Parish celebrations of First Communion and Confirmation can provide a unique opportunity for hospitality toward families who no longer attend Mass regularly. These are significant evangelising moments that are often overlooked.
Apart from the benefits that information nights and faith development sessions can provide for the parents of the parish school children, it is the actual celebration of the sacrament that holds the greatest potential for transformation. Pre-eminently these sacraments are celebrations of the local parish community initiating its younger members into the life of the Church rather than purely being celebrations of a high point in the life of the child.
Our sacramental celebrations therefore ought to be exemplars of how the community normally prays and celebrates rather than ‘showcasing’ unusual music, decoration or rituals. The parish needs to prepare liturgies that celebrate First Communion as the first of many Communions, and Confirmation as the fullness of the young person’s initiation into the community of the Church.
The Importance of the Worshipping Community
Thinking about the celebration as the responsibility of the worshipping community takes a lot of the burden away from RECs and teachers whose main concern might be to give each child a role in the liturgy. The chief role, one in which we all share, is to take our part in the Body of Christ. The main task of catechists, teachers and RECs is to ensure that the children have an appropriate understanding of the sacrament they are celebrating, are familiar with the structure of the liturgy and are able to participate in all spoken and sung responses so that they feel ‘at home’ within the worshipping community.
The Parish Mass, the ‘Context’ of the Sacraments of Initiation
The sacraments of Confirmation and First Communion are both usually celebrated in the context of parish Masses. However, in the former case, the bishop comes to confer the sacrament, generally on a large number of candidates, so it is reasonable that this celebration be one specially timed rather than a part of the regular Mass schedule. The advantage of this context is that the usual congregation is not squeezed out by the families and friends of those to be confirmed. The disadvantage is that non-regular Mass goers tend to predominate and both the candidates and their supporters miss out on the leadership and modelling of participation tendered by an engaged congregation. It is up to those who prepare the liturgy, parish priest, RECs, teachers and the liturgy team to compensate for this by choosing music and familiar ritual patterns that will maximise the participation of the congregation.
First Communion is more often celebrated at a regular parish Sunday Mass. In larger parishes this may take place with small groups of candidates over several weekend Masses. This allows the children and their families to be supported by an engaged congregation, familiar with how Mass unfolds, who know the parish music and who are generally eager to support its young members.
In both cases though, letting the congregation know what is expected of them, providing them with clear cues and using, as much as possible, familiar music is a sound basis for general planning.
Leader of the Congregation
Crucial to this is to have a strong and confident leader of the congregation who understands the way the particular liturgical ceremony works and who can guide the people in their responses, engage them in song and direct them unobtrusively by appropriate liturgical behaviour: sitting, standing, kneeling and processing. This person is often, but not necessarily, the leader of song. A good service booklet can help in providing any text required by the congregation and giving directions about specific issues such as the use of cameras. It is preferable that you do not provide the entire texts of the readings or the Eucharistic Prayer. These are best listened to attentively.
Other Liturgical Roles
Other liturgical roles are most suitably filled by those who have been prepared for the particular ministry. Be cautious about inviting anyone, child or adult, to proclaim the readings in an attempt simply to ‘involve’ them. It is personally embarrassing for an inexperienced reader to read badly and equally embarrassing to have to withdraw an invitation once given. It is also a great disservice to the liturgy. If the celebration takes place in the context of Sunday Mass it is usually best to stay with the experienced parish lector who is rostered for the day. If you are really keen to ‘involve’ someone, parents rather than the candidates themselves are more likely to read effectively, be heard and understood. Providing the chosen readers with a copy of the readings and arranging a rehearsal prior to the celebration are basic steps for effective proclamation.
Children, parents or whole families, could be invited to participate in the Entrance Procession, the reading of the Prayers of Intercession and the Preparation of Gifts.
Choosing good and appropriate music is one of the key ways of engaging the whole congregation and helping them pray well. Repertoire and leadership are the two major considerations.
To maximise participation choose music that is well known to the parish congregation. It is a mistake to introduce new settings for the parts of the Mass at celebrations of Confirmation or First Communion. Choosing familiar Mass settings gives the maximum number the chance to engage with the liturgy. In choosing other music for the celebration consider the usual parish repertoire and draw substantially on that. It is more helpful to choose from a reputable hymnal or collection (see below) than from music marketed by individuals. Songs in collections of liturgical music have been chosen by people with great expertise and are usually the best work of particular composers or are pieces that have stood the test of time. Avoid choosing only children’s songs as young voices are not strong enough to be heard in a large congregation and children are easily put off singing when surrounded by non-participating adults.
Use familiar hymns and songs
Choose songs from the parish repertoire that are relevant to the occasion, suited to the children’s voice range and, as a rule, suited to their understanding of the significance of the sacrament. However, be aware that children can also be touched by music and text they do not fully understand. The success of the Taizé chants with young people (often in Latin and a variety of other languages) shows this. A song of thanksgiving by the children themselves at the end of Mass is quite appropriate. This however is not to be a performance. We need to strip away all vestiges of entertainment and emphasise participation. This means full participation in the prayer of the whole community, singing and responding as a community and contemplating together the great mystery of Christ that we are all celebrating.
Music is best led by a competent adult singer or small group who put the onus on the congregation to participate. This person or persons ought to be easily visible in order to invite the congregation, by word and gesture, to participate where appropriate. Music can also be backed and enriched by a choir of children but remember that a choir invites a congregation into listening mode. Listening can certainly be prayerful and active but, with a less engaged and large congregation, choir work without congregational participation can simply further disengagement and encourage chat. On the other hand, singing that involves a cantor/response style enables the full, active and conscious participation of the gathered assembly.
It is primarily the responsibility of the parish, not the school community, to prepare the church environment for the parish’s celebrations of First Communion and Confirmation. As part of its ministry of hospitality, the parish community decorates and makes beautiful the environment for worship. The parish children are joyfully welcomed into the worship space. The liturgical environment must always be worthy, simple and uncluttered. Flowers, real and beautifully arranged, may adorn the sanctuary space, and also the gathering space, where they will enhance the whole environment. They are not placed on or too close to the altar. This allows for unrestricted movement around the altar and an undistracted view of the liturgical action that will take place there. The altar, our great symbol of Christ, is simply and elegantly draped. It is not the place for the children’s drawings, photographs or other symbolic objects. These can be arranged around the walls and in the gathering space. If significant symbols are to be carried in the entrance procession, these are placed on a small table in the sanctuary area.
Above all, the liturgical environment must speak of the warmth and welcome of the community that gathers there week after week. It is through this evident human warmth and welcome that others will come to experience the open arms of Christ and so be led into the mystery of God.
Mindful of those parents who no longer attend Mass but who still bring their children for initiation into the Church, let us make hospitality our special care. This happens formally, through those men and women who meet and greet the candidates and their families and direct them to their places within the Church building; and informally, when those who attend only occasionally are welcomed into the life of the community through a liturgy that invites the full participation of the whole assembly and reminds them that this is a mystery to which all belong as parts of the one Body of Christ.
- As One Voice (Willow 1992 & 1996)
- Gather Australia (GIA/NLMC 1995)
- Journeysongs, 2nd edn. (OCP 2004)
- Come to the Table: Music for First Communion (GIA 2003)
- Ritual Song (GIA 1996)
- Singing our Faith (GIA 2001)
Tricia Murray works in the role of Faith Development and Administration at the Catholic Parish of Brunswick and Brunswick East. This article was originally published Vol. 36, No. 2 of The Summit Liturgical Journal (May 2009).
Image courtesy of the Alphington and Thornbury East Parish.