Monday, May 10, 2004

Restoring the focus on faith

First communion: Church tones it down

By Maggie Downs
The Cincinnati Enquirer

MASON - Limos are rented. Country clubs reserved. Tuxedos and lavish gowns are purchased. And that's just for a child's first communion.

Not at St. Susanna in Mason, however.

Molly Hough, 8, of Mason, stands on the altar after lighting her candle, signifying her acceptance of first communion.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
As more families lean toward the extravagant in first communion fashion and parties, St. Susanna is one church that is bucking the trend. There, the families of 268 children who are receiving first communion this season are encouraged to focus on the purpose of the Eucharist.

"This is not about what they wear or where they sit or how much money they're going to get as presents," said Sister Angela Jarboe, head of St. Susanna's Christian Formation Program. "This is about faith and basically the rest of their lives."

First communion is one of the biggest events in a young Catholic's life, because it is their last step in joining the rest of the church community. It is also a first foray into adulthood.

"It's not just getting your ticket punched for a sacrament," Jarboe said. "It's a way of life."

First communion typically is received by second graders who have been attending Mass regularly. They go through about six to eight weeks of Catechetical instruction, which involves their parents, their church's Christian formation program (like Sunday School) and, in some cases, their school.

At St. Susanna, that is supplemented with six to eight hours of home study done with a family guide. The children and parents also attend a retreat, where parents hear a speaker, and the kids have story time, crafts and snacks.

This is the third year St. Susanna will have more subdued and spiritual services.

Jarboe helped the church overhaul its first communions, an almost yearlong process. She put together a committee of people from every arena in the church, called the Focus group, "because we wanted to put the focus back on the Eucharist," Jarboe said.

The result is the way St. Susanna does first communions now.

During the Easter season, every Mass (six per weekend) for five weeks is one at which children receive communion for the first time.

"Only a few children receive communion each Mass, so it's not like the spotlight is on the kids," said Karen Morey of Mason. Her son Dane, 8, received his first communion Sunday.

"It didn't feel like there was a lot of importance placed on singling out the children," she said. "It was more about making them part of the community."

Every family has one pew to themselves on the day of their scheduled Mass. They mark their pew with a homemade banner.

For clothing, "Sunday best" is recommended. White clothing is encouraged only because it is symbolic of the child's baptism. It is not, however, mandatory.

"I tell the parents not to overdo it," said Jarboe, who has seen far too many young children in outfits that cost hundreds of dollars.

"These are 6- and 7-year-old children," she said. "They are not brides. They should look like 6- or 7-year-olds.

"It's way out of control in our society."

The toned-down sacrament is still very special, said parents.

At Sunday's Mass, Morey was on the verge of tears during her son's first communion. She had worked with Dane as a mother and as his Christian formation teacher.

"He just had a big grin all day, and he loved going up to the front," she said. "We've been practicing with the host and the wine during CFP class. He was very excited to be there doing it for real - not just Mommy standing there in front of him."

They later celebrated with family and a few close friends.

It was also an emotional Mass for Maura Burgess of Lebanon when Jacob, 8, received his first communion Sunday.

Burgess converted to Catholicism as an adult, so this was new tradition for the family.

"We're trying to make sure the focus stays on what is the purpose. We're not real extravagant," she said. "We want him to remember it's a special day. We didn't want to make it so stressful and rushed that we would forget the purpose."



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