Communion without the Catholicism

When a child from a secular family comes to First Communion age, how do you mark that important phase of life outside the framework of religion?


When my husband and I came to parenthood, we had long walked from the religion of our upbringing. For me, it had not been a difficult or fraught journey, possibly because even though the rituals of that religion – Catholicism – had been broadly observed in our household, there was little dogma espoused, and church teachings often didn’t sit with ideologies freely advanced by my feminist mother.

I don’t think it is impossible to be a Catholic and a feminist, but as I awakened to early adulthood and feminism, for me the church embodied a patriarchy so deeply enshrined that my parting of ways with it felt organic.

That is not to say there weren’t difficult emotions involved. Like any Catholic of my era, I was not untouched by indoctrination. However, a picture of systemic human-rights abuse within the church was becoming exposed and, as I witnessed a grave and ongoing institutional abdication of responsibility, my resolve intensified to carve out a meaningful life for myself outside its confines.

A surprise awakening came with parenthood: a deep-rooted yearning for ritual, for celebration and commemoration of rites of passage in life that are so well executed within organised religion.

The chaos of early motherhood was such that I couldn’t summon the wherewithal to create an alternative naming ceremony for either of my daughters, something I felt a tinge of regret about later. Having grown up in a family given to gathering for occasions, I know the nurturing and connectedness that extends from this.

And what is more natural than a group celebrating the arrival into the world of a new baby? In the act of naming comes an affirming power, of recognition, of existence, of honouring the things we cherish.

The creeping sense that I had missed one ritual opportunity returned during the year when my first child’s class were to make their First Communion.

Despite being in an Educate Together school, where faith formation is extracurricular, in her case two-thirds of the class were making it. For the first time, I came across the term “cultural Catholicism”, which denoted those Catholics who might not practise in the traditional way, but for whom the main rituals of the church, nonetheless, are observed.

We knew this was not a position we could occupy, but I did feel some envy for the ease of access it afforded families to something tangible, pre-ordained and socially acceptable. In Ireland, after all, First Communion is a rite of passage that presides equally in the social and cultural as the religious – if not more so for many.

I asked myself what decisions I was making on the part of my children. Would they grow up feeling left out? Was I depriving them?

The more I thought about these things, the more my concerns evaporated. How could we push them to identify with something we did not believe in? The accoutrements of the occasion – the clothes, the fuss, the money (naturally the focus of my daughter’s concerns when she related tales from the schoolyard) – were the very opposite to anything I was interested in marking.

School celebration

My daughter was warmly welcomed by the school to share the Communion-day celebrations, and she enjoyed being there to support her friends. But for me, it made the niggling question of rites of passage more pronounced. The seed was planted then for what would transpire a year later.

By that time, my second daughter was eight, and many of her classmates were starting their First Communion year. I got speaking to another mother in the school, and this time, instead of the conversation being focused on Communion and the questions its arrival brought up for nonfaith families, we talked about what this phase of a child’s life symbolised.

We discussed the growing independence we were witnessing in our children, the sense of them entering the world on their own for the first time, tentatively, bravely, formatively.

We recognised their need for close support along with a new, more distant kind that allows a child to take a leap into the unknown.

We discussed how they were grappling with a sense of the world outside their previously confined existence of home, school and close community – seeing with their own eyes its challenges and problems, questioning, for instance, why a man on the street didn’t have a home. They were stepping into the world.

We resolved to talk more about how we could turn this rite of passage into a formal ceremony that would bring together family in a meaningful way, to mark, recognise and create an opportunity for growth, enrichment and memory. Happily we found a third family eager to partake and, with a collective sense of purpose, and plenty of trepidation, we set about creating it.

We used our observances of our children and conversations with them to devise its content. It would reflect their journey of emergence as individuals through different mediums. This would take place in the weeks coming up to the ceremony.

One aspect was a joint art project, which they undertook with an artist friend. Another was facilitated group work, exploring each child’s sense of self in the world, using coloured sand and jars.

Some children wrote pieces to read out. One choreographed a short dance. They learned Imagine by John Lennon. A charity element saw them fund-raise, and a meeting was organised with Alice Leahy, the founder of the chosen charity, where the kids gained insight into one of the things they had been questioning: how people can be homeless.

Ceremony day arrived and Myself in the World: a Celebration of the Stage of Responsibility took place over an hour in a beautiful hired space overlooking nature in Glasnevin. The themes were: myself, my family, my community, growth, responsibility, resilience and joy.

Rite of passage

Variously, through spoken word, readings, art, music, dance and a guided mindfulness meditation, each child played their part, their trepidation turning to courage and pride as their rite of passage was honoured. Each, in their own way, shone. Afterwards they got on with the business of being kids: running freely, eating cake and making noise.

Fears we had had as parents evaporated. Worries about getting it horribly wrong turned into a keen sense of pride, celebration and joy. I could never have imagined how much each of us in the family would derive from that special day.

If there is a message to be taken from it, perhaps it is that there is no getting it wrong. All naming, all celebrating, in a spirit of love and respect, brings good results. And finding like-minded friends to embark upon such a journey with makes it not only easier, but much more fun.