Do you remember your first Communion? I bet you remember where you were and the name of the parish. Did your mother get you a special outfit? Who else was there? Can you envision the look on the priest’s face as he handed you the body of Christ for the first time? And maybe even a celebration meal or party afterward with family and friends? First Communion is a special moment.
In fact, it may just be the most important moment of all. Research from people as diverse as psychologist Jean Piaget to the evangelical polling firm Barna Group has shown that by the age of 13, your spiritual identity is largely set in place. What you believe about God when you are 13 is a remarkable predictor of what you will believe when you are 23, 43 and 63. In other words, research shows that if people do not embrace the Catholic faith before they reach their teenage years, the chance of their doing so at all becomes very slim.
This idea matters tremendously. First, it means that our parishes’ focus on sharing the faith with children will be the most fruitful thing we can do. Love kids. Teach them the beauty of the Catholic faith. Introduce them to Jesus. Pour the foundation for life. That foundation can only be poured once. If we do not form children well before the age of 13, the chances of their being practicing Catholics as adults decrease dramatically.
And that means that first Communion may be one of the most important things any parish, school, volunteer, teacher, parent, grandparent or priest can be a part of. In preparing kids to receive the body and blood of Christ, we are not merely checking one box on a long list of stuff to do. We are ensuring that children have a life-giving encounter with the very heart of our faith, the Eucharist. And we are doing so at the time in that child’s life, before the age of 13, when he or she is most likely to be open to experiencing the grace and love of God. These key moments will shape the rest of children’s lives.
Do you remember your first Communion? Chances are, you do. How can you help children in your life have such a marvelous experience in first Communion that they still remember that moment at the age of 30, 60 and 90?
— PRAY. As they prepare. On the day itself. Afterward. Pray with gratitude for the gift of Jesus and the gift of his body and blood.
— TALK. Share memories of your own first Communion. Discuss why the Eucharist is important to you. Listen to children tell you what they are learning and expecting. The more you talk, the more it will mean — and the more they will remember.
— ATTEND. Smile. Celebrate the special moment with the child. Your being there and your joyful reaction will be etched in the child’s memory for the rest of his or her life.
— GIVE THE CHILD A SPECIAL GIFT. Perhaps a photo in a frame of him or her receiving the first Eucharist. Or maybe a special Bible with the child’s name on it that you sign on the inside to celebrate the day.
— THEN GO TO MASS WITH THE CHILD in the weeks and months afterward. Help the child to make the connection between the special moment of first Communion and what happens every time we share the Blessed Sacrament. Help build a Mass habit.
What a joy it is to be Catholic — to share in the beauty and genius that God has placed in his Church. And what a greater joy to share that beauty with a child who will benefit from the faith for decades to come. Change the life of one child and you begin to change the world.
Allen R. Hunt is senior advisor for the Dynamic Catholic Institute.