If religion is on the wane, why are communions so popular in our schools?
Most parents remain attached to religious rituals, despite a growing secularisation in Irish society
‘We were always open with the kids about our beliefs. They had the choice when it came to confirmation and they both chose it.’ Photograph: Getty Images
Communion and confirmation are the default in the 90 per cent of primary schools that are managed by the Catholic church. Parents can opt their children out but, with sacramental preparation taking up approximately 180 hours of school time, this presents a challenge to teachers and principals.
Despite a growing secularisation in Irish society, most parents remain attached to the rituals of communion and confirmation, often seeing them more as rites of passage than religious rituals.
Children, especially little girls, enjoy the fuss and symbolism of the big communion day; non-religious parents struggle with saying no and some have developed alternative ceremonies or special days for kids who don’t take part.
About half of children in Educate Together’s equality-based schools are from Catholic families and many of these children take part in communion and confirmation.
One teacher in a Catholic school says that the amount of time spent on sacramental preparation has grown in recent years because parents don’t take their children to mass, but still want to make their communion and confirmation.
Campaign groups such as Equate Ireland wants to see the ceremonies happen outside of school time so no child is excluded or “othered”, and so that their constitutional rights are upheld.
Here, we speak to four different people about their experience of communion and confirmation, and explore the alternatives.
The teacher: Bronwyn Cuddy, teacher in St Mary’s Naas
“My daughter is due to make her communion in the next few weeks. Is this an archaic practice which has had its day or a living sacrament which is symbolic of way of life structured around a relationship with God?
“For me, it’s the latter. I didn’t have a strict Catholic upbringing and wasn’t forced to go to mass, but I always enjoyed the sacraments.
“I worry about how my children will navigate their way through today’s secular society.
“Today, Catholics face serious challenges to their belief system, and the structures that uphold them are under intense scrutiny. Ferns, Tuam and other horrors and abuses cannot but cause intense shame in the heart of any practising Catholic, though our shame pales into insignificance compared to the injustices suffered by the victims. We need to make amends.
“But there are so many young people out there who are blameless in this. In my work as a teacher in St Mary’s College, Naas, I am privileged to work with inspirational young people.
“These kids are savvy, educated and able to think for themselves and I am hopeful they will reinvent the church as a welcoming, merciful and human-centred movement, although this must still be underpinned by tradition.
“Speaking of tradition, we will be following in the footsteps of many before us when we celebrate our daughter Claudia’s communion in May. She will be the third of our children to receive the sacrament. My husband, who had to emigrate during the recession for work, will fly home to join us as we celebrate her communion in the church where we were christened, confirmed and even married.
“I know there are those who say it is nothing but an excuse for a party and a day out. It used to upset me when families who never went to church descended on the church in their finery, taking selfies and chatting loudly.
Now, I see I was promoting the inward-looking, narrow mentality that caused so much strife in the past. Even if those kids don’t come back, a little flame has been lit should they want to fan it again later in life. So now I relish the flashing cameras and the excitement; it’s a testament to the love and dedication parents have for these children.
“Communion is about breaking bread together in celebration and is a profoundly moving sacrament. I hope that faith will be an anchor for kids in any storm.”
The pupil: Aidan*, 14, second-year student, Co Wicklow
“I’m an atheist. I was baptised Catholic and went to a Catholic primary school. My parents are not mass-goers although they would have some faith.
“I stopped thinking of myself as Catholic a long time ago. I haven’t seen any evidence for God and I’m not comfortable believing something simply because I’m told to have faith.
“And yet, I made my confirmation. I made it despite telling my sponsor that I was leaning towards atheism. I made it because, in my class, there were only two other children that didn’t do it, and their parents had opted them out of religion for years.
“I did it because I didn’t want to be left out and because there was an expectation from the school that I would go along with the ceremony. I did it, if I’m honest, because I wanted the money. I was happy to have a family day out; my parents, brother, grandparents, aunts and uncles all went to the pub for lunch and it was really nice. I felt it was marking the fact that I was growing older and becoming a teenager.
“I made my confirmation and all the promises to the church but I knew it was meaningless. I do really well in school but have never been interested in religion. This has got me into trouble: one teacher gave out to me for it and said that my lack of interest was ruining it for the other boys. But I know that there were many other boys in my class who didn’t believe either and had no interest in what the priests and nuns were saying. I don’t think there were many boys who really believed at all.
“I’m baffled as to how this is good for the church or for the school. I’ve no problem with religion being taught to people who believe, but it should be done outside of school hours. We shouldn’t feel this pressure to conform.”
The parent: Teresa*, in her 50s, and mother of two children and a teacher
“I loved making my communion. I loved the May altar and the flowers and the dress. It was all so perfect.
“Like a lot of people my age, my background was typically Catholic. We said the rosary at home and we went to mass. When I was 17 and went to college, I started to move away from it. This was before the abuse scandals, but it just stopped making sense to me.
“Still, when I had kids, my partner and I baptised them because it was the done thing and there was social pressure. He was far more anti-church than me. I justified it because of the community we live in and I wanted the kids to fit into the society. I could also see the good messages in Christianity.
“We couldn’t get them into an Educate Together school, but they wouldn’t have made the communion or the confirmation if we had. Like the other kids, they made their communion and confirmation.
“I don’t think they really understood what was going on, though my daughter loved the white dress and the day out. I struggled with my own values but found meaning in it because I saw the communion and confirmation as coming-of-age ceremonies, as happen in so many other societies.
“We were always open with the kids about our beliefs. They had the choice when it came to confirmation and they both chose it. Now, however, they don’t go to mass and are moving towards our position. They are in a multi-denominational school and they value diversity and the good in all religions.”
An alternative: Sally McGinley, principal North Bay Educate Together National School, Kilbarrack, Dublin 5
“In 1990, we were the fifth Educate Together school to open in Ireland. We were deeply involved in developing the Learn Together programme. Through this programme, which helps to develop values, children also learn about the basic tenets of world religions, humanist and non-religious views.
“We have a large number of children who are from Catholic families and are making their communion and confirmation. Out of the current sixth class, 17 out of 26 will make their confirmation this year, and the figures can be similar for communion.
“I don’t ask parents about their faith, but I think they believe in inclusivity and respect, which is why they send their kids here. This would be common to all faiths.
“Faith formation and sacramental preparation takes place outside of school hours. The parents or guardians bring their children to religion classes on a Sunday so they have to make an extra effort; it is a choice they make.
“On communion day, the school opens and everyone, whether or not they took the sacrament, is invited in for coffee. It is about celebrating and respecting all faiths and none, and being inclusive.
“We also run ‘Growing Up Day’ for second class. It is intended as inclusive ceremony for all. We focus on growth and development and use symbols like butterflies and chrysalises. The teachers prepare songs and poems with the children and artwork goes up in the halls.
“At around 11am, parents or guardians, children and often grandparents, uncles and aunts come for the ceremony. The children put on a presentation and are at the centre of the school for the day. There’s tea and coffee for the families afterward. The kids love it and, often, the parents will take a day off if they can and bring their child out to make it special.
“We also have a graduation ceremony for our sixth class which focuses on growth, change and moving on. Dr Seuss’s story Oh the places you will go is an example of the kind of theme used. Again, it is inclusive, families are invited, and all children are involved.”
“Both ceremonies are about celebrating and respecting all faiths and none, and being inclusive.”
*Names have been changed at the request of interviewees