The Sunday after Easter is traditionally the day most parishes celebrate First Communion. But not this year. What this means for the children, their families, the catechists and pastors, explains Sven Clouth.
Interviewer: Mr. Clouth, in one of the largest mission rooms of the archdiocese, you share the First Communion preparation for 26 parishes with Father Markus Breuer. How much does it hurt you that the big party that so many children and their families have been looking forward to for months can now not take place because of the Corona crisis and has to be postponed to a later date??
Sven Clouth (Deacon in the Zulpich/Veytal Mission Area): In fact, Corona thwarts the plans of many people who have to give up a great day of joy on this White Sunday. Because already weeks ago we cancelled with a heavy heart all First Communion celebrations that usually take place in our large mission room up to and including Pentecost. This means that – in addition to baptisms, confirmations and weddings – the reception of this sacrament will not take place. I'm especially sorry that this is happening to the children who have been preparing so intensively for their big day and whose anticipation is growing with each passing week. Just as it is regrettable that all these church celebrations, which at the same time always bring families together, cannot take place at the moment. Yet we have been in the home stretch of First Communion preparation since January.
Interviewer: That is, you had already done your workload?
Clouth: In any case, the first of our nine groups had already visited the Steinfeld monastery, which is always an absolute highlight for everyone during the preparation time, because there is a great educational guided tour there and afterwards a picnic, to which each family contributes something. While exploring the monastery, the children learn how people believed back then. And that fascinates them immensely. Such a saying as "Shut up!"becomes evident here. For when a young novice in the choir stalls let his wooden seat, which is called a flap, shoot up with a loud bang, the elders just murmured to him: Better hold the flap next time!
Or else there are carvings to which comparably funny anecdotes can be told. Children find such stories very exciting. But for most of them, unfortunately, Corona intervened, so that this time for a large part this trip and thus an essential element of our program had to be cancelled. Then many were very disappointed and really sad.
Interviewer: Even if, little by little, cautious steps back to normality are planned, there will still be uncertainty for quite a while about when gatherings of several hundred people, as is the normal case with communion celebrations in church, will be allowed. In spite of this planning uncertainty, do you already have alternative dates in mind??
Clouth: The Corona pandemic has greatly unsettled our society. Now, of course, people would like to know as soon as possible what will happen next, in order to regain planning security for their own lives. We are just used to have things under control and in control. To postpone all the celebrations of the pastoral areas of Zulpich and Veytal to the Sundays before the summer vacations would probably not have taken into account that risk groups such as grandma and grandpa would still have been excluded from a celebration. Because for a long time they will be subject to stricter precautions than anyone else. That is why we have now agreed on the end of August/September – in the hope that our lives will have returned to normal by then, which of course also depends on all of us behaving as a whole, namely whether we continue to follow the existing recommendations consistently.
Interviewer: As a rule, this important sacrament of the Eucharist is preceded by six months of preparation by volunteer catechists. However, many group lessons and especially the community activities that the children particularly enjoy – you already mentioned it – had to be canceled in the last few weeks. Can such trips or project days, which usually have a long lead time, be made up for without further ado?? Or are the communion children missing an essential experience??
Clouth: All are aware of the challenges of this extraordinary situation in which we find ourselves at present. This means that we have to make sacrifices in all areas of life. Also during communion preparation. On the other hand, as Catholics we can trust in a special consolation: in the Holy Spirit, who works in spite of Corona and will pick up and straighten out one thing or another. I am deeply convinced of this. Where would we be if we did not rely on the good Spirit of God right now?! And then the group lessons with the children will be able to start again from the middle of August. This does not bring back what has been lost, but – as I said – I have great trust in God. In any case, we will make it possible for all children to receive their first Holy Communion. And if there are some scheduling difficulties for the parents, because there are already other plans for the time after the summer vacations, we will accommodate the families in the choice of their desired date in so far as they can choose the Sunday that is feasible for them in our wide pastoral area. Then the child does not take part in First Communion in Zulpich, but in Wichterich or in Antweiler instead of Wollersheim.
And as far as missing out on basic experiences is concerned, we can fortunately say that every communion child has had so many community experiences in his or her group in the past months that this is a treasure that can no longer be taken away from them.
Interviewer: What reactions did you have to deal with when you canceled the celebrations?? And what could parents do to help their children, who now initially find themselves deprived of a great celebration?
Clouth: The feedback was very different. Most of them were immediately able to cope well with the measures and showed understanding. But in their initial disappointment, some have also had their teething troubles and have blamed us. Fortunately, however, only in isolated cases. Basically, I see the current situation as a great opportunity for parents to fill the promise of a religious education made at the baptism of their child with life once again and to become active as witnesses of faith themselves. You have time right now and you can take the Bible for it. And in times of a generally widespread flight from faith – especially in rural areas – they can use the opportunity to revive rituals that have fallen asleep. Taking on a part of the communion preparation at home can become a precious experience with each other. Parents are all too happy to ignore this phase of the celebration, delegating it to the catechists and thus relinquishing their religious responsibility. I would very much like them to see these cancelled group lessons as an opportunity to bring their child closer to what it means that Jesus – transformed into bread – shows himself and that they themselves also stand behind this central content of our faith. After all, what parents exemplify cannot be replaced by any group lesson, no matter how well designed it may be.
Interviewer: Were online communion classes an option for you during these weeks to stay in touch with the children and their families?
Clouth: Where there are concepts like that, it's definitely a way to keep the connection going. On the other hand, however, it is precisely the preparation for First Communion that lives from communion, the tangible community among and with one another. For the children, this includes not only the personal encounters with the catechists and pastors, but also the sextons, janitors and parishioners in our churches. They all serve as a model for being a church together in one place. And this experience of people who stand for the church and work in it cannot be presented online.
But of course there are also templates for a series of services – with prayers, readings, song suggestions and a catechesis – so that families can also gather at home for small celebrations. Comparable to what the early Christians coined with the concept of the "house church. We wanted to create an offer that does not leave our communion children alone in this crisis, whose uncertainties and fears are also transmitted to them. After all, they get to hear a lot about their parents' existential worries. Therefore, to talk openly in the family about these problems and to bring God and his encouraging promise "I am here" into the center, can be an important message of comfort for children.
Interviewer: What does the cancellation of the First Communion celebration mean pastorally – especially for the children as well??
Clouth: I suspect that for us pastors, after the Corona crisis, we're in for a bit of a gallop and have a lot of catching up to do. This will be a great logistical challenge. But also there I trust completely in God. After all, a lot of good can also be gained from this time. The reduction to a few and essential things allows us to re-evaluate life. A general rethinking is certainly the order of the day. We can grow and mature from this. We should not focus too much on the lack of many things we take for granted, but on what is still possible and what still makes our lives rich, despite some deprivations. This also includes First Communion, which can serve many people as a kind of prelude to renewed contact with the church following the great feast. There is still the chance to be infected with the "Catholic" virus. Which, by the way, would be good for the whole church.
Interviewer: And what does a White Sunday without First Communion celebrations mean emotionally for all involved??
Clouth: In that respect, it's almost a brilliant coup. No one will soon forget the First Communion of 2020. Even 30 years from now, the communion children of this year will be able to tell their own offspring about this special time and will have stored in their memories that some things fell victim to the Corona crisis, but not the certainty that Christ was nevertheless with them and showed himself in the changed bread. Perhaps – at least that's what I would like to see – these not so easy circumstances will make them particularly strong witnesses of faith.
The interview was conducted by Beatrice Tomasetti.
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