The Archbishop of Dublin has announced "significant" reforms aimed at moving the focus of sacramental preparation away from schools and towards the family and to parishes. This will affect schools in the archdiocese, which covers Dublin and Wicklow and parts of Kildare, Carlow, Laois and Wexford. So, what does all this mean for parents?
What will change exactly?
Under the changes, parishes will assume primary responsibility for the preparation and celebration of Confession, First Communion and Confirmation.
This will, most likely, result in “opt-in” after-school classes to prepare children for these sacraments.
This type of system currently operates in multi-denominational schools, such as Educate Together and Community National Schools.
It typically involves a weekly one-hour after-school class either in the school or the local parish centre.
Classes are usually taken by a religious teacher, lay person or local priest and generally involve a cost for the parent.
Will this be the end of religious instruction in schools?
No. Schools are entitled to set aside up to 30 minutes of the school day for religious instruction or faith formation (twice the amount of time devoted to subjects such as physical education).
However, time spent on religious instruction typically increases when Catholic schools are involved in preparing children for sacraments such as Holy Communion and Confirmation.
The wording of the Archbishop’s announcement says the new approach “ advocates a renewed relationship with Catholic schools in promoting Catholic ethos and in delivering the Grow in Love programme.”
This means faith formation will continue during school – though the emphasis on the sacraments will likely reduce.
When is all this going to happen?
The Archbishop does not spell this out precisely. He says the plans are "not something that will be accomplished overnight; it cannot however be put forever on the long finger. We must begin now."
An implementation group to steer through the plans will be set up early next year, though it’s difficult to say for sure when changes will impact on parents
Will sacramental preparation take place after-school or on Sundays?
Again, there is no detail yet. Archbishop Martin says any change must be "achieved in line with the differing circumstances of each parish".
Interestingly, many multi-denominational Educate Together and Community National Schools (which do not practice faith formation during the school day) currently provide after-school religion and sacramental classes.
These are organised by parents and the local parish. In some schools, as many 50 per cent of parents avail of this option.
Why is all this happening now?
There have been long-standing concerns within the Church that the sacraments are at risk of becoming a social rather than a religious event.
Many teachers say they have noticed a deterioration in children’s religious knowledge over the years. Some talk of how they end up having to re-teach students how to receive Communion in their Confirmation year.
It’s clear that many parents are not engaging with church practices – though they expect it of their schools
The archdiocese set up a sacraments review group last year to consult widely and make practical recommendations on the future practice.
About 1,800 people – parents, parishioners, clergy, schoolteachers and principals – responded to an online survey.
Among the key findings from this process were that the “family has the primary responsibility for leading children in faith” and that there is “a desire for shifting the primary responsibility for sacramental preparation from school to parish”.
This was expressed strongly across the board and included the wish to continue involvement with schools.
What happens next?
An implementation group is to be set up to look at a range of issues around the proposal including, communicating with schools and with parents; recruiting and training volunteers in parishes to work with regional support workers; providing resources and finance. This group is expected to be in place by early next year.
What will happen in other parts of the country?
This changes will affect schools in the archdiocese which covers Dublin and Wicklow and parts of Kildare, Carlow, Laois and Wexford. No doubt bishops elsewhere will examine similar moves if it proves to be a success.
In fact, some parishes have recently introduced programmes aimed at boosting parental involvement around the sacraments.
For example, Do This In Memory Of Me is a programme where parents are invited to attend mass regularly with their children, with special masses held on a monthly basis over a nine-month period in the lead-up to Communion.
Can I opt my child out of religious instruction in school?
Yes. Parents are entitled to opt their children out of religious instruction. At primary level, this can often means doing other work in the class while classmates carry on with their religious instruction – though approaches in schools can vary. Many campaigners want religious instruction to be moved outside the school day so the issue of opting-out does not arise.