Since I returned to Ireland in 2013 and reacquainted myself with the Church in the country of my birth, having departed to study for the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ when I was eighteen, I can confirm my impressions in respect to a number of elements of parish life in Ireland as opposed to the US. One of my impressions is that First Communion is a bigger event in Ireland. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that it is unimportant or badly done in the States (indeed many of the aspects of the celebration are better organized in the US), however it is undeniably often still the most important day in one’s childhood for many Irish people growing up today.
I have posted on PrayTell before about how sometimes these celebrations can get out of hand and the challenges of dealing with a more multi-cultural society, where many children come from non-Catholic or non-practicing homes. Part of the issue in the Republic of Ireland is that the vast majority of primary schools are under the patronage (i.e. management) of the Catholic Church. This allows the tradition to continue in most parishes whereby the First Communion is organized by the primary school in conjunction with the parish.
Undeniably many many children still joyfully celebrate their First Communion in a spiritual fruitful way. Indeed the wonder and excitment of an eight-year old often puts older Catholics to shame in comparison. However you do also have the problem of certain parents feeling that they are obliged to have their child participate in a sacramental celebration that has very little meaning for their family (not to mention the problem of non-practicing primary school teachers, who are ultimately civil servants and not Church employees, preparing children whose parents and grandparents don’t practice either, to participate in a Roman Catholic Sacrament). In many parishes it has become common for some children to dress up and participate in the First Communion Mass with their classmates, and not actually receive Communion themselves.
However today I became aware of a new initiative in one area in Ireland: My Little Big Day. This is an initiative of some families who are not practicing Catholics. For various reasons, their children were not receiving First Communion with their classmates. But they decided that the children could do with a similar celebration, which came to be called My Little Big Day. They hired a nice room in a hotel to conduct a celebration with their children. And contracted a humanist presider to conduct a non-religious ceremony for the children. The theme of the My Little Big Day celebration was “we are all connected” and it was centered on the children’s connections to their families, their connections to each other and to nature and the importance of an ecological awareness. The families also planted a tree with the children as a prelude to the celebration.
It is important to note that the event was not organized in competition with or as a criticism of the parish celebrations of First Communion. It was even scheduled for a Sunday so that it wouldn’t clash with the parishes’ Saturday celebrations of First Communion (maybe it is best to leave the discussion on the ideal day to celebrate First Communion for another post). This meant that children were free to participate in both events or to participate in one event and attend the other to support their classmates.
I know that there is something to be said for a parish using events like First Communions as moments of evangelization and that a well-managed relationship between a parish and its Catholic school can be a great boost for a parish. It is also true that many parents experience that they themselves have drifted somewhat from their practice of religion as young adults, but reawaken in their appreciation for the Catholic Faith as parents themselves as they are anxious to have something spiritual to pass on to their children. However, it is also true that obliging parents to participate in a Sacrament that they don’t believe in is against the Catholic understanding of religious liberty. It is true that nobody is obliged to participate in the First Communion celebrations, but are we doing justice to our children by using social pressures to our advantage? Also would making participation in First Communion a clear choice allow the celebration to become more spiritual and meaningful for those families that truly cherish their Catholic Faith?
There is not one single solution to the pastoral problems surrounding First Communion in Ireland today and those involved in the Parish/Catholic School nexus need to make reasoned choices for the benefit of everyone, showing the virtues of understanding and flexibility. It is also true that on one level the easiest course is not to make any changes whatsoever. But maybe it is time to allow some more courageous choices, even to the extent of a school with a Catholic ethos officially organizing a Little Big Day event in conjunction with the First Communion celebration so that all of the students can enjoy themselves and grow in a loving environment where both the individual family’s values and the Catholic Faith and its ethos can be respected by everyone, and most importantly the children can be children and every child can have precious memories that they can treasure from their childhood.