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The Secularization of First Communion

A New Extravagance:
First Communion Trunk Shows

Marian Therese Horvat, Ph.D.

In the picture little girls in sleeveless white flowing dresses walk the runway. The mothers, some of whom have driven several hours to the upscale Chicago department store for the showing, scrutinize the confections of silk, lace and tulle to find the “perfect” dress. Many of the dresses (that run up to $200-plus) are sleeveless or even off the shoulder.

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It’s a First Communion trunk show, and price is no object for an increasing number of families with fewer children and more money to spend. The same motives that drive the flamboyant birthday parties for first-graders are now stimulating what is called the “communion market.”

“Well, yes, I worry some that maybe this is taking the stress off the spiritual,” one mother at the trunk show admitted. “But she’s my one and only, so we want to do it right.” (“Price No Object for First Communion,” KC Star, Feb. 9, 2002)

And there’s a whole new way to do it right, it would seem. Order invitations, consult a caterer or get a banquet hall, book a DJ for the party. Oh, yes, and the limousine. One Chicago area limousine company now decorates the interior of the car with a First Communion theme that includes a message board that says “God bless.”

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A marked lack of modesty and sacrality
And what kind of message does all this send to our youth? I don’t think it is out of line to say this emphasis on the dress and the party, instead of the spiritual significance of the Sacrament, is not a good First Communion preparation for Catholic children. Since Vatican II, we have been suffering the results of a watered down liturgy and pretentious child-oriented ceremonies. Consequently, some surveys shows up to 80% of youth no longer believe in real presence.

This invasion of commercialism into the holy occasion of First Communion further deviates attention from the Holy Presence to the child, to her dress, her party, her own importance. This kind of preparation puts in a secondary place the momentous occasion of receiving for the first time the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ present in the Sacred Host under the species of bread.

Proper norms

It’s not that the First Communion dress for girls should be disregarded. I think that it’s very important to have a lovely white dress and veil to mark the momentousness of the occasion. The white symbolizes the purity of the soul, which has been cleansed of sin with the Sacrament of Penance. For that reason, the dress should be delicate, simple and modest. No sleeveless or off the shoulder dresses. It doesn’t matter if it’s hot in Louisiana in April when the children make their First Communions because the first consideration at the Altar of God receiving the Son of God is not comfort. Before Vatican II, the norms were simple and clear-cut: Boys should wear suits, and girls should don their beautiful dresses with sleeves.

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In families with more than one girl, it is a good custom to have a single “First Communion dress” that can be passed down from one to another. This was the practice in our family. The dress, which my grandmother bought and which was, I thought, the most beautiful in the world, was worn by older sister Jane, by me and finally by little sister Peggy. We all had our turn to wear what became a ceremonial family dress.

In Spain and other Catholic countries, well-to-do families have a charming custom that could also be adopted here. In these countries, a family with means would dress its own child in an inexpensive dress and then completely dress a child of lesser means in the same First Communion class. The gift was made anonymously. Thus a child learns young that true charity is both a privilege and a personal sacrifice. If a child is too young to keep such a matter secret, parents should not tell her about it until she is old enough to understand (American Catholic Etiquette by Kay T. Fenner, Newman Press, 1962, pp. 26-7).

My emphasis here is more on girls, because anyone who has a daughter knows very well that most little girls love a chance to dress up and appear. If parents seem preoccupied first and foremost with the dress and party, the little ladies will jump right in and assume the superficial mood.

As for festivities, certainly there is nothing wrong with a special breakfast or dinner to which family and close friends are invited. Often grandparents are hosts for this meal, “and this is quite correct,” says the American Catholic Etiquette book (p. 27).

Of course, no one is socially obligated to give a child a First Communion gift, the book continues, but parents, godparents, grandparents and other relatives and friends often do. Appropriate First Communion gifts are those of a religious versus secular nature, such as a rosary, a saint or prayer book, gloves, veil, shoes, medal, holy water font, crucifix or statue. Again, this places an emphasis on the reception of the Sacrament and its significance, for the Sacrament of Holy Communion truly makes the child a living temple of their Savior.

“A kiss of love”

For this reason, the white dress and veil that simulates a wedding gown is most appropriate ceremonial clothing. For, in a certain way, every little girls becomes a bride of Christ in her first spiritual union with Him Who is fully present, Body and Blood, in the Sacred Host. In her Autobiography, St. Therese of Liseaux describes her First Communion as the “first kiss of Jesus to my soul!
“Yes, it was kiss of Love. I felt I was loved, and I too said, ‘I love thee, and I give myself to Thee for ever.’ … That day our meeting was no longer a simple look but a fusion. No longer were we two: Therese had disappeared as the drop of water which loses itself in the depths of the ocean. Jesus alone remained, the Master, the King!”
The words of a saint in the making, and the sentiments all that good Catholic parents desire for their daughters on their First Communion Days. Thus, first and foremost they try to prepare their sons and daughters spiritually for the great occasion, so that their children will realize it is the Sacrament that is important, far above the costume, the gift or any entertaining done in their honor.

The secularization of First Communion

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At a Catholic grade school in Aurora Ind., boys and girls in t-shirts and blue jeans crush bowls of grapes in the school cafeteria to make the wine for their First Communion (The Leaven, February 8, 2002). “It was fun,” said a second grade lad. They smashed the grapes with their hands, added water, and then stirred the grape juice twice a day. Now the juice is in airtight containers in the classrooms so they can watch the fermentation process. They also made and decorated the chalices and plates that would be used “to distribute Communion.”

This kind of “class learning project “can only serve to further desacralize a child’s reception of the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. For, instead of the mystery and awe that should surround the altar and there Bread of Heaven in the sacred gold and silver chalice, there is a practical, prosaic and vulgar spirit. Can you really expect that a child will believe Christ is truly present Body and Soul in the grapes he smashed with his own hands?

The project was designed in the spirit of Vatican II in an attempt to create new and more relevant meanings for the Sacraments. I think it is time we begin to demand: What is wrong with the old meanings?


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