Sometimes there are traditions that are so deep-rooted in our practice that we do not even question them. Ireland is unusual in that there still exists a close link between the church and primary schools.
In other countries, families who choose to have their child receive religious sacraments are facilitated by the parish, and the ceremony is completely external from school life. In Ireland, parishes continue to rely on the heavy involvement of schools in the preparation of children for the sacraments of Communion and Confirmation. It has always been this way, and it is only relatively recently that this issue has been openly discussed.
Currently, about 90 per cent of Irish primary schools are under Catholic patronage, yet the beliefs and cultures in the modern classroom are increasing in diversity. The changing profile of the religious orientation of families in Ireland is something that needs to be considered and respected. There have been increasing calls from teachers and priests to separate the sacramental celebrations from schools – an issue that deserves genuine consideration, if not enactment.
Due to Covid-19 regulations, the Communions and Confirmations that have taken place, or are due to take place this year, will have a lot less involvement from schools. This circumstantial change in tradition can be viewed as an opportunity for schools to begin to play a lesser role in the preparation of religious occasions.
Currently, religious education is taught in primary schools for 2½ hours per week, with much longer being spent on the subject in the sacrament classes (2nd and 6th class). Teaching hymns, practising responses, creating artwork, decorating the church and many rehearsals often result in time being taken from other subjects in order to facilitate sacrament preparation.
Liberating schools from the time-consuming activities associated with sacramental preparation would instead allow teachers to focus on the academic needs of their class
In this era of curriculum overload, perhaps the huge dedication given to preparing students for sacraments would be better spent on other religiously neutral subject areas.
From a teacher’s perspective, there is often time pressure to complete the curriculum and to maintain or improve literacy and numeracy levels. Liberating schools from the time-consuming activities associated with sacramental preparation would instead allow teachers to focus on the academic needs of their class. This is especially relevant due to the loss of learning that has been experienced due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result of school closures, specific educational recovery procedures will need to be implemented, and the removal of sacramental preparation from the school timetable would be a good place to start.
Placing the majority of sacramental preparation on schools can result in the religious segregation of children and their families – something that should not be part of school life. School environments should be inclusive and tolerant, and the teaching of religious education should reflect this by encompassing the understanding and acceptance of the beliefs of all.
Freeing schools from sacramental preparation would ensure that children are not being excluded from activities during the school day due to their beliefs or non-beliefs. Although the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 requires schools to detail how they will facilitate students who do not wish to take part in sacramental preparation, there are no official guidelines on how to adapt the learning environment for these children.
In 2018, the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin surveyed 1,800 parents, parishioners, clergy, school principals and teachers and found there was "a desire for change being expressed across the board". Participants of the survey indicated a preference for "more movement in the direction of parent and parish responsibility".
Removing schools from the sacramental equation would result in a simpler celebration that reflects the individual commitment of the child and their family
According to a recent statement from the ACP (Association of Catholic Priests), leaving the majority of sacramental preparation to schools is “no longer fit for purpose” and instead it should be “the role of the family and parish to nurture faith and introduce children to the sacraments”.
It is apparent to teachers that many children preparing for the sacraments rarely, if ever, attend Mass or are familiar with the proceedings of a religious ceremony. For many families, their child makes their Communion or Confirmation because it is something that is seen as part of the primary school experience. Sacramental preparation takes place outside school hours in Educate Together and Community National Schools, where children and their families can "opt in" to receive the sacraments and engage with the parish in preparations.
Removing schools from the sacramental equation would result in a simpler celebration that reflects the individual commitment of the child and their family. Communions and Confirmations are not meant to be school events or social occasions but rather a personal declaration of Catholic faith. The changes to Communions and Confirmations this year offer an opportunity for these religious milestones to be separate from school life. The ethos of Catholic schools promotes inclusivity, tolerance and respect. These values can continue to be fostered and developed in Catholic schools without the responsibility of sacramental preparation.
With the majority of educational and religious groups seemingly in favour of the change, there is no time like the present.