By LAURIE M. FISHER
WARREN -- With his palms together and intense concentration on his face, 8-year-old Jacob Abbott joined his classmates in the processional at Blessed Sacrament Church.
The 10 boys dressed in dark suits and two girls in white dresses and veils were among 60 pupils who recently celebrated their Holy First Communion at the Catholic church.
The Rev. Donald King welcomed the families of the first communicants to the Mass.
"These young men and women have studied and prayed for this day," the priest said as the sun streamed through the large windows at the church that conducts services in the round. "Today they come to join us around the table of the Lord."
At the beginning of the Mass, Father King asked the children to sit near the altar as he stressed their responsibility to teach, feed and love their pets.
"Jesus says he will take care of and feed you," said Father King. "This is the first time you come to the table. You get to eat with us what Jesus provided: the bread and wine, his body and blood. Jesus said, 'I will bring you happiness if you live by my law.'"
Preparation: The second-graders were attentive to the priest's words. The children had been preparing for this day throughout the school year either at parochial school or after-school religious classes, explained Jacob's mother, Maria Schaefer.
Although Jacob has attended Mass since he was a baby, he did not receive Communion. Now he could join his family each Sunday as they receive the Sacrament.
"The First Holy Communion is like an initiation into the church community. As the community, we take the Sacrament just like at the Last Supper with Jesus and the Apostles. It strengthens us and confirms our belief to be more Christ-like," she said.
The second-grader said he has learned a lot during the preparation process.
"We work in our book 'Call to His Supper,'" Jacob explained. "It teaches us about Jesus' Last Supper and his life. & quot;
The children color, read stories and complete puzzles to learn, said Jacob's stepfather, Chris Schaefer.
One Saturday, Jacob joined his mother and classmates to make bread and prepare for the next day's Mass.
"We believe at the Last Supper Jesus turned bread and wine into [his] body and blood, and he offers that for our sins," Maria said. "It nurtures our spirituality. It's nourishment for our souls. He died on the cross to save our sins."
What was learned: In preparation for his first Communion, Jacob said that he learned the prayers of the "Lord's Prayer" and "Hail Mary" in first grade. He also learned the parts of the Mass.
To receive Communion, youths must also be baptized and have a first confession, called First Reconciliation.
"We ask for forgiveness in advance [of the Communion]. The idea is that you come with a clean heart and spirit," Maria explained.
Jacob received the traditional Catholic gifts of a rosary and prayer book to mark the occasion. The children learn to pray the rosary, which is a string of beads that represent a series of prayers.
"These gifts are things that you keep all your life," Chris noted.
Both parents remembered their first Communion.
"It is significant because it makes you feel part of the church, & quot; Maria said.
During the Mass, Jacob was among the children who helped dress the altar with linens for Communion.
At one point in the service, the priest led the students around the baptismal. He recalled baptizing several of the children.
Renewals: The children then renewed their baptismal vows -- taken by their parents when the children were just infants -- that reject evil and affirm belief in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the teachings of the church.
These renewals are special for First Holy Communion, said Pat Rogan, director of religious education at Blessed Sacrament. Members will also do this at confirmation liturgies and at Easter vigil, she explained.
Each child dipped his hand in the font and returned to touch their family members with the holy water. Jacob made sure to touch his 10-month-old brother, Michael. The water reminds family members of Jacob's baptism.
Father King asked the communicants and their parents to stand and gather around the altar to receive Communion. The remainder of the congregation followed the families.
Jacob took a sip of wine and ate the bread.
He said, "The wine was sweet. I was happy I made my first Communion."
He said he felt grown-up.
Throughout the Mass, Father King addressed the children about the significance of the day and emphasized that they should "love thy neighbors as yourself."
After the service, family and friends greeted Jacob and his classmates in the church lobby. Many continued the celebration at area homes and restaurants.
"Jacob was relieved and touched," said Maria. "He felt welcomed into the church. It makes our community stronger. He now is initiated further into our religious community."
Children continue their religious education either in parochial school or after-school catechism classes.
In the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, children in the second grade normally take their first communion.
Confirmation, for youths in grade eight or nine, confirms the gift of the Holy Spirit Jesus promised his followers.