Sacramental preparation for children falls far short

Sunday liturgy frequently does not inspire or support engagement with faith

For the past month we have seen smartly-dressed boys and little girls in white dresses trooping to their local churches to receive First Holy Communion. The sacrament of confirmation is also being conferred upon young people in the shadow of a pandemic, and following innumerable delays.

If patience is a saintly virtue, these children are worthy of canonisation.

The numbers receiving these sacraments is still remarkably high given that, pre-pandemic, some urban parishes reported weekly practise rates as low as 7 per cent, with the fallout from Covid likely to precipitate that decline.

But while the popular debate over the place of the Catholic school in Irish society rages, we are missing a vital opportunity for a more nuanced discussion: the formation of children presenting from non-Catholic schools, of whom there has been an exponential rise in the past decade.

Irish parishes have committed considerable resources into preparing these children. Typically, they must sign up to a two-year programme of after-school classes, for up to three days every week. Preparation is shoehorned into, essentially, a replica of the Catholic schools’ model.

However, compliance is not commitment, and the current model of sacramental preparation is perpetuating the cycle of hatch, match and dispatch. So why is it being perpetuated outside of the Catholic school context?

The mantra “faith is caught, not taught” offers a different perspective. The synoptic gospels depict Jesus teaching adults and blessing children. The current model does the reverse and, crucially, does it apart from the gathered community.

When we join a football club we are not put into a room to learn all about the sport for two years. We get out on the pitch with others, deepening our skills, understanding and love of the game as we go. Similarly, when we join a choir we don’t undergo a mandatory course of musicianship training apart from the choir. We learn as part of a community. We practice together.

The analogies may appear trite, but they speak to a deeper understanding of communion. The 2012 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin employed “Communion with Christ and with each other” as its calling cry. Likewise, to be confirmed means to be made strong or firm in a particular discipline.

We do this through practice, and by being mentored by people experienced in their art. In the sacramental context, these people are found in the local worshipping community; this is the football field, the choir room.

Precedents

There are two strong precedents for catechesis in the context of the Sunday eucharist. One is the children's liturgy, popularised in the 1980s onwards and drawing on models from the United States. The second is the RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. It is rich in reflection, theology, symbolism and liturgical catechesis.

It is the perfect model from which to build a programme which situates candidates’ sacramental journey within the liturgical year and the local community; in fact, the RCIA is designed not just for adults but for those “of catechetical age”.

What would sacramental preparation look like if it took place in this way? It could look like this: candidates being welcomed into the Sunday eucharist with their families, and leaving after the gospel to explore faith with catechists.

The Sunday liturgy is frequently not a celebration which inspires, stimulates or supports a critical engagement with faith

Catechesis enriched by the witness of community members speaking with the children, being their young role models in the community, with their own catechesis before or after Mass. Parents being offered a reflective space to discuss their faith journey over a cup of tea or coffee. First Communion and confirmation being celebrated at the Sunday eucharist around the feasts of the body and blood of Christ and Pentecost, respectively.

The numbers presenting from non-Catholic schools are still manageable enough to make this a reality.

But there may be a more grave reason why this isn’t happening. And this is because the Sunday liturgy is frequently not a celebration which inspires, stimulates or supports a critical engagement with faith.

Liturgy is the church’s shopfront, and until it looks seriously at the quality of its celebrations, how ministerial roles are carried out and how giftedness within the community is recognised and valued, it is unlikely to attract or, indeed, retain its participants.

Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich spoke of the laity as “the awakening giant” but this giant has been subject to some rather Procrustean experiences at the hands of church leaders struggling with the task of maintenance, at the expense of mission.

If sacraments are understood as moments of grace, their preparation needs to reflect this. With the reopening of society, the church has the opportunity to reopen its eyes and invest in its Sunday eucharist as "the source and summit of Christian life", as the Second Vatican Council decreed.

Will that opportunity be squandered?