During the past few weeks, First Holy Communion has been celebrated in every parish in this country.
First Communion is a big event in the life of every Catholic child and Catholic family. I am always uplifted by children’s great openness to the faith. I find it inspirational when I consider the great sacrifices and generosity of parents to their children who are preparing for their First Holy Communion. I also salute the fantastic preparation regarding faith formation in our Catholic primary schools. However, when it comes to how best to authentically celebrate the sacrament of First Holy Communion and, indeed, all sacraments in the Catholic Church, I have many questions.
I was appalled to come across a recent survey that revealed that one in every eight families borrow in excess of €1,200 to finance the ‘big day’ that is First Holy Communion. In these very lean times, more and more families are relying on money lenders, who often charge up to 70% interest on such unnecessary loans.
When the focus on First Communion becomes just an adult, nostalgic, and secular one, First Communion becomes a ‘big day out’ — a day when over-indulgence on the material often compensates for the poverty and want of many adults, projected into ostentatious dresses and extravagant parties. It is often the most disadvantaged in our community who place themselves at the mercy of money lenders to finance the fairytale of First Communion for children, which ends up in a hangover for adults.
Do parents of children in second class in Catholic schools really have a choice if they wish their child to celebrate First Communion? Despite the reality of falling numbers in the pews, well over 98% of children in second class continue to receive First Communion. I imagine less than 5% return the following Sunday to receive second communion. How real is this? I get a palpable sense of total disengagement from many parents who subscribe to their child “getting” sacraments because they happen to be in second or sixth class. Often during these rituals, an active policing takes place, trying to maintain a sense of dignity that any place of worship deserves. Simply too many feel compelled to go through this ritual as opposed to actively embracing a faith-filled choice and option.
One way I suggest to break the ‘big day out’ mentality is to place a much greater emphasis on the role of parish in celebrating our sacraments. There is often a clear disconnect between sacrament and faith community. For example, baptisms are rarely celebrated in the context of the Sunday Mass. Why can’t parishes offer three Sunday Masses in the month of May, with a child-friendly focus, inviting children to receive First Communion. Parents could simply enrol their child for whatever Mass they wish to attend. This perhaps gives parents the choice to opt in or out and lessens the focus on the ‘big day’ in favour of a more faith-filled occasion.
One of the very positive aspects of modern Ireland, I find, is the call to authenticity and freedom of choice. It is clear to me that First Communion and indeed many of the sacraments need a fundamental review regarding our attitudes to them. If the ‘big day’ is so big, why do so many families not bring back their children for their second, third, fourth, communions?
I’m not making judgements, nor in any way disregarding the sacrifices made by parents and heroic work by primary school teachers. But if we don’t get real, the time will come when First Holy Communion will be a thing of the past or, at best, a pantomime.
*You can contact or follow Fr Byrne on Twitter: @frpaddybyrne