Faith Formation – Maeve Mahon
The request to write a monthly column for The Irish Catholic coinciding with the Sundays of the Do This in Memory programme comes as we begin the 10th year of preparing in this way for First Communion in Irish parishes. In fact some parishes are now beginning this work for the 12th year as they were among those who piloted the material.
I visited one of those parishes last week and once again launched their preparation for First Communion by meeting the parents. I was struck as I always am at these gatherings by the numbers who attend and their enthusiasm for the journey they are beginning with their child. Wherever these meetings take place in large urban centres or tiny rural communities I can always be sure that the demographics are more or less the same.
Some of the parents sitting in front of me are faithful members of the Church community and have taken seriously their promise at the Baptism of this child to ‘be the best of teachers in the ways of faith,’ others remain connected by their attendance at Easter, Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, cemetery and anniversary Masses or dropping into the church to light a candle when things are not going so well in their lives, and others have lost contact altogether and arrive to this gathering a little apprehensively and not quite sure what to expect. Do This in Memory attempts to support, encourage and challenge all of these parents as they begin the task of preparing their child to receive the Bread of Life, the Body and Blood of Christ for the very first time.
The programme does this from an invitational perspective. It invites parents to consider their responsibility for the faith of this child whom they chose to baptise. It does this in very concrete ways. Parents are asked to be at Mass with their child on the 10 Sundays designated by the programme. These are not ‘special’ Masses but rather a Sunday Mass at which we are asked to be more conscious that the children are present and in which various aspects of the liturgy are highlighted in order to deepen their understanding of the sacrament which they are preparing to celebrate. It is, perhaps, important to note that they are encouraged to be at Mass every Sunday. This has proven to be very challenging for some, but, rather than judge and condemn those who only appear on the Sundays of the programme the church community may need to ask itself why so many young families seem to find this difficult.
Parents are also asked to pray with their child, create a family prayer space which is a visible reminder of God’s presence in the home and to spend time with their child talking about and learning about their faith. They are given resources in the THUMB mass book and the monthly newsletter, Grapevine, in order to help them do all these things. Each year a new group of parents respond with great enthusiasm to the invitation to help coordinate the programme in their parishes.
This approach to sacramental preparation invites the leadership of the parish to take responsibility for accompanying these families on their sacramental journey and it invites the school to let go a little of the responsibilities that for too long have been laid on the shoulders of teachers of sacramental classes. There is also the very important invitation to the parish faith community to welcome in a particular way these children and their families to the celebration of the Eucharist on the Sundays of the programme.
It is no surprise in the society in which we now live that these invitations can be very challenging to all concerned. Parents are challenged in many different ways, some out of the complacency that they are already doing a very good job in helping their child grow in faith and this approach is really only for those who are not so committed, others are challenged by the very thought of entering the church on a Saturday evening or Sunday morning and still others wonder how they can manage to avoid becoming involved altogether. From a leadership perspective, parishes are challenged by the sheer numbers in some cases, by the financial investment in such an approach, and sometimes, by the parish community itself that finds itself disturbed by the presence of the children and their families at the Sunday Mass. The school community can sometimes struggle to let go a little of what is often seen as an integral part of the work of a Catholic school.
Despite these many challenges almost 40,000 children and their families participate in Do This in Memory programmes all over this country and each year new parishes begin to engage with this form of sacramental preparation which is in itself a great testament to the possibilities that this approach offers. Parents volunteer to help coordinate the programme in great numbers and from these groups often emerge new talents and gifts for the parish community. But, most of all, this gives the parish the opportunity to open wide the door in an effort to engage and re-engage with those who are already baptised members of our Church, no matter their level of commitment. Like so many others I have been captivated reading Pope Francis’ interview with Antonio Spadaro SJ in the past few days. I was struck by so many things that this man with a ‘big heart’ said. But, none more so than this; ‘God is encountered walking, along the path.’ The opportunity provided by the time of preparing for sacraments is one in which we can all encounter God in the most unexpected places if we but allow it to happen. I hope that your experience of preparing for First Communion this year is one filled with such encounters.