I teach in a Catholic primary school but I’m not a believer. Must I teach the sacraments?
Ask Brian: This is a dilemma shared by many teachers because faith formation is part of the school day in most schools
Sacramental preparation takes places during the school day in most national schools. Photograph: iStock
I love my job as a primary school teacher but it bothers me that I must hide the fact that I am not a practising Catholic when assigned either Communion or Confirmation class groups. I have asked my principal to not be assigned these classes, but was told that I made a commitment to faith formation when joining the school.
I receive similar letters to yours on a regular basis. It’s not surprising, given that 90 per cent of primary schools are Catholic. Strangely, as someone who does practise my Catholic faith (however imperfectly), I am firmly of the opinion that the tradition of preparing children for the sacraments in our schools is undermining faith expression in the local parish community.
I have seen first-hand in California the model of faith formation based on parish catechises in action: if parents within the parish want to pass on their faith to their children, they agree to attend a programme to equip themselves to teach Sunday school.
Parents find themselves standing in front of a group of their fellow parishioners’ children in their local parish centre, either during Sunday Mass or on a week night, giving witness to their faith. When the children are presented for the sacraments, it is a highlight of the parish year and a sign of the vitality within the community.
Contrast that with the reality of sacramental preparation within our Catholic schools in Ireland. For the vast majority of parents and children, Communion and Confirmation are seen as rites of passage, in which all baptised children automatically enrol. There are a series of evenings in which parents and children engage in pre-sacramental preparations.
Having found myself attending regular evening Mass when such events were scheduled, the sight of an overflowing church carpark may give solace to those who support the current model.
But I believe the perceived success of getting 100 per cent of parents and children attending Mass is actually destroying the potential of genuine parish renewal that these sacraments offer. Many do not know when to stand, sit or how to respond to prayers spoken by the celebrating priest.
Catholic schools are the lifeblood of communities across Ireland, but if we want to see our parishes thrive into the future we should accept the fact that many of our teachers and many families attending our schools do not practise.
For those who want to practise their religion in their daily lives, it would be far better to to replicate the model I experienced in California. It would bring life back into our parish communities and allow teachers like you to avoid what you are currently experiencing.