What could a mother buy as a gift for her daughter’s First Holy Communion? A mum on Facebook commented that she had asked her own daughter what gift she would like. The reply – “You have already bought me my dress and you have organised a party with a bouncy castle but if you want to buy me a present, I’d like a pony.” Meanwhile a recent newspaper headline suggested that Holy Communion season is a great time to teach your child some financial management. I have the greatest empathy for any parent trying to keep their child focused this month on what their First Holy Communion is actually about!
Almost inevitably over the next month or so there will be articles in newspapers and online suggesting that sacramental preparation is taking up too much time and should be taken out of schools. I know that we can easily have a gut reaction to these comments, ready to fight our corner but I’m beginning to think we need to take a moment and consider the wisdom of this.
I’m not suggesting that the secularising agenda is something we should embrace. The urge to move Holy Communion preparations out of school is generally motivated by a desire to strip all mention of faith from our schools and I certainly don’t agree with that. However, I do think that the actual preparation for Reconciliation, Holy Communion and Confirmation should be taken out of school and should find a new home in our parishes.
For many years now I have been doing Confirmation retreats in a number of schools. I have had a growing unease and this year I couldn’t avoid it any longer. The preparation of the children in the schools is excellent. We have teachers who are doing a great job, are really committed and are trying their best to instil faith in their students. However, for many of these children – I would say about half – religion is something which is only done at school and has no relevance in their lives outside of school. They are not praying – many have told me they only experience prayer at school – and they are not involved with their parishes. These are good kids who are just really disconnected from any sense of a living faith.
I worked with those classes over those days feeling like I was pushing some of them as square pegs into round holes. I felt it was unfair to those children for whom Faith had no meaning, all this talk about commitment, about being prepared to stand up as people of faith. I also felt that it was unfair to the children who were actually involved in their faith at least to some extent. We seemed to be telling them that the commitment we were asking of them didn’t actually count for anything. We have a production-line approach to the sacraments. That isn’t the fault of the schools. At diocesan and indeed national level we need to have an honest conversation about this.
So, what would I do differently? I would continue to encourage a vibrant Catholic ethos in the school, one that influences every part of the school day. I would invite every family that wants to celebrate the sacraments to get involved with their local parish. That puts a responsibility on the parish to be warm and welcoming, to develop a relationship over time with families, to have people like you and me, trained as catechists to work with the children and their parents. I would remove the idea that you celebrate First Holy Communion or Confirmation at a particular age. I would have a minimum age but beyond that it would be when the child or young person is ready.
Would we have less people celebrating the sacraments? Yes, probably but you know, that is ok. Are we being invited to be a small but welcoming, humble, authentic Church? I think so.