It’s time to take preparation for Communion and Confirmation out of the school day

Opinion: Making preparations the responsibility of parents would lead to a de-pantomiming of the sacrament

Peter Gunning, former school principal, says responsibility for children’s sacraments during their formative years should be exclusive to the parents and the local church with no school involvement.

Peter Gunning, former school principal, says responsibility for children’s sacraments during their formative years should be exclusive to the parents and the local church with no school involvement.

 

When it comes to discussing the patronage of its primary schools, the Catholic Church often acts like the bully in the yard who owns the football, picks the teams and insists on refereeing.

That is arguably the natural outcome of owning a monopoly. When you patronise 95 per cent of this country’s schools, it is your ball, you can decide who plays and you can make up the rules. However, an audit of today’s ballpark will reveal an uneven pitch, a need to reposition the goalposts and less homogeneity among the players.

This point is not lost on Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin. At the closing Mass in the Church of the Annunciation in Finglas, he told his congregation that, “It is time to take a new look at our needs and start a new beginning”.

His words clearly recognise that the church must start looking at the reality of its place in today’s society. While Catholicism remains a majority church, it is practised by a dwindling minority. Archbishop Martin added: “We who believe in Jesus Christ know, however, that God is faithful and he renews his church in remarkable ways.”

Such prophecy suggests it is time for the church to commence conversations with its partners in primary education to oversee ways that may be more obvious than remarkable in smoothing the transition from church-controlled to more diverse community-run schools.

The recent lucky-dip approach in north Dublin primary schools raised more red herrings about the exclusion of both Santa and grandparents rather than moving the divestment process forward. Divestment requires reflection and debate among all stakeholders.

The place of religious education on the curriculum tops the list of conversations to be had. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment plans to introduce education of religion and beliefs and ethics as part of the roll-out of a new primary school curriculum over the next few years. With the majority of children coming from non-practising homes, it is time to consider moving religious instruction and sacramental preparation outside of the 9am to 3pm timetable in all primary schools.

Mindset change

Responsibility for all the child’s sacraments during his or her formative years should be exclusive to the parents and the local church, with no school involvement. The conversation on this issue will require a mindset change on how sacraments are celebrated.

As a principal of a Catholic primary school for nearly 20 years, I was never asked to organise a christening. This is something that parents do without the involvement of the local primary school. It is not difficult. Usually a phone call to the priest to arrange a date will start the ball rolling.

After that, there is the godparents, the name, the shawl, the cucumber sandwiches and the post-sacramental coming-together of family and friends. All this happens with the local school principal as blissfully unaware as the newly baptised baby.

The same logic of parental control could very easily be applied to the two school-led sacraments of Communion and Confirmation. For example, after the child’s eighth birthday, he or she could be brought to a weekend Mass to receive First Holy Communion.

The effect of this would be the de-pantomiming of the sacrament. There probably would follow a downward trend in the white-dress cottage industry and a more even distribution of bouncy castle rentals throughout the year. It would, however, empower the home as the true owners of its own religiosity.

The church and colleges of education need to have a serious conversation on the CRS, the certificate in religious education which remains mandatory for teacher training. Trainee teachers must choose between Christian religious education or religious education in multi-denominational schools.

Such a choice is not reflected in the reality of school patronage, as less than 5 per cent of our schools are multi-denominational, with the remainder predominantly Catholic.

Back of the queue

Many newly qualified teachers with the multi-denominational certificate will find themselves somewhat to the back of the queue when applying for a post in a religious school. It is time to join up the thinking between colleges of education, the church and the Department of Education to tackle this ambiguity and agree on a common non-discriminatory course.

It is time for the church to listen to the voices of our teachers. In its recent report into religiosity of newly qualified teachers in Ireland, researchers at NUI Galway found 30 per cent of newly qualified teachers professed to never practising a religion.

It would be foolish to think a study of their qualified colleagues would produce dissimilar statistics. Many of our primary teachers struggle with the religious ethos they are contractually obliged to uphold. Many feel compromised by this obligation when it comes to career advancement and promotions. It is time to allow all teachers the integrity to exercise their right of conscience without compromise.

In its conclusion, the NUI Galway report asked whether it was “right, fair and moral to put individuals who are committed to the education of our children in this difficult situation” – of working in schools with an ethos at variance with their beliefs. While the question is indisputably rhetorical, it does form the basis from which conversations just might begin.

It might also lead to the remarkable ways of renewal envisaged by Archbishop Martin and to a better sense of equality in our primary schools on a ballpark more evenly pitched. Let the games begin.

Peter Gunning is the former principal of Scartleigh National School, Co Cork