It is First Communion season, and with Covid restrictions eased, celebrations and family gatherings have returned – for some people at least.
It’s a milestone occasion in many children’s lives, and its cancellation and repeated postponement during the height of the pandemic was lamented by many who recognised its significance. But in between the bouncy castles, balloon arches and elaborate cakes, there appears to be a disconnect between the festivities of the occasion and the church.
Fr Paddy Byrne of Abbeyleix parish, in Co Laois, says although the majority of parents in his parish put their children forward for First Communion, only a very small number of the children go on to receive their second. "It amazes me how passionate parents are about First Communion – how we continue to celebrate it in the same way we did 40 years ago, despite the fact Ireland is a radically different place," he says. Parents "are quite vociferous in how they want it. They quite like their traditional model where we all make communion because we're in second class and we're all together and that's the way we want it."
But as plans are made for communion parties and celebrations, Fr Paddy says he finds himself wondering where the ritual of Jesus comes in and how has it become just a purely cultural thing that a child is in second class and the child gets communion.
School patronage plays a role, and it’s a patronage that is “no longer acceptable” Fr Paddy feels, describing the situation as “completely disproportionate to where people are in terms of their own personal freedom and choice”.
While Fr Paddy appreciates the huge role schools and teachers play in preparing children for First Communion, he says “the fact of the matter is there’s something not right when it’s only based on a day. I think, in our seeking out a positive future that will include young people and young families, families themselves have to take ownership of the sacrament.
“If we’re going to have it, as we have it, that it’s a free for all and there’s no commitment to anything required, we have the big day and that’s it. We live in the fruits of that, because they have completely disconnected... there is no sense of connection afterwards with the faith community.”
Fr Paddy describes himself as belonging to “a branch of the Irish church that would be vociferous about the need for reform, the need for recognition and inclusivity” and he feels the church may be “too caught up with our numbers in the pews”.
The church needs to live where Jesus did – in the grey zone
Covid has “precipitated and accelerated” the church’s decline, Fr Paddy says and adds “we need to be more imaginative and pragmatic that people come for occasions, and maybe First Communion is one of those occasions”.
“If you can get people to feel that they’re welcome and included in that, that’s important. The idea of measuring practice in a parish every week, I think that day is over. I think it’s about occasions and making opportunities for families.
“We are all more like the Simpsons than the Waltons,” Fr Paddy says. “The church needs to live where Jesus did – in the grey zone. Our model of the church is no longer alive to the vast majority, but the vision on an inclusive and kind kingdom of Jesus is a reality.”
How can parents, who are putting their children forward for First Communion, reconcile a message of kindness with an institution that doesn't treat all people equally?
Inclusion is a message Fr Paddy preaches but it’s a message which seems removed from the church’s teaching as a whole and plays a significant part in how people feel about it, I suggest to him. How can parents, who are putting their children forward for First Communion, reconcile a message of kindness with an institution that doesn’t treat all people equally?
“I’ve often said we belong to almost two churches. In my experience there’s that church – and that’s a faraway place in that there’s a lot of us, even who are Ministers of the Gospel working in it, committed members, who feel a disconnect from it. And then there’s our church, the one on the ground. Certainly I don’t practise any sense of homophobia. I preach a message of love and inclusion,” he continues expressing his frustration about gay marriages not happening in the church.
“We as priests don’t come from the clouds. We come from brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews – we come from the reality of life. I think that message has been heard. Most of us on the ground hear that and feel that. We’re tired maintaining and we want to start evangelising and re-evangelising.
We cannot simply post-Covid do things the same way we always did it, but that's unfortunately our weakness as opposed to our strength
“The challenge is, how can we engage and get families to re-engage at least more frequently with the life of the parish.”
The church has huge challenges, Fr Paddy admits, including the fact that the “average age of a pastor is well over 70”, he says, and there’s a lack of progression in how the church communicates. “Expecting people to come in and sit silently on the pews, how we participate, the role of women – we cannot simply post-Covid do things the same way we always did it, but that’s unfortunately our weakness as opposed to our strength.
“Our strength, hopefully, as we walk this pathway of modality… is our ability to change – not to dilute the essence of our faith but to make it more attractive, more vibrant, more a sense to reconnect the key elements of love, kindness and inclusion. They’re really powerfully felt in the heart of the gospel. And for some reason the church got it so wrong and the institutional church got it so wrong in terms of its hierarchical, male, clerical way of being.”
Fr Paddy says he in no way wants to be “a party pooper” about First Holy Communion but adds “that in order for the party to be celebrated, in perhaps a more wholesome sense of occasion where we can look forward together, at least sometimes to reconnecting, I think we have to be honest in the way we’re doing it at the moment, because it’s not working.”