Do Children Have to Make Their First Communion at Their Own Parish?

Q1: My youngest daughter is ready for first communion.  She has attended the catechism classes, she has done all the required steps.  Our priest is also a friend and knows that very well.  He has given communion to our five older children.  Yet, with time we grew really tired of all the fuss of First Communion masses, with the photographers drawing attention to the wrong things….  We also disagree with the way things are done in our parish about this.  We had bad experiences with some of our older children.  And now with the new pandemic laws, things got really strange over here.  We … got tired of all the superfluous (sic) that goes along with it.

We would love to simply take advantage of a family pilgrimage to a Marian shrine and have her doing her first communion there, without photographers, without fuss … in a public shrine during Sunday mass.

In fact, we got this idea from an American blog we trust.  The blogger’s children so far have done their first communion like this, one of them here in Fátima, some years ago.  Because the blogger is so in tune with the Church, we thought she might have some kind of say here…

Is this possible? What do we need in order to do that?  Can a priest say “no” to us, if we ask him before mass to give first communion to our daughter, supposing we have with us a letter of permission from our parish priest? –Maria

Q2: I sent my oldest child to catechism classes at our parish last year, until they were cancelled due to coronavirus, but I have always taught my kids about the faith at home…. There’s a Marian sanctuary nearby, and I would like to simply take them there for First Communion, if and when they start holding them again.  I don’t care about the bells and whistles – I would just like for my kids to get the sacraments….  I could probably find a priest somewhere willing to give First Communion during a mass.

…Assuming that I can find a willing priest and bishop in another diocese, that can and are willing to impart the sacraments, can I simply take my kids there for the sacraments? I’m willing to travel if necessary.

I have not yet spoken to my parish priest, but I doubt that I will get much collaboration from him…. –Megan

A:  Many of us have heard of “destination weddings,” which are held far away from home in some lovely place suitable for a vacation.  What Maria describes could be called a “destination First Holy Communion,” something which apparently is in vogue for some reason among some Catholic mothers.  Megan’s situation is similar but more complex, because her parish completely stopped catechism classes altogether because of the virus, thus preventing all parish children from receiving their First Holy Communion indefinitely.  What, if anything, does the Church have to say about the proper place for children to receive the sacraments for the first time?  Let’s take a look at the general rules, and then at some scenarios which might be considered variations on the theme.

As we saw in “Homeschooling and Catechetics,” the Code of Canon Law echoes the Catechism (CCC 1653) in its assertion that parents have the primary responsibility to ensure the Christian education of their children in accordance with the teaching of the Church (c. 226.2), and that parents have the most serious obligation and the primary right to do all in their power to ensure their children’s religious upbringing (c. 1136).

Unfortunately, many Catholic parents learn this and then wrongly conclude that they themselves can decide if/when their children are ready to receive the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion for the first time.  In actual fact, the pastor of one’s parish has a concomitant duty to see to it that the children of his parish are properly prepared for reception of the sacraments—as he is, by definition, obliged to see to the Catholic education of children and young people from his parish (c. 528.1; see also “Catechetics and the Authority of the Parish Priest” and “Who Is Responsible for Children’s Religious Education?” for more on this).  Canon 776 notes specifically that by virtue of his office, the pastor is bound to ensure the proper catechetical formation of children in his parish.  And the very next canon goes into greater detail, stating that the pastor is to follow the norms established by the diocesan bishop to ensure that children receive a proper religious education, particularly when preparing for their first confession and first Holy Communion (c. 777 n. 2).  In each case, the wording of these canons indicates clearly that it is the pastor’s duty to do this.  The fact that the diocesan bishop has given him the office of pastor of a parish automatically carries this responsibility with it.

Parents and pastor are supposed to work together on preparing children for First Communion, as we can see in canon 914:

It is primarily the duty of parents, as it is the duty of the pastor, to ensure that children are properly prepared for their first Holy Communion; and it is the pastor’s duty to see to it that children whom he judges to be insufficiently prepared, do not receive Holy Communion.

We see here that both are to strive to make the children ready for reception of the sacraments—and while parents may feel that their child has received adequate preparation, it is the pastor who has the final say.

The roles of parents and of pastors should be viewed as complementary, not adversarial. After all, both should share the same concern for the spiritual formation of those children who are preparing for their first reception of these sacraments.

With regard to the preparation of children for their First Holy Communion, canon 913.1 tells us what is necessary:

For Holy Communion to be administered to children, it is required that they have sufficient knowledge and be carefully prepared, so that according to their capacity they understand what the mystery of Christ means, and are able to receive the Body of the Lord with faith and devotion.

Parents may be convinced that their children are indeed prepared to receive the Eucharist for the first time … but it won’t happen unless the parish priest agrees with their assessment (as was discussed in “Refusing First Holy Communion to Children Who are Ill-Prepared”).

All that being said, the code is silent on the question of where a child is expected to make his first confession and Holy Communion.  But that’s not because the Church is indifferent on the question!  Rather, it should be obvious by this point that since a child’s spiritual wellbeing has been entrusted to his parish priest, and since it’s the duty of the parish priest to determine whether a child is adequately prepared to receive these sacraments, a child should naturally be receiving these sacraments in his own parish, at the hands of his own parish priest.  This is, incidentally, the reason why at large parishes with many priests, the Mass at which children receive their First Holy Communion is ordinarily celebrated not by a parochial vicar or some visiting priest, but by the pastor of the parish himself.  Even if the pastor had many helpers in the catechesis of these children, the fact remains that the children of the parish are his spiritual responsibility.

Thus you have to really wonder why Catholic parents would think it appropriate to travel to a church in another city/diocese, or even to jump on a plane with their children and travel to another country, in order to make their First Holy Communion at some famous Catholic shrine or church where the clergy have never even met or heard of the family before.  This may make for great photos, but as we’ve just seen, it makes no theological sense!  Considering the Church’s parish structure and the theology behind it, it’s hard to see how it could be construed as “in tune with the Church,” as Maria erroneously suggests.

On the contrary, one would reasonably expect devout Catholic parents to emphasize to their children, first and foremost, the importance of what it is that they are actually doing—receiving Our Lord, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, into their hearts—rather than where they are doing it.  Sadly, some parents are more entertained by the novelty of the event, than concerned about their children’s ability to concentrate on the spiritual First Communion, First Holy Communion, dresssignificance of what is happening.  We’re all familiar with officious mothers who try to take over their adult children’s wedding ceremonies, determined to control all the externals of the event and comparatively uninterested in their spiritual preparation for reception of the sacrament of marriage; what we are seeing here with First Holy Communion, unfortunately, seems very similar.  (Think about it: how many Catholic mothers hammer it into their little girls’ heads that First Communion is all about the pretty dress?)

It is hard enough for young children to concentrate on what is spiritually taking place, when they make their First Communion in their own familiar parish church, among people whom they know and from the hands of a priest whom they recognize!  Why would anyone want to make things even more complicated and confusing for them, by taking them to another church in an unfamiliar place, to receive the Eucharist from an unknown priest?

Speaking of whom, it makes no sense for a priest to be giving Holy Communion to a child for the first time if he has no spiritual responsibility for the child or his family, and knows nothing about that child’s preparation (or lack thereof) to receive the sacrament.  This is why, if a parent simply walks up to a priest and says, “Hello, I’ve been teaching the faith to my son for months now, and he is ready to receive his First Holy Communion today, can you give It to him at your Mass this morning?” the priest’s only correct response is no.

That said, in certain parts of the world, the clergy at some popular Catholic religious sites are known to have agreed to do this, provided that the child’s parish priest has written a formal letter, identifying the child as a member of his parish and attesting that the child has indeed received the necessary catechetical instruction and preparation for reception of the sacrament in question.  Note that the parish priest is under absolutely no obligation to write such a letter, and even if he does, clergy at other churches are not required to agree to do this at all—and no Catholic can claim it as a right.  As should already be clear from the discussion above, administering the sacraments for the first time is solely the responsibility of one’s parish priest.  Maria now has the answers to her main questions (we’ll address the rest in a moment).

But this logically brings us now to the issues which Megan raises.  In the European country where she lives, the clergy of many parishes have simply refused to make any effort to continue catechizing the children of the parish “because of the virus,” and provided no timetable for when catechism classes might conceivably resume.  Both parents and children are thus left wondering when, if ever, the children will be able to make their first confession, and after that receive their First Holy Communion (see “Can Children Make Their First Communion Before Their First Confession?” for a discussion of why the one sacrament must be received before the other).  In the meantime, secular schools have either restarted their classes, or made arrangements for their students to be taught online—proving that it is quite possible to find a way for children to be taught, even in these mad circumstances.

So if parish clergy are not catechizing the children for whom they are spiritually responsible—and in particular, preparing those who are on-track to make their first confession and Holy Communion this year—what are parents to do?  As was discussed at length in the abovementioned “Catechetics and the Authority of the Parish Priest,” if the parish priest is altogether failing to do his duty in this regard, that absolutely warrants the intervention of the diocesan bishop, who is his hierarchical superior.  After all, the pastor of the parish has this responsibility only because the diocesan bishop entrusted it to him!  As canon 386.1 observes, the bishop is required to teach the truths of the faith to his people, making sure that (among other things) catechetical instruction is faithfully carried out in accord with canon law.  This is why parents who are being told that the catechetical instruction/sacramental preparation of their children has been cancelled indefinitely should logically contact the bishop and tell him—respectfully—what is going on.  It’s entirely possible that the bishop has no idea, and may be hearing the news for the first time.

(This is, for the record, exactly the same procedure to follow if a parish is using heterodox catechism texts in its classes, or otherwise failing to impart to the children the teachings of the Church correctly—because once again, the parish priest is failing in his duty to ensure that the children of the parish are being taught the tenets of the Catholic faith.)

But if the bishop is indifferent to the problem, or is even actively encouraging the indefinite cancellation of all catechism classes “for your safety,” this presents Catholic parents with a difficult situation that is essentially unprecedented: it means that parents are indeed taking seriously their responsibility to ensure the Christian education of their offspring, in accord with canon 226.2 as mentioned above … but their bishop and parish priest are eschewing their own, concomitant responsibility to cooperate with the parents in doing the same.  Note that this is a far cry from complaining about “all the fuss of First Communion masses, with the photographers drawing attention to the wrong things,” as Maria phrased it.  These can often be very legitimate concerns, meriting a discussion with the parish priest well before First Communion Day—but there’s a world of difference between having to endure unnecessary hoopla at your child’s First Communion Mass, and your child being prevented from making his First Communion at all.

In such an extreme situation, parents should naturally seek out some other parish, and/or some other priest, who is willing to help them ensure that their children are able to receive the sacraments.  There are, of course, no canons governing this kind of scenario, since it’s not supposed to happen in the first place!  But if it’s clear to a priest that Catholic families are wrongly being deprived of catechetical instruction and preparation for the sacraments by their own parish priest, and if he determines to his own satisfaction that a child has indeed been suitably prepared for his first Penance and/or First Communion, then as a general rule it would seem to be a matter of charity for him to help them out, even though their pastoral care is not his job.  It should go without saying that appearing on his doorstep and expecting instant cooperation is unreasonable; advance contact and discussion is obviously necessary.  And it bears repeating that nobody can demand the assistance of a priest outside of one’s own parish in administering the sacraments to children for the first time—because this is a favor, not a right.

Because circumstances vary so drastically around the world right now, the best approach can vary widely too.  In some places, a parish priest might want very much to resume catechism classes and prepare children for the sacraments more or less on-schedule, but the diocesan bishop may be forbidding it, or dictatorial governments may have even banned it.  In these cases it may be easy for parents who are able to take their children elsewhere to get a letter from their pastor, attesting to their children’s preparation after adequate instruction and explaining the situation—and this should presumably satisfy a priest in another church, diocese or country.  But bear in mind that this is not normal, and is indicative of an extraordinary situation which shouldn’t be happening.

If parents of young children understand the theology behind the rules, they should be able to distinguish between a genuine need to seek the assistance of a priest outside their own parish in first confession and Holy Communion preparation … and the desire to enjoy a novelty experience at a church other than their parish, for its own sake.  What is important is that our children are suitably prepared to receive the sacraments, and are allowed to receive them at the appropriate stage in their young lives—not receiving them in some photogenic location away from home.

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