How can we as parents prepare our children well for First Holy Communion?
To be sure, nothing can properly prepare us this side of heaven for this most undeserved of gifts, but so often children are sent down the aisle to receive this indescribable gift not only with no idea of what they are doing but with little idea Who they are meeting.
It would be like sending them to their wedding night never having met the groom.
We're blessed to be living in a time when the catechetical materials available for First Holy Communion are by and large becoming better and better from the cartoonish, fluffy stuff of many of our youth. At the very least, there is an emphasis on teaching the fact that the Eucharist really is Jesus, something I don't remember being mentioned or acted like at my Catholic grammar school. (To be fair, it may have been taught and I just didn't remember, but that tells you something, too.)
I think that is wonderful. It is so important that our children understand. That we teach them about the Real Presence and that they have a firm grasp on traditional prayers, memorization, and sound doctrine. But we'd be remiss if we think it needs to end there. We can teach them all about the groom but all that is in vain if they never meet the groom Himself! And whether the child is publicly schooled, privately schooled, or home schooled, the Church has stated over and over that this is not primarily the job of the parish catechist, priest, or school teacher.
This task is primarily the job of the parents.
This is not a job that is to be handed off so that parents are left to with nothing but to plan the party. In fact, this preparing of our children to meet Christ himself is one of the most important things we do as parents.
General Directory for Catechesis 255
"Hence, parents must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children. Their role as educators is so decisive that scarcely anything can compensate for their failure in it. The right and duty of parents to give education is essential..."
-Blessed John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio
Let's look at the goal of catechesis first. We don't just teach our children all the right doctrine so they can pass the test. The filling of our head with knowledge is not the ultimate point. It is necessary and good for we cannot fall in love with someone without some sort of knowledge about who they are and a true love seeks to continue to know and understand that person. However, the ultimate goal of catechesis is not that knowledge. It is the conversion of our hearts. To change our hearts and prepare us to meet God Himself. To fall in love not with things about Him but with Him, our Beloved. The Groom.
"Accordingly, the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ: only He can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity."
-Blessed John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, 5
How can we as parents or catechists foster not just an academic knowledge but a true and deep intimacy with Christ as our children prepare for that most intimate spiritual acts on earth, to receive our Lord in First Holy Communion?
While many parishes and programs offer a small retreat opportunity before First Communion and that is good and commendable, I believe it is something that should involve the whole family and should involve much more than a few hours of reflection on a Saturday afternoon.
Preparation for First Communion, I would argue, should also be an organic process. This list takes that for granted. That you've been taking your little one to Mass with you from the beginning. That you've taught them to genuflect toward the tabernacle because "that's where Jesus is!" That you've tried to point out to the antsy toddler during the Consecration in the softest of awe-filled whispers, "Look! There's Jesus!" That you've availed yourself of the best possible catechetical materials and they have a firm (or at least a reasonable) grasp of the doctrine. All of that tells the child from their earliest possible memories that this is important and that the whole family believes this because it is true. That they have no doubt that we believe that the Eucharist is Jesus because we all really act like it. And not only that, but the rest of the family lives in real relationship with Him every day.
Beyond those necessary and beautiful things that we've been doing since they felt the waters of Baptism on their sweet little heads, what are some special and specific ways parents can prepare their child for the intimacy of Holy Communion in the days and weeks immediately beforehand?
Here's just a few ideas:
Spend Time in Adoration
If nothing else, do this. Sit with Him. Teach your child to go to Him. Even if they don't totally get it or if it's only for fifteen minutes. Just as two people in love spend hours in each other's presence before their wedding, we need that time in His Presence to know Him. To fall in love more deeply. You can not spend time in the presence of the Son and NOT be changed no matter what your age. Perhaps make a "novena of adorations" and take them once a week for the nine weeks leading up to the special day.
Attend Daily Mass
I know you've already been going to Sunday Mass, of course. But in the weeks leading up to their First Communion, consider adding a daily Mass in each week. Or every day.
Memorize a Eucharistic Scripture
This sounds like an academic exercise, and it is, but it is much more so a spiritual exercise for we know that the Word of God has the power to transform, to heal, to change our lives. In fact, we should have just as much reverence for the Word of God as we do the Blessed Sacrament! Dei Verbum from the Second Vatican Council affirms this strongly: "The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord..." (DV, 21) When we spend time with the Word, He changes us. When we tuck it into our hearts through memorization, it is constantly there, changing us even when we are unaware of it. The more we cultivate our souls with the Word, the more prepared we are to receive Him into our bodies as well. This is the very reason that within the Mass, the Liturgy of the Eucharist cannot exist without the Liturgy of the Word. Consider memorizing with your child parts of John 6 or one of the Last Supper narratives. Even if you don't go the route of memorizing, spend time with your child reading and digesting the Word together.
Make a Novena
Pray the Corpus Christi Novena or another such novena in honor of the Blessed Sacrament as a family during the nine days leading up to the child's special day.
Fasting and Sacrifice
Encourage your child to prepare their heart through sacrifices. Maybe giving up sweets the week before they receive or only reading spiritual books or turning off all screens for the week. Help them know that this is a big deal and that the more we offer to Him, the more He is able to shower down His graces upon us. Consider having the whole family offer something up either each individual choosing their own sacrifice or doing something collectively. Never have I regretted those times of sacrifice and fasting for my children and never have they not borne good fruit.
Enlist Their Patron Saint
Teach Them a Eucharistic Prayer
If you're not doing so already, begin praying every day to their patron saint together asking for their intercession as the child prepares to receive Jesus. Learn about them and beg for the saint's guidance and help in fostering a love in your child's heart for Jesus that emulates theirs.
Teach Them a Eucharistic Prayer
Teach them, of course, how to just talk to the Lord in their own words from their heart. But just as children need help finding words for their feelings and expressing themselves in normal conversation, so too, they can benefit from help finding words to express to Christ. We all can! I know there are many times that I can find no better words on my own than the ones that have been passed down by the faithful for centuries. Have them learn the Anima Christi or the Tantum Ergo or O Salutaris Hostia so that they can enter into these ancient prayers of the Church, too.
We've done a combination of these things with our own children and look forward to tailoring our approach and preparation to the needs of each individual child as they prepare for this most special of days. And, of course, care must be taken after that day as well so that devotion and love of our Lord is deepened and strengthened through all their following Communions with Him! While our Lord can work no matter what the circumstances and preparation of the soul presenting themselves, what a beautiful thing it is when we've done as much as we are able to cooperate with that abundant grace and when our children can walk down that aisle truly knowing their Groom.