?

Fortunately for the party, our conversation didn't move on to Mary.

Our pastor, Father P., writes an "editorial" in the weekly bulletin. Last week he congratulated the Confirmandi and the First Communicants. He also pointed out that while there are over 100 children receiving First Communion, there are only 60 Confirmandi--reminding parents that religious education doesn't stop with First Communion. (He also noted that for many children their Second Communion happens years after their First--also not good.) In an ideal world, the number of Confirmandi would be the same as the number of First Communicants.

I have to admit my children don't continue their religious education after Confirmation, mostly because they don't want to. One thing the Presbyterians and some of the other Protestant religions do much better than most Catholic parishes is their youth groups for older teens and young adults. Hubs and I do have a rule that the kids continue to attend Mass with me until they graduate from high school. Once in college, the decision is theirs, although if they're home, they're expected to go Christmas, Easter, and all family occasions (and there are several of those a year!).

My friend may never understand why the Catholic Church is exclusive about Communion. But we, as Church, must do better educating our members, of all ages.