We can’t lose sight of profound truths

We should assume nothing in faith formation

A few years ago a chaplain brought his class into the school oratory for a prayer service. The Blessed Sacrament was exposed and, with some Taizé music playing, the students lit candles, and offered prayers of intercession.

Before the blessing, he suggested that the group remain silent for a few minutes. It worked beautifully. The students were immaculately behaved, loved the peace and the chance to pray.

Afterwards the chaplain noticed two girls nudging each other in the hallway. “You ask him,” said one. “No, you ask him,” her friend insisted. He approached them and asked them what was on their mind. “We were just wondering, Father” one of the girls replied, “How you were able to tell the time on that big clock. It had no numbers and no hands.”

It took the priest a few seconds to realise what they meant. Then the penny dropped. They had mistaken the monstrance on the altar for an ornamental clock and confused the Host for a clock face.

The chaplain called the students back into the chapel and proceeded to give a short explanation of the Eucharist and the Blessed Sacrament.

There is a danger in telling this story that it triggers an avalanche of liturgical horror stories with each contributor trying to outdo the next.

The moral of this particular story though lies in the reaction of the priest. He didn’t throw his hands to Heaven and decide that Eucharistic Adoration is not suitable for teenagers.

He didn’t decide to ‘dumb down’ his RE course because the students wouldn’t be able for it.

He didn’t condemn the teenagers and the culture. Instead, he brought the class back into the chapel and explained the sacrament from scratch. 

Rather than moan about the culture, we will increasingly have to summon the patience to explain everything from first principles. We should assume nothing. A while ago I showed a bunch of teenagers a PowerPoint image of Mother Teresa in order to illustrate a point. In an attempt to be interactive, I asked the students who she was, expecting that it would be an affirming moment for them as they correctly named the ‘saint of the gutters’. Not one of them knew who she was – they were all born after her death in 1997. Lesson learned. Assume nothing.

Perhaps more challenging than the decline in religious knowledge is the reluctance on the part of some to accept that this is actually a problem at all. Many seem to have settled for the lowest common denominator approach to religious education summarised as “once they turn out to be good people, that’s all that matters”.

That is important, of course. But we also have a rich intellectual tradition with deep and profound truths about the human person and community. It would be a tragedy if we lost the confidence to share it.


Stations of the Cross

The Stations of the Cross are an enduring devotion especially at Lent. The Papal Nuncio was in the parish of Divine Mercy in Lucan South, Dublin, recently to bless a beautiful new set. They were painted by local woman, Anne McMullan, who is keen that they don’t become paintings to be admired but aids for prayer.

They are a literal rather than an abstract representation of the Passion which is wise since it’s not at all clear that abstract presentations can be readily interpreted. I also notice that the liturgy committee in another parish have placed nice reflections beneath each station in their church to help parishioners as they pray.

It’s good to see this tradition being appreciated and promoted.


St Patrick’s Day

There were disturbing scenes on the streets of Dublin on St Patrick’s Day again this year. Videos posted on YouTube showed some of the violence including a man having his head kicked while on the ground. It prompted the now annual debate about alcohol, violence and young people.

I saw a very different side of the city that weekend. On St Patrick’s night about 150 young people gathered at St Saviour’s Priory near O’Connell St for a guided Holy Hour. The evening included beautiful Celtic music and an opportunity for everyone present to place a lighted candle before St Patrick’s statue.

At the end the candelabra was full of flickering lights, a beacon of hope like the fire on the Hill of Slane.

The previous day ‘St Saviour’s Symposium’ had its biggest turnout since it started three years ago for a talk on ‘Communicating faith in the age of social media’.

So, while the street violence made the headlines, it’s nice to know that in the heart of the capital there was also a group of young adults gathered for prayer on the feast of the National Apostle, while reflecting too on the interface of contemporary culture, technology and faith.