For at least one speaker at last weekend’s McAuley Conference in Limerick’s Mary Immaculate College, the question of whether sacramental preparation should be removed from schools is a simple one.
“Yes,” said Stijn Van den Bossche, continuing, “this is not disrespectful to schools, but the sacraments belong in the parish.”
It might seem ironic for a member of the Belgian Church to be so confident on this issue – as he himself admitted, figures for Catholic practice in Brussels especially could hardly be worse.
Just 5% of baptised Catholics attend Mass weekly in the Belgian capital, with a mere 0.75% of those aged between 18 and 35 doing so. These figures are miniscule despite between 50 and 60% of all children born in Belgium being baptised in the Church, he said, noting too that there are effectively no vocations being answered for the priesthood, that about 80% of parents presenting a child for baptism are not married in the Church, and that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is almost non-existent in the country.
However, he pointed out, none of this is new: as early as the 1930s, these trends had been identified and there was a real concern about the future of the Church in Belgium, with real issues being clear by the 1950s. Part of the problem is that difficulties get embedded over time: people who don’t really believe in the Faith to which they notionally subscribe cannot really transmit or share that Faith, such that the problem is worsened with each generation.
This needs to be faced, he said, saying the only answers lie in the Church taking a more missionary approach, accepting that our old Catholicism of convention is gone in a paradigm shift to a Catholicism of conviction.
Parents who want their children to practice their Faith will need to be much more active, he said, recalling St Augustine’s call for parents to be priests to their children, but the Church has a key role to play in supporting this.
He suggested that parents seeking Baptism for their children should have to give three months’ notice for this, and be offered a simple marriage ceremony along with other supports and Baptisms being clearly parish rather than private ceremonies.
Afterwards, he said, the challenge should be to invite families into the life of their parishes.
He also raised the question of whether the classic collective First Holy Communion ceremony should be done away with, in favour of children first receiving the sacrament when parents and priests jointly believe them ready, with this being followed, perhaps, by a larger parish feast for all children who had recently been initiated into the fullness of the Church as ‘the body of Christ’.
While Maeve Mahon of the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin clearly sympathised with aspects of this, she held that taking sacraments out of schools would be less a radical move than one that could uproot the Faith altogether.
“There’s a conversation we need to have about what is the role of school in preparing children for sacraments,” she told me, arguing that there can be too much emphasis on the idea of First Holy Communion as a ‘big day’ for which schoolchildren devote many hours of practice as though it’s a show event.
Maintaining that “sacraments do belong in schools”, she nonetheless said that the amount of time spent practicing for the ceremony had to go.
In focusing on what she reluctantly called a “performance-led celebration”, and on children’s various tasks on the day, the emphasis on what’s really happening – the sacrament itself – can be lost, she said. “It is lovely,” she said of how the children can seem on the day, “but it’s not fair – it’s not what it’s about.”
Calling for better support for parents so families are more thoroughly involved in sacramental preparation, she nonetheless reiterated later that the role of schools is vitally important.
“The school does this work of preparing the children in a formative way – they give them information and they give them formation in faith, and as I say about creating a Christian community within the school context – so they learn what it is to belong to a Christian community as well, which is fundamental.”
“All of that has to happen in school if for no other reason than that we don’t have the structures to do that in our parishes,” she pointed out.
For Eugene Duffy, organiser of the conference, there is a tendency to forget that Catholic primary schools are – according to Share the Good News, the Irish bishops’ national directory for catechesis – “an outreach of the parish”.
Indeed, he observed, sometimes it can seem that First Holy Communion and Confirmation are events for local schools, rather than for the parish as a whole.
Noting that initiation into the Church at large is through the local parish, he observed that while our parishes are faith communities, they are also shaped by many more factors than Faith and the Church.
Idealised descriptions of the parish from decades ago no longer apply, he said, “even if reading some of our Church documents you would think that it did”, noting that for many people our homes, our places of work, our recreation spots and our churches are all quite separate and often some way apart, such that there is even a question now about how meaningfully we can speak of parish communities.
Often, he said, a parish can seem simply “a territorial or structured arrangement or service provider for rites of passage”.
In line with other speakers, he expressed sympathy with the kinds of “deeply evangelical” approaches to Church life advocated by Pope Francis and said “we’ve been used to a much more passive or vicarious approach to evangelisation – we’re happy that it’s done by others”, stressing that a major challenge now is to form parishes capable of forming individuals.”
For Dr Clare Watkins, the conference’s keynote speaker, the question of whether sacramental preparation should be taken out of schools may perhaps be based on unhelpful and outdated assumptions about the triangular relationship between schools, parishes, and families.
“It’s only when we can reimagine the three elements theologically that we’re going to understand the way in which all our faith formation and growth in Faith is going to increasingly be made up of events in Church that meet people where they are,” she said.
Maintaining what while teachers and parents and schools must be able to “name our faith” and speak in the language of faith as well as the languages of youth and culture, she also added that more thought is needed about the family in this situation.
“I suspect – and I think this is what lies behind Amoris Laetitia as well – that the renewal of the Church and the renewal of Faith and the renewal of parishes will only come through a renewal of the domestic church, the household, in all its messiness, in all its fragmentedness – that’s the place where a lot of the answers to these questions will be held,” she said.