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Normative Liturgy

by Father Paul Colloton O.P.

How did you celebrate your First Communion? I celebrated mine when I was seven years old. It was the custom in my home parish at that time that the children in the parish day school celebrated First Communion during the 7:20 AM Sunday Mass on the feast of Christ the King, which fell in those years on the last Sunday in October. This date was chosen for a variety of reasons: (1) The pastor presided at this Mass every Sunday; (2) since it was so early, there was less chance that we would break the three-hour fast then in force; (3) and we celebrated on Sunday to emphasize that our First Communion was just that—the first of many, normally shared within the context of Mass celebrated on the Lord’s Day. Scheduling First Communion on a Sunday morning meant that other parishioners were present along with our family and friends. It also meant that the music and participation that were part of our parish experience in 1962 were also the norm for this special event. (Like many parishes, especially in the Midwest, we were an actively participating parish community even before Vatican II.)

Imagine my surprise, then, when I ministered in a parish where First Communion was celebrated on a Saturday morning, during a Mass set aside for that purpose, with mostly immediate family and only a few friends present because of space limitations. I was stunned that a parish would be celebrating a sacrament that invites us to commune regularly with the Lord sacramentally present in bread and wine and in his living Body at a time and in an event separate from when the community normally gathered. According to the custom in this parish, we celebrated with music that was not the regular fare of the worshiping assembly (at least, not that first year). The first communicants were chosen to perform various ministries, so that they would feel “special,” when their main ministry that day should have been to be part of the assembly and receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the first time, so that they could experience this as the first of many Communions to come. While First Communion is truly a special event, it is also one that is meant to be normative, that is, according to the dictionary, relating to or prescribing “a standard, model, or pattern regarded as typical for a special group.” Like “norm” and “normative ” , “normal” derives from the Latin world norma, a carpenter’s square. “Normal” means “conforming, adhering to, or constituting a usual or typical standard, pattern, level, or type.”

What is the normative celebration of liturgy for a parish community, the one that sets the norm and is presumed to be the normal way of celebrating? The National Directory for Catechesis is very clear about this:

The parish Sunday Mass, or Divine Liturgy, is the normative celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy. It is the whole parish community’s central act of worship, through which Christ unites the faithful to himself and to one another in his perfect sacrifice of praise. While every parish is made up of different groups, associations, and smaller religious communities, through the Sunday Eucharist Christ provides the opportunity for everyone to move beyond their particular circles to celebrate in common the sacrament of unity. “This is why on Sunday, the day of gathering, small group Masses are not to be encouraged: it is not only a question of ensuring that parish assemblies are not without the necessary ministry of priests, but also of ensuring that the life and unity of the Church community are fully safeguarded and promoted” [United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Directory for Catechesis (Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing, 2005), 128; the internal quote is from John Paul II, On Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy (Dies Domini), Vatican City, 1998, 36].

Note the values named here: Sunday Mass is the parish community’s “central act of worship.” A parish community does comprise different groups, but it is “through the Sunday Eucharist [that] Christ provides the opportunity for everyone to move beyond their particular circles to celebrate in common the sacrament of unity.”

The Directory for Masses with Children (DMC) also states that, even for Masses with children in which only a few adults participate, “it is always necessary to keep in mind that these Eucharistic celebrations must lead children toward the celebration of Mass with adults, especially the Masses at which the Christian community must come together on Sundays” (21, emphasis mine).

What better day could we have to celebrate the first reception of Communion than the Lord’s Day? The entire community is present. The liturgy that is the normative experience of Mass for the children is celebrated. The support of the community can enrich the experience for children and their families alike. While it is true that some people balk at having Mass “lengthened” by such a celebration, the National Directory for Catechesis reminds us that one of the “general principles for sacramental catechesis” is that catechesis “is intended for all members of the Christian community, takes place within the community, and involves the whole community of faith” (114). Catechesis for first Communion—and, by extension, celebration of First Communion—is not just the job or ministry of the parents or catechists, however important their roles are; it “involves the whole community of faith” (emphasis mine).

Even if a parish accedes to the normative nature of the Sunday celebration and plans to incorporate First Communion into the Sunday liturgy, there is still a desire to make the first communicants more prominent somehow, to find ways to engage them in this special celebration. Indeed, the Directory for Masses with Children acknowledges that the community has an obligation to ensure that the children present “do not feel neglected” (DMC, 17) and “it may also be very helpful to give some tasks to the children. They may, for example, bring forward the gifts or perform one or other of the songs of the Mass” (DMC, 18). However, any such involvement cannot overshadow the fact that their primary role as first communicants is to participate fully, actively, and consciously in Mass, especially in receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord for the first time.

Many parents recall their first Communion. When the Mass was celebrated on a Saturday, they remember, they or other members of the group could serve as lectors, gift bearers, or music ministers. They sat together as a group, and all of the attention seemed focused on them. They recall these events with warm thoughts and good feelings. I am glad that is the case. However, as we know and continually struggle to make clear, “liturgical services are not private functions but are celebrations belonging to the Church” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacro Sanctum Concilium, 26). No liturgy is focused on any one person other than the Christ, whose body we are, and with whom we join ourselves in offering prayer and thanksgiving to God, through the Spirit.

I recall the First Communion celebrations in which I have participated both as musician and presider as times when people were more concerned with cameras than with singing and participating and setting the example our children need so that they experience full, conscious, and active participation in every Mass as the norm.

When a community celebrates first Communion within the context of the Sunday liturgy, even if the young people are gathered as a group of communicants within the larger assembly, the entire community’s presence and participation invites family, friends, and children to join in song, listen attentively, respond with full hearts and minds and voices, and pray in ways that suggest that what is special about this occasion is that it is the first time they will share in the Body and Blood of Christ. The community carries us; the community supports us; the community models how to celebrate, whether it is one’s first or second or hundredth or last Communion.

If this is your normative experience of first Communion, congratulations! If not, I’d ask you to consider the benefits that can come from moving your parish first Communion celebration to a regularly scheduled Sunday Mass. Yes, some may balk at the length of the liturgy. Others will balk because it is not what they remember of their own first Communion. But, in my experience, the majority take great pride and joy in helping to welcome our younger members to the table of the Lord and in supporting parents, godparents, sponsors, and children in ways that might help ensure that this celebration will invite them back Sunday after Sunday and week after week.


References:

(From Clergy Update, 15 (May, 2006), pp. 1-2.

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