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Opinion: Are we ready to let go of the Catholic Church's rituals?

Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, Marriage and Burial are now rites of passage but do we understand their theological foundations, writes Shane Dunphy.

Image: Leah Farrell

I ATTENDED A First Communion two years ago with Dominic* a child I was working with who was in care.  

As we sat in the pews, waiting for the ceremony to begin, the youngster peered up at the large crucifix hanging above the altar and asked me: “Why’d they hang that guy up there anyway?”

I glanced down at my young ward. “You mean Jesus?”

“Yeah. That fella” said Dominic. “I keep asking why he’s up there and the teacher just keeps sayin’ he done it to save us all, but that doesn’t make much sense.”

Well, I had to admit that it didn’t. 

We went to have lunch in a hotel after the ceremony.  When, during dessert, Dominic wondered aloud if he could have an ice-cream sandwich made from two Communion wafers, I really knew then that something had been lost in translation.

And I knew he wasn’t alone in his confusion.

My Facebook newsfeed has this past fortnight, been full of photographs of beaming youngsters accompanied by proud parents, aunts and uncles, all fresh from First Communion ceremonies all over the country.

The images generally show boys in suits (the formal look given a funky twist with brightly coloured designer trainers); the girls more traditional – white dresses seem to still be in favour, but the hair of these communicants is augmented with extensions, makeup is liberally applied and a (usually subtle) application of fake tan is not uncommon.

Needless to say, the commentary on First Communion (and to a lesser extent Confirmation) 2019 has been mixed.  While the majority smile and congratulate, there has been some sniping. The negative discourse falls into two main topics that could sum up many an Irish conversation: money and faith.

Hillary Fannin, in a recent column in the Irish Times, commented on the folly of spending upwards of €1,000 on a First Communion (the estimated average spend per child this year), and bemoaned the ‘Princess Packages’ being advertised in beauty salons, not to mention the availability of things like pink Playboy hummers to transport your child to the church.

Which means that it’s more than just the cost that offends -it is also the perceived vulgarity.

At my Dominic’s Communion there was indeed one hummer (in camouflage colours), and a few dresses that were so large they required extra space on the bench and looked as if an entire Swarovski crystal factory had exploded near them.  A couple of the little girls appeared to have been dipped in Ronseal Mahogany Wood Stain.

And frankly, I don’t think it took away from the experience at all.  In some ways, it added to the pageantry and the fun of the ceremony.

And whose business is it to cast judgement on what is cool or tasteful?

I work on the assumption that parents are adults and can decide how much they can afford to spend, and if their kids are likely to enjoy a hummer ride and an aggressively coloured fake tan – who am I or anyone else to say they’re wrong?  

Such entertainments aren’t for me, but that shouldn’t detract from anyone else’s enjoyment.

Which brings us to faith – the reason the children are supposed to be in church in the first place.  

I had a conversation last week with a parent who admitted that his son had been in the local church more times this month preparing for Communion than the rest of his life combined.  

“So you don’t attend Mass then?” I asked.

“No. Stopped going when I was thirteen.”

“But you still want your son to make his communion?”

He looked at me as if I had sprouted an extra head. “Of course I do!  Sure it’s something we all go through, isn’t it?”

And I was immediately reminded of Dominic’s idea for religious desserts. How many children will have lined up to receive the host this year with no real concept of what they are doing and no concept of religious faith?

Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, Marriage and Burial are now rites of passage but do we understand their theological foundations.  

Christmas and Easter are important holidays, St Patrick’s Day is a national celebration – these festivals hold deep religious symbolism, but for most are simply social, and indeed commercial, events.

The Irish Catholic ran an article this week about the bid to remove preparation for Communion and Confirmation from schools completely to instead leave such religious and spiritual instruction to parents.

I don’t think it an over-exaggeration to suggest that this would mean the end of the established Church in Ireland, because I’m fairly certain that most parents simply wouldn’t bother.

And maybe it’s time we as a society made a decisive move away from the Church.

Doing just that is much on my mind just now, as last weekend my family said goodbye to a beloved matriarch.

Philomena Coughlan was my wife’s Aunt. Phil was a wife, a mother, a grandmother and a great grandmother and she left this world peaceful and content, surrounded by those she loved.  

Following Phil’s passing, we all spent several days wrapped up in the familiar blanket of the Roman Catholic funeral ceremonies, and for the first time, I really paid attention to how my family experienced the process.

What struck me, as someone who has long since stepped away from the Church, was how the rituals acted as buffers for the very real and deeply painful emotions that were bubbling below the surface.

While the process created space to celebrate the person who was gone – we spent hours sharing memories and stories as we sat in the funeral home or hung about the church – it was equally about practicalities like timetabling the various events, making sure the more far-flung members of the clan knew where to go and when to be there, making sandwiches and organising flowers.

There was never any question that Phil would have a Roman Catholic funeral, as the church was an important part of who she was, but for those of us who are less inclined, I wondered if we could still have all the comfort of ritual and celebration without having to bring a priest in at all?

I concluded that we could, quite easily.  The funeral directors saw the family through most of the hurdles and provided a calm, dignified presence, not to mention a venue for people to meet and say their last goodbyes.  

The actual burial does not need to be officiated by a priest – although it is likely one would be present in a Roman Catholic graveyard, and it’s challenging to find non-denominational ones.  

The physical structure of the church I realised, was not essential.  The readings and the songs and the eulogising could have taken place in the funeral home just as effectively.

For Phil and her immediate family, Roman Catholicism was a really important part of it all, and for that reason it was beautiful.  And that is the point.

If faith figures largely in your life then, by all means, celebrate the sacraments.  If, however, you are simply going through the motions and these rituals are no more than a jumble of meaningless words and gestures, then maybe a rethink is called for.  

On the way back to the residential unit on the evening of his First Communion, I chatted with Dominic. “Do you feel any different?” I asked.

“I certainly do,” he nodded vigorously.

“Holier?” I ventured.

He grinned, holding up the brand new wallet he had purchased with the spoils of the day.

“Richer,” he said.  

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert and author.  He is Head of the Social Care Department at Waterford College of Further Education. 

* The child’s name has been changed.

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