“The children’s lessons focus on Holy Eucharist – which some of the children have taken since they were infants, yet others have never experienced.”
Children and Communion
The age in which a child is introduced to the Eucharist can be an area of tension in our church. For many former Catholics, the tradition of a First Holy Communion is part of their experience. Despite the weekly invitation that “All baptized Christians are invited and encouraged to partake,” some parents often feel uncomfortable and may not wish for their children to receive communion yet.
At our church in Pittsburgh, many parishioners who were raised Roman Catholic feel at home in the Episcopal church – the liturgy is very similar, we follow the lectionary, and we are a sacramental church. Yet there are differences between Episcopal and Roman Catholic practices and beliefs. Those differences are an opportunity to provide pastoral care and family formation.
A Eucharistic Celebration
For many years, our church has conducted a special Eucharistic Celebration with our second graders every year on the second Sunday of Easter. This would normally be a rather low attendance Sunday – why not encourage guests?
Admittedly, when I first started as the Directory of Children’s Ministry, I was unsure about the Eucharistic Celebration, thinking that it was a compromise that could undermine our theology or cause confusion for our families. I would never want to encourage a family to wait to introduce their child to the Eucharist. But in practice, that’s not what happens – after years of talking to the participants, I’ve now come to see our Eucharistic Celebration in a more nuanced way.
The students begin learning in second grade Sunday school class, which is actually the same age in which most Catholic communities celebrate a First Holy Communion. Matching this aspect of the practice reassures our parents, yet doesn’t conflict with our Episcopal tradition in which there is no given age to gain a better understanding of the sacrament. During Lent, the children’s lessons focus on Holy Eucharist – which some of the children have taken since they were infants, yet others have never experienced.
Some of the content of the class is:
- Learning about the Last Supper
- Describing the sacrament of Holy Eucharist
- How Jesus chose this particular act to remember him
- How food is essential to our lives, to satiate and nourish us; and how sharing food is so central to our human experience.
- The class considers the plight of people who don’t have enough food – and people who are not being nourished spiritually.
The Sunday ‘Event’
On the day of the event, there are no major changes to our worship. However, the second grade is seated together as a class in the front pew. At the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, the class is called to join the priest around the altar, where they can closely witness the actions and words used by the priest in blessing the bread and wine.
The second graders then kneel at the altar rail – which is different from our usual practice of standing communion stations. Parents then come up to stand immediately behind their children as they receive Communion. Afterwards, the rest of the congregation is communed as usual. At coffee hour, there is a cake (because nothing says sacred event like gobs of buttercream icing), and grandparents take pictures of beaming children.
Where does Formation and Pastoral Care Occur?
Certainly there is formation for the children in the weeks leading up to the event. In learning more about their practice, and witnessing the actions of the priest up close, even children who have been regular communicants find new significance and understanding.
There is formation for parents and family members as well. Before the service, as I greet families’ visiting relatives, I continue the conversation: explaining our practice of inviting all baptized Christians to take Communion. I explain that just as parents feed their children before teaching them about good nutrition, we welcome our children to this sacred table before they understand why we are doing so. We want them to associate the Holy Eucharist with being a nurtured, cherished and nourished member of the family of God, especially those friends and family gathered at our church. I know this message coupled with witnessing the service is powerful because after Eucharistic Celebrations, it is not uncommon for friends and relatives to return to us as new members.
I am always careful in my language to never refer to our practice as a “First Holy Communion” because, indeed, it is not a “First Holy Communion.” And I will often gently correct and explain the differences. Yet if certain traditions creep into our celebration – the wearing of white dresses, for example – to me, it’s a matter of pastoral care to allow them. If a grandma wishes to continue the tradition of taking her grandchild shopping for a special outfit, and the family wants pictures of themselves in front of the altar, gathered around the child wearing that outfit, so be it. When our families see their spiritual history (even if they themselves have conflicting feelings about that history…) is treated with respect and grace, this is just another way of saying, “Come to the table, all are welcome.”