‘We’d be hypocritical standing in a church promising to raise our kids as Catholics’
While many non-believers still opt for a Catholic baptism to appease parents or secure school places, others choose a very different christening ceremony
Siobhán Walls with Hannah and Dan Boylan at a naming ceremony for their baby, Hunter
“When is the baby being christened?” It’s a question almost every Irish parent will have heard, and one most can answer: a survey carried out for The Irish Times in 2015 found that a full 93 per cent of families still opt for baptism. This is significantly more than the 78 per cent who identified as Catholic in the 2016 census.
What is behind this discrepancy? Why does Catholic baptism remain the default, even for non-Catholics? And do families have other options?
Folklore lecturer Billy Mag Fhloinn and his wife, acclaimed musician Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, live in Dingle. They’re not religious and they knew early on that baptism wasn’t really an option for their family, so they designed their own ceremony. “ Sadhbh, the first of our girls, was born in April,” says Mag Fhloinn. “Coming up to Christmas, we met a hotel in Killarney and had lunch together. Then, we drove up to the Black Valley, a beautiful wilderness area, and into the Gap of Dunloe.”
Mag Fhloinn made two copper braziers to hold two fires. “They represented our two families, and the grandparents lit a candle from each of the fires. From this, we lit a single candle and put it out onto a small boat, which I had made myself, and put the boat out onto the lake. The flame was symbolic of new life, and the boat was an idea that my mam said would represent the baby’s journey into the world. It was very meaningful for us, and it took place in a beautiful and elemental place. We brought a Kelly kettle and used it to warm mulled wine for our guests. The ceremony was eco-friendly: the boat was made from straw and tied with natural string, while the soy candle was biodegradable.”
Mag Fhloinn and Nic Amhlaoibh may be in a minority, but they’re not the only people who want alternatives for their children. In recent years, the Humanist Association of Ireland and the One Spirit Interfaith Ministry, which serves people of all faiths and none, are among the organisations which have been offering different approaches.
Fiona Armstrong Astley and her wife, Ralph Armstrong Astley, recently had boy-girls twins, and held a humanist naming ceremony for the children on Easter Saturday. Ralph is originally from Birmingham and her family is now largely atheist; Fiona, on the other hand, had the same Catholic upbringing as the majority of Irish people in their 30s.
“I do have a belief, but I long ago became an à-la-carte Catholic and then, when I fell in love with another woman, I became non-Catholic,” Fiona explains. “In a way, I am sad that my children won’t go through Communion and Confirmation, but I can’t place my relationship with my wife and two children into an organisation that doesn’t acknowledge us as a family unit. I feel we’d be hypocritical standing in a church promising to raise the children as Catholic. There are priests who would welcome us, I know, but we’d be asking them to go against their teachings and it could get them into trouble.”
Just what does a humanist naming ceremony involve? Humanist celebrant Siobhán Walls explains: “I meet with the family to discuss what they want to do, perhaps making suggestions around candles that grandparents could light. We can organise a blanket-wrapping ceremony for the child and, often, parents will write some words they want to say. If there are siblings or cousins, they might draw a picture or give a gift. There are poems and readings. Parents might chose ‘guideparents’, ‘goodparents’, ‘oddparents’ or guardian, but most still go with ‘godparents’ because it has meaning for them. I’ll ask them to make a formal commitment to the child. If there’s a musician in the family, there’s often live music.”
Niall Molloy and his wife, Gabbie Varga, recently had a naming ceremony presided over by interfaith minister Karen Dempsey. “I didn’t want to tacitly support the church’s control over schools and hospitals by baptising our little girl,” Molloy says. “We decided to have something personal, in my mam’s house, to mark the occasion. We felt it was more intimate than 20 families in the church, and we were able to write and say what we wanted for our baby’s future.”
Dempsey’s preparation involves talking to the parents about what parenthood means to them and how they will make the transition to becoming a larger family unit. “I have a background in obstetric nursing and psychotherapy, and I talk to the mother about her experience of pregnancy and what she knew of the baby before they were born,” Dempsey says. “I ask how they chose the name and explore what significance it holds for them. In some ways, it is very similar to how I plan a wedding, but now I have this third person involved who can’t speak words, and it’s up to me to get the child’s message across somehow.”
Grandparents can be sceptical of alternative ceremonies, if not openly hostile, but celebrants say they always come around. “I did a ceremony recently where the grandmothers had a strong religious [Belief], so I invited them to do a reading of their choice,” says Dempsey. “The ceremony itself usually involves some coconut oil, anointed on the baby’s head, heart and hands. There’s a section where the guideparents and parents make their pledges to the child, usually promising to be there unconditionally and to support them always.”
Mag Fhloinn recently completed his training as a humanist celebrant. “I love ritual and think it is important,” he says. “Indeed, it is the kind of thing religion, especially Catholicism, does well. Some people who are not otherwise religious might still hang onto religious rituals because they don’t see any alternative. They do it because it is the done thing. But it’s important to have rituals in a secular world, and we need to create them.”
Schools, tradition and belief: Why Catholic baptism is still the norm
Baptism is a hot topic in one south Dublin WhatsApp group, comprised of about 300 mothers. One member of the group estimates that around 10 per cent of parents are dead-set against christening their child, 10 per cent are freely choosing it and 80 per cent see good and bad points: “my mother would have a fit if I didn’t do it”, “we just want to mark the occasion”, “it’s handy for getting into schools”.
In 2017, a survey carried out by the now-defunct education equality group Equate found that at least one in five baptised their child solely to ensure they got a place in a local school. The baptism barrier, where schools can prioritise Catholic-baptised children in their admissions policy, remains in place, although pressure is growing on Minister for Education Richard Bruton to remove it.
One set of parents, who asked not to be named, say they don’t identify with the Catholic church at all. Nonetheless, they reluctantly had a secret baptism for their first child because they were concerned about school places. Recently, they had their second child; whether or not to baptise her is a source of ongoing tension. “We’re both uncomfortable with it, and being dishonest doesn’t sit easily with me.” says the mother. “My husband is strongly opposed. Do we take a stand, or have our children educated? I am willing to set aside my principles around honesty because the education of my children is the most important thing. We shouldn’t have to though: it doesn’t serve our children or the church.”
But it’s not as simple as school places. As humanist celebrant Siobhán Walls points out, the majority of the country’s schools are not oversubscribed. “A lot of christenings happen because of tradition: baptism is what has always been done, it’s easier not to disagree with the parents, you don’t want to be different. And of course, there are lot of sincere Catholic to whom baptism is an important ritual and sacrament, and I have absolute respect for that.”
Rachel Coffey, who lives in Dublin, is one such parent. She and her husband have one son (22 months) and one daughter (3). “I’ve been to a humanist baby naming ceremony and to a humanist wedding. Both were gorgeous, and really nice and personal. I chose to raise my children and to baptise them because I believe in God and think it is the right start for them and I take them to Mass, or at least into the church. My sister and my sister-in-law had boys within a week of each other, so it was nice for us to have the christenings together. We had a great day out: everyone got together and celebrated. Godparents are someone who will care for the child, and spend time with them growing up. I believe it is nice to have a faith in something, and to have rituals too.”
Coffey miscarried her third child over Christmas. “We would have loved for the baby to be christened but, as far as I am aware, the church won’t do a baptism until they are past 20 weeks. That said, I hope to ask a priest to go and say a few prayers by the Forty Foot, where we returned our daughter to the sea. We had our own little ceremony, placing her gently in the water with some flowers. Our three-year-old knows that her little sister has gone swimming, like a mermaid.”