First Communion

First Holy Communion is a major and significant milestone in the life of a young Catholic. Church writings have said that it is appropriate for Catholics to make their First Communion once they have “reached the use of reason,” that is, once they are around seven years old. By that point, they know, or can figure out, the difference between right and wrong. Cognitively, they are able to learn quite a bit through stories and examples; developmentally, they can be cooperative and attentive during the course of a school day.

At the Right Time

James Fowler, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, wrote a book called Stages of Faith. He talks about faith development through the various life stages of man. At age seven, about the time they make their First Communion, children are on the cusp of two stages of faith that are called the intuitive projective and the mythic literal.

As is appropriate for children between the ages of three and seven, they still feel the influences of intuitive projective faith. This means that they may not always be able to distinguish between fact and fantasy. Through images and stories, they are able to grasp the concerns of the primary adults in their lives. They think with their perception and imagination, rather than through logical processes. Age seven is the ideal age to learn about the Eucharist and to understand lessons from the life of Christ. Children of this age are usually eager to please and cooperate. If they have been raised with love and attention, they can naturally show care and concern for others.

Children between the ages of seven and eleven, about the age when First Communion is taken, begin moving into the stage of mythic literal faith. In this stage, they begin to think logically about life's actual experiences. They are interested in learning beliefs, myths, and moral rules; however, they tend to take their lessons quite literally.

Many Catechism studies for the early grades appeal to both the imagination of the intuitive projective stage and the thirst for rational knowledge of the mythic literal stage by focusing on stories and parables from the life of Christ. Teachers also use stories and examples to teach the Beatitudes along with the importance of getting along with others, caring for others, having a pure and joyful attitude, and helping the less fortunate.

Usually, the Church requires that children have two years of religious instruction before receiving their First Holy Communion. They learn prayers such as the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be.

Rather than focusing on sin, catechetical teaching before First Communion wisely focuses on the positives. It uses stories and examples to teach children how to be holier and more Christlike, in preparation for receiving the body of Christ. With their increased attention span and growing cognitive skills, seven-year-olds can take in this information. By this age most children are socialized enough to engage in a comfortable give-and-take with peers and to hang in for the course of a school day.

These developmental signs, as well as their preparation, make them ready to receive the Eucharist in the fullest sense of the word. As they trust and love their parents, they can trust and love Jesus. They can accept that God is their Father in Heaven and that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, though they may not grasp the full implications of it all. They can understand how to live like Christ in the world, which means treating others with love, apologizing when wrong, helping the less fortunate, and so on.

As members of their families and of their school communities, they are also ready to partake of communion, and to be full-fledged members of the faith community. Like other Catholics, the Church realizes that as children struggle to grow up and live in the world, they need the grace and benefits of the sacrament of the Eucharist.

The First Communion Ceremony

A child's First Holy Communion is usually a joyful occasion. Often, the children don new suits or new white dresses for this special day. Usually, the First Communion is a public, communal ceremony that includes all the boys and girls in their Catechism or second-grade class. Family members and good friends are present to share in the liturgy and the celebration afterward.

These public groupings are very important and symbolic, for the Eucharist is a meal shared by the entire body of the Church. It is a sacrament that not only draws each person closer to Christ, it draws them closer to the other members of the Church, so that the Church becomes as one body.

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