Education people: The teacher in a First Holy Communion class
Pauline Kearney teaches second class in the Presentation Primary School, Terenure. This is her fourth year of Communion preparation
Bless me father: Teacher Pauline Kearney with Emilie McSherry (8) in second class at Presentation National School, Terenure, Dublin, practising the confessional. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
‘One Direction are playing a concert on the same night as our Communion day. That’s a cause to celebrate. I think some children are going to the concert instead of having a party on the day.
“There’s no denying but that the Communion day is exciting. I suppose the dresses, the hair, the parties afterwards, all add to that. By its nature, First Holy Communion is always overdone a bit. I wouldn’t be a lover of the white dresses and tiaras but that’s just my opinion.
“There is a perception, that if you’re teaching a Communion class, it means the Communion is a backdrop to the whole year. That’s not really the case anymore.
“When I taught the Communion class 20 years ago (that was back when they still made it in first class) there was much more of a focus. Back then, as a teacher, you were responsible for all the preparation, so it really was a much bigger thing.
“The big difference nowadays is that the parish has taken over much of the preparation with the Do This in Memory programme.
“I teach the Alive O religion programme which feeds into the preparation for the First Penance and the First Holy Communion but the other preparation has been taken out of my hands. I’m very happy about that. It has taken a lot of the pressure off me.
“The Do This in Memory programme is run in the parish and it involves parents and children. There are 10 assigned masses and a booklet and exercises that familiarise children with the mass. The 10 masses are very child centred. I think it’s a very good idea.
“It’s interesting. There’s no denying that religion simply isn’t as much a part of life as it was, but you couldn’t make a blanket statement about it.
“Some children are quite unfamiliar with the rituals and even the vocabulary surrounding religion and mass. Others are very well versed. There is certainly a willingness to engage with it all.
That said, I’m not sure about First Penance. I think that the monthly confessions where you were brought to church are a thing of the past. There’s a possibility that First Penance is also last penance, at least until Confirmation time. It is a lovely ceremony though, much more low-key and all the parents make an effort to attend.
One of the challenges of course is the fact that inevitably these days, there are children in the class who are not Catholic and therefore don’t make their Communion. This year, we have 64 children making Communion and eight or nine who aren’t. I have a child who is a Buddhist and one who is Muslim in my class this year. I encourage them to talk about their beliefs. We talk about Communion as a celebration and they tell us about their celebrations.
It helps that a lot of the work in religion class is ecumenical rather than Catholic. There is very little in the way of Catholic specific-teaching so it creates less of an issue than you might think.
“Any participation is entirely up to the children. They are very welcome to sing along with the hymns or whatever they wish. If they don’t want to participate, that is absolutely fine and they have reading or work cards to get on with.
“We normally have three or four church rehearsals which take about an hour each in the lead up to the day. Their main purpose is to allow the children practise with the microphones so they get used to the sound of their voices when they’re reading. The children are very well behaved. You would see that some are not as familiar with the church as others.
“The most stressful part of it all for me is the safety of the children getting to the church. Once we negotiate the road safely we’re fine. For those not making Communion, I always check with parents about whether they are happy that their children come with us. They sit and read or work. We haven’t had any problems so far.
“Of course the children are very excited in the week leading up to the day. It’s a big celebration but I think that the tendency in Terenure is towards understatement. I haven’t seen any crystal carriages outside the church yet. I’m sure it varies from place to place. People just celebrate differently don’t they?
“I have to hand it to the parents though, they are sensible. I wonder do some of them have words with their children and tell them not to talk about the money or the dresses too much. Certainly I think being a year older makes the children a bit more sensible about it. That said, the concept is still over their heads. I would say that the older the child, the better when it comes to Communion.”
Solemn, not scary
“The Communion ceremony itself is supposed to be solemn, not scary. Parents are asked not to photograph or video it so that we can keep things focused. Every child has a little job to do.
“The fact that they are in second rather than first class also makes a big difference to their ability to manage the nerves. Children who are not making their Communion are welcome to attend.
“After the ceremony, the children and their families come back to the school for a white party.
“That’s a party where nothing that could stain a Communion dress is served so we stick to lemonade, popcorn, marshmallows and that sort of thing. It’s a lovely way for the children to mingle and families to meet. The children who don’t make their Communion are also invited. Then, everyone disperses. Naturally the bouncy castle is the thing of the day.
“Money is still a big thing: €20 in a card, maybe more. Other people prefer to give a gift instead. But again, I have noticed that children have been tutored by their parents not to go on about it. Maybe people are a bit more sensible in recessionary times. How much grander could it have become?”
In conversation with Gr áinne Faller