The sacramental preparation of children is very insufficient
Over the past month, we have seen elegantly dressed boys and girls in white robes come to their local churches to receive First Communion. The sacrament of confirmation is also conferred on young people in the shadow of a pandemic, and after countless delays.
If patience is a holy virtue, these children are worthy of canonization.
The number of people receiving these sacraments is still remarkably high given that, before the pandemic, some urban parishes reported weekly practice rates as low as 7%, with the fallout from Covid likely to precipitate this decline.
But as the popular debate over the place of the Catholic school in Irish society rages on, we miss a vital opportunity for a more nuanced discussion: the education of children from non-Catholic schools, which he there has been an exponential increase in the last decade.
Irish parishes have committed considerable resources to preparing these children. Typically, they must enroll in a two-year after-school program, up to three days per week. The preparation is essentially a replica of the model of Catholic schools.
Compliance is not a commitment, however, and the current model of sacramental preparation continues the cycle of hatching, match, and expedition. So why is it perpetuated outside the Catholic school context?
The mantra “faith is captured, not taught” offers a different perspective. The synoptic gospels represent Jesus teaching adults and blessing children. The current model does the opposite and, more importantly, does it outside the assembled community.
When we join a football club, we are not put in a room to learn all about the sport for two years. We go out onto the court with the others, deepening our skills, understanding and love of the game as we go. Likewise, when we join a choir, we do not take any compulsory musical training course outside the choir. We learn as a member of a community. We practice together.
The analogies may seem trite, but they speak of a deeper understanding of fellowship. The 2012 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin used “Communion with Christ and one another” as a cry of appeal. Likewise, to be confirmed means to be made strong or firm in a particular discipline.
We do this through practice and by being supervised by people experienced in their art. In the sacramental context, these people find themselves in the local religious community; it is the football field, the choir room.
There are two strong precedents for catechesis within the framework of the Sunday Eucharist. One is the children’s liturgy, popularized from the 1980s and inspired by models from the United States. The second is the RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. It is rich in reflection, theology, symbolism and liturgical catechesis.
It is the perfect model from which to build a program which situates the sacramental journey of the candidates within the liturgical year and the local community; in fact, the RCIA is designed not only for adults but for those “of catechism age”.
What would sacramental preparation look like if it took place like this? It could look like this: candidates being welcomed to the Sunday Eucharist with their families, and leaving after the Gospel to explore the faith with the catechists.
The Sunday liturgy is often not a celebration that inspires, stimulates or sustains a critical engagement with the faith
Catechesis enriched by the testimony of members of the community speaking with the children, being their young models in the community, with their own catechesis before or after Mass. Parents are offered a space for reflection to discuss their journey of faith over a cup of tea or coffee. First Communion and Confirmation celebrated during the Sunday Eucharist around the feasts of the body and blood of Christ and of Pentecost, respectively.
The number of presentations from non-Catholic schools is still manageable enough to make this a reality.
But there may be a more serious reason why this is not happening. And this is because the Sunday liturgy is often not a celebration that inspires, stimulates or sustains a critical engagement with the faith.
The liturgy is the showcase of the church, and until it seriously examines the quality of its celebrations, how ministerial roles are exercised, and how gifts within the community are recognized and valued, it is unlikely that it attracts or, in fact, retains its participants.
Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich called the laity a “giant on the alert,” but this giant has been the subject of rather procrustian experiences by church leaders struggling with the task of maintenance, to the detriment of the mission.
If the sacraments are understood as moments of grace, their preparation must take this into account. With the reopening of society, the Church has the opportunity to reopen her eyes and invest in her Sunday Eucharist as “the source and summit of Christian life”, as decreed by Vatican Council II.
Will this opportunity be wasted?