The day my daughter’s school started preparations for First Holy Communion, I showed up to the information meeting in half-dread.
We were to be addressed, we were told, by the parish priest and the principal.
I expected stern injunctions about the gravity of the sacrament. I anticipated warnings against frivolity, against fake tan, hooped dresses, heels and false eyelashes (things the tabloids insisted were now the norm in Godless Ireland). And I feared being landed with a long list of obligations that would basically destroy my weekends for the next school year.
I was only half right. There was zero fire and brimstone, as it turned out. Our children would be told, in essence, that Communion was about community. It would all be about celebrating each other as a group. The themes would be things like love, friendship, support.
It would be about marking our children’s further step toward maturity. The kids would not be expected to understand anything more complex, they told us kindly. It was going to be fun, they said, and the obligations, such as they were, didn’t extend much beyond showing up at monthly masses between then and the Big Day. How much or how little we chose to celebrate the actual Communion, it seemed, would be more or less left to ourselves.
I looked around the room at a motley crew of parents. The core Catholic faithful looked rapt and thrilled. And the rampant atheists? Well, they looked pretty relieved. First Holy Communion, it appeared, had morphed into a one-size-fits-all model. It was entirely up to us what to do with it.
And in the end – being then and now a slightly shame-faced fairweather Catholic – I went sort of half-in.
The preparatory Masses were more joy than drudge, because it really did feel like our community was stronger for them.
When asked to write and deliver a reading, I gave it my best shot. When the Big Day arrived I spent all of €20 on a basic white dress and made the party into the bigger splurge.
The ceremony itself was beautiful. It rained torrentially on the bouncy castle but that only added to the fun. We had cousins and friends over.
There was cake and prosecco for the adults. It was wonderful – and genuinely moving – and my daughter still recalls it as one of her best days ever.
The next day we took a sizable chunk of the banknotes she’d been given – and which meant precisely nothing to an eight-year-old – and delivered them to the Children’s Hospital.
And now, it seems, it’s all going to end.
Catholic churches – priests and laypeople – are taking over responsibility for sacraments like Communion; it will no longer be the schools’ job to manage the preparations. Community, under this kind of model, will not so much mean the school community, but a rather smaller community of the faithful. It’s a massive shift.
“We must remember too that more and more Catholic children today attend other than Catholic schools,” Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin wrote in his letter to priests and parishes this week, urging rapid action to train laypeople to teach children in their community.
“At the heart of the proposal is to stress the primary role of families in sacramental preparation,” he said.
It is hard to know how to feel about it all. Of course the Catholic Church is right, from its own perspective, to focus its efforts on those who really are all-in when it comes to sacramental preparation. Why should it waste its efforts on families whose commitment to religion is sporadic, or begrudging, or possibly even non-existent?
And yet it’s hard not to feel the loss in it all.
There is something truly special about watching a large gathering of solemn eight year olds – still almost visibly growing and developing, still forming into their own unique personalities – come together in one spot in celebration of one another.
Those intense, wide-eyed expressions. Those reedy voices delivering the hymns. Those carefully framed prayers worked upon in classrooms and now shakily delivered from the pulpit. Those precious moments of compete childish innocence.
First Holy Communion is of course first and foremost a key sacrament for the Catholic Church. But for many of us it’s also functioned as something larger than that. And that is nothing less than a celebration of childhood itself.
I wonder if there’s anything our more secular world can dream up to replace it.