It is now a little over a week since the exchange between some bishops and the civil and medical authorities concerning the public celebration of sacraments. To say the least, it was a very interesting development, in some ways redolent of an Ireland that most of us consider in the past. A few things stood out for me.
First, I was surprised to hear bishops openly calling on their priests and people to ignore, even defy, the expressed advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team and the Government.
When I saw which bishops were leading the charge, it wasn’t so surprising. We have become used to a couple of Irish bishops going on solo runs. But when the Archbishop of Dublin joined in, the dispute was elevated to a whole new level.
He was very critical of the Government, and his tone seemed to suggest a desire for confrontation. His reference to what he called the "Merrion bash" was the sort of language one might hear from an opposition politician or a media commentator.
It was unusual from an archbishop. But the following evening he seemed to row back, suggesting to his priests that they postpone celebrations until September, which was much more in line with what the authorities were saying.
I was left with the question, what was it all about? I believe these bishops were unwise to take the stance they did. The Irish people have too recent a memory of the dominance of episcopal powers, and it smacked of the current occupants wanting to regain some of that control or, at least, seeking special status in terms of consultation.
Considering what the church in Ireland has been through in recent years, an attitude of humble listening might be more appropriate. The Bishop’s Conference has initiated a synodal process which will be all about listening and giving voice to people. I suspect there wasn’t too much listening done before they came out with these recent statements.
One very positive aspect of the affair was a public disagreement between bishops, something we are not used to. The bishops of Achonry, Ardagh and Clonmacnoise and Kildare and Leighlin took a very different tone, one which coupled compassion with common sense.
Another positive outcome of the dispute was that it brought the current way of preparing for, and celebrating, the sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation under the spotlight like never before. I believe it was a missed opportunity by the bishops not to focus on this rather than indulging in a sense of grievance.
Another positive outcome was it brought the way of preparing for and celebrating First Communion and Confirmation under the spotlight like never before
Commitment to the Catholic faith and church attendance are now very much in the minority among Irish people, especially among the parents of children in primary school. The fact that the preparation for these sacraments is done through the schools means that the substantial majority of the parents and children see very little, if any, spiritual meaning in the event.
It has become an occasion of commercial festivity.
There is nothing wrong with that in itself but when the sacraments are used as the excuse for these events, they are demeaned and abused. The church part of the day is often little more than a preamble to a party for most of those who attend.
It is time for the lesson to be learned. The celebration of these sacraments must be completely independent of the school. Preparation needs to be done fundamentally in the family context, with support and encouragement from the parish.
This would mean that a much smaller number would come to receive the sacraments, but they would be the ones for whom it had some real meaning. I know that what I am suggesting will not go down very well in the commercial world which gets a great deal of business out of these occasions.
Preparation needs to be done fundamentally in the family context, with support and encouragement from the parish
Celebrating family occasions is good, indeed important. Surely it is possible to find other reasons for such festivities – celebrating important occasions in the growth and development of the young person that do not have a religious event attached to them?
When the dust settles on this church/State row, hopefully there will be voices among the bishops who will question our present model of passing on faith. Faith ultimately is caught, not taught.