and “First Communion” Ceremonies
also called “Solemn Communion” or “Eucharistic Awareness.”
It has been brought to my attention by clergy and even laity of our Eparchy that some parishes have re-instituted or never stopped the Latin Church practice of “First Communion” and/or imitation ceremonies called “Solemn Communion” and “Eucharistic Awareness.” I have been asked to give a clarification on such practices so that there is uniformity within the Eparchy.
It has been the custom since the 1970’s in our Eparchy to communicate infants after Baptism and Chrismation, and I re-emphasize that this is our proper tradition and must be done. The children continue to receive the Eucharist whenever presented by their parents. Parents are to be instructed in this tradition during the required pre-baptismal catechesis which must be given in every parish.
In 1967, our Patriarchal Synod reestablished the administration of the Eucharist to infants in response to the Vatican II Decree on the Eastern Churches. The Synod recognized the legitimacy of returning to this ancient discipline. “It is to be considered an obligatory part of the Christian Initiation of infants in this Eparchy and is not to be omitted” stated Archbishop Joseph Tawil on page 7 in his General Policy for the Administration of the Sacraments of Christian Initiation promulgated on October 12, 1981 and never rescinded by any of his successors. He reinstituted this proper discipline as a general practice in the 1970’s and made it official in 1981.
In this same policy, Archbishop Joseph continues: “It goes without saying that ‘First Communion’ or their imitation (‘Solemn Communion,’ ‘Eucharistic Awareness’) are completely out of place in Churches of our tradition and are to be abandoned wherever they are still practiced” (page 7 Policy ). He assumed that the clergy had begun suppressing these ceremonies after he asked that they do so in the 1970’s. Now in 1981 it was official. He added: “It is the responsibility of the pastor to communicate these realities to the entire parish, especially where the Latin form of First Communion has been established, and to give the child the necessary instruction as he/she reaches the age of discernment” (page 7 Policy ).
Furthermore the Roman Congregation for the Eastern Churches on January 6, 1996, promulgated Instruction for Applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canon of the Eastern Church. It is clear in this excellent document – in fact one of the best documents coming from Rome on the Eastern traditions – that Eastern Churches must take great pain to “de-Latinize” and return to their proper traditions. It notes on page 45 that where some Eastern Churches have postponed First Communion to school age children [around 7 years of age]: “It will be the task of the competent authorities to adopt measures suitable for returning to the previous practice and to elaborate norms that are more conforming to their own tradition.”
The Eparchy of Newton, under the competency of its bishop, returned to its proper tradition long before Rome issued this Instruction. We were ahead of the game, so to say, by more than fifteen years and now in practice for almost 40 years. There is no need, and no good reason, to fall back, continue or reinstitute a Latin custom. I truly believe that Rome was much aware of Archbishop Joseph’s Policy on this matter, even using some of his own language and wording.
Some clergy and laity may present some objections to this policy. I will mention some of these objections and provide a simple answer.
Objections and Answers
- Some may say that it takes time to return to our proper customs. I agree, but almost 40 years is more than enough time. If each priest took this matter seriously then, we would not face the problems today and there would be no need of this pastoral letter.
- Some may say that in our Mother Church in the Middle East the practice of First Communion and the like is still in vogue. That may be so, but we are living in the United States and these changes were made in good faith and with great pain and concern. We do not need to follow the customs that our churches in the Middle East accepted from the Latin Church.
- Some may say that the bishop needs to understand the pastoral life of the parishes. Again I agree with this, however, I cannot be challenged on this issue since I have served this Church as a parish priest since 1970 and in several parishes and missions. In each and every one I worked diligently to educate our faithful about our proper Melkite traditions and the policies of my bishop when asked to do so. In each parish and mission I inaugurated catechesis and was able to successfully eliminate First Communion ceremonies and the like and reinstitute infant communion.
- Some object saying that the children will miss something important in their lives. A “First Communion Ceremony” is not a child issue but rather it is an adult issue. I have witnessed in my 42 years as a priest and 23 as bishop that children receiving the Eucharist since infancy, if properly taught by their parents, have a good understanding that what they receive is Jesus! Adults think it is cute to dress up the young ones, and have a reason for a party and gifts. Dress them up every Sunday and bring them to Church to the great thanksgiving “party” of the Eucharist.
The Melkite Church, particularly in the USA, was the forerunner for returning to proper Eastern traditions. It was not until just recently that other Eastern Churches, particularly of our same Byzantine family, have reinstituted infant communion and are going through the process of educating their faithful regarding the tradition of not having “First, Solemn or Awareness” ceremonies. We cannot go backwards.
My dear brother priests, deacons and catechists, I beg you to take these remarks seriously and cooperate on this matter – it is long overdue. I ask you priests and deacons especially, to walk with me on this issue, even if you have personal objections. You should not be telling your faithful that you disagree with your bishop in a public manner; this only creates dissention. Teach our proper customs, and I expect your full support.
In the Roman Instruction of 1996 there is the reiteration of Canon 199, paragraph 1, “the eparchial bishop as [is] the moderator, promoter and guardian of the entire liturgical life of the eparchy.” He is asked to foster “the prescriptions and legitimate customs of his own Church sui iuris.” His clergy are asked to work in concert with him and “the people must be faithful to the indications of the pastor and endeavor to understand them in depth and realize his mandate.”
Some possible catechetical ideas to help us in this matter of suppressing “First Communion” and their “imitation ceremonies.”
Suggestions for Possible Parish Celebrations
- First and foremost is catechesis of the adults. The pre-Baptismal program of our Eparchy needs to be given to all new parents and godparents. This is required in every parish since it speaks about infant communion as the norm in our Church.
- Adult Catechesis. God With Us Publications in which we participate, has an excellent guide for families growing in appreciation of the Divine Liturgy and the Eucharist: Celebrating Life and Love. Priests, deacons or catechists need to bring parents together for several classes and teach them how to use this book for home study and church involvement. It has many great ideas.
- A Family Confession Service can be structured with parents and children present, particularly children between the ages of 7-10 who may be going to confession for the first time. Children also need to see their parents and older siblings going to confession. This can be celebrated once or twice a year. An excellent resource is Celebrating Forgiveness from God With Us Publications. Again parents need to be catechized with this book. It involves lots of home discussions and action ideas.
- A Big Parish Celebration for all the Children in our Religious Education Programs can be held on the final Sunday of the Church school year and it can focus strongly on the Eucharist. Children can stay after the Divine Liturgy, have lunch, and then have a continuation of the celebration in age groups through some education, crafts, games and even a procession back to the church with banners and posters they have made to conclude with a closing prayer to conclude. Call it a Celebration of Jesus!
Once again my brother clergy and catechists, we need to reaffirm who we are as Melkites and be proud of who we are and our traditions even though they may differ from Latin customs. In this matter of Infant Communion versus “First Communion and Imitation ceremonies”, we have had enough time for change. I ask that you make copies of this pastoral letter, and reprint it and share it with your parishioners, especially catechists. Please insert copies in your Sunday bulletin and speak about it in church as often as necessary. It will also be published in the next issue of Sophia, coming out in March or April. This will help give the proper understanding to our faithful whom I urge you catechize.
Thank you for your cooperation in this important matter.
Given at our Eparchial Chancery in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, on this 27th day of January in the Year of Our Lord. the two thousand twelfth.
Eparchial Bishop of Newton