First Communion is a vital building block in evangelisation

“if families want to make a big fuss about First Holy Communion – including a certain amount of bling and other manifestations of carnival culture – let them”, writes Mary Kenny

For some years now, there have been concerns about the way that First Holy Communions often become too lavish, too materialistic, even too worldly. We have all seen to what fashionable lengths parents will go to deck out their offspring in fabulous First Communion couture.

Among Travellers, in particular, there is an emphatic culture of elaborate costuming and accessories for the First Communion. I’ve seen little girls in tiaras and make-up, and equipped with a farthingale petticoat under their skirts (a hooped apparatus, such as worn by Marie-Antoinette, to keep a dress in bell shape: getting into the stretch limo in such an ensemble is quite an art.)

There are regular objections to extravagant display at First Communions, for reasons of cost – families have been known to borrow recklessly for the occasion – and on grounds of spirituality: this is not what the Eucharist is about. 


I’ve always thought this critique can veer too much towards the puritanical: the Puritans took all the everyday, folkloric joy out of people’s celebrations, sometimes with the high-minded motive that the things of the spirit should not be attached to the pleasures of the flesh in any form. 

But sometimes because they were opposed to people enjoying themselves in any way.

But if families want to make a big fuss about First Holy Communion – including a certain amount of bling and other manifestations of carnival culture – let them. 

After all, didn’t Napoleon say that it was the most memorable day of a child’s life: and didn’t James Joyce, even in his apostasy, remember and reiterate that? 

In an Ireland that seems to be growing increasingly secular, I now see that the ritual of First Communion has also become a vital building block in retaining the moorings of faith. 

Parents who want a secular education for their children still worry that their child will ‘miss out’ when others are having their First Communions: and they’re right – the child deprived of a faith education will indeed ‘miss out’. 

Bling or no bling, the First Communion is a big deal, and should be celebrated affirmatively. Do not rain on this parade.


Church involvement benefits older people

I recently attended a conference in Belfast on ‘Arts & Age’ – an informative occasion about how the lives of older people can be immeasurably improved by contact with the arts, sponsored mainly by the Northern Ireland Arts Council, and very entertainingly presented by Paul Clark, well known as a news anchor on UTV Live. 

Many statistics were produced which showed that older people feel less isolated where they are involved with the arts and community projects. But it surprised me that entirely omitted from the agenda were studies which mention the role of the Churches in supporting well-being among older people: of note is research by Maurice Avendano at the London School of Economics, whose sociological study of 10,000 older people concluded that: “The Church appears to play a very important social role in keeping depression at bay and also as a coping mechanism during periods of illness in later life.”


The list of books which reference the beneficial impact of religious practice include Jonathan Haidt’s renowned The Righteous Mind, which underlines that “religious people are better neighbours and citizens”. 

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s God is Back claims that “there is considerable evidence that, regardless of wealth, Christians are healthier and happier than their secular brethren”. 

David Hall, a doctor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, maintains that religious observance may enhance immune systems and lower blood pressure. 

Other scholars, such as James Q. Wilson and Richard Freeman at Harvard, have produced studies to show that religion practice reduces crime among youths (and crime impacts on the well-being of older people). 

I alluded briefly to some of these studies myself, but I was rather out on a limb. I got the feeling that no one wanted to mention Church activity. 

This is either because there is a fear of touching on sectarianism in Northern Ireland, or because most officials engaged in government-sponsored arts programmes are not church-goers, and may believe that faith is a negative social force.

But if there is objective evidence that faith helps older people to connect and to maintain well-being, even non-church-goers should, surely, look at that evidence objectively? 


Revival of rail travel

There wouldn’t be many topics on which I agree with the Marxist Eamonn McCann, newly-elected People Before Profit member for the Northern Assembly. But I’d praise his campaign for the restoration and upgrading of railways services in the North. 

Rail travel is having a remarkable revival all over Europe: it is one of the most efficient ways to serve the public in transport policy and to help the environment too. 

Victorian in invention it may be, but rail travel is the transport of the future.