We have been notified by the school authorities of the date for Michael and Daniel’s first communion in May 2013. A little early you might think – absolutely not. First communion has become a rite of passage in Irish society. A fortune is spent on first communion outfits for girls and parties for boys and girls.
I’m not quite sure how this happened. First communion was always a big deal – I remember my own at age 7 and 2 months. But, you know, it involved a nice white dress your mother made and family lunch in a restaurant. No one hired stretch limos or got fake tan and no one hired out a function room. This is, I think, a hangover from the Celtic tiger when expenditure on a range of fronts got slightly out of control. Unlike expenditure in other areas which has been sharply reined in, expenditure on first communion celebrations continues to be considerable. At the same time, Ireland has become a much more secular society. School composition doesn’t reflect this and over 90% of primary schools are catholic. So it’s very easy to have your child prepared for the sacraments. In the overwhelming majority of cases sending them to the school at the bottom of the road will do it.
So, essentially, you have a ceremony prepared for in almost all schools which is regarded as a rite of passage for children and their first big public celebration. These children’s parents may not be religious but overwhelmingly, they tend to opt in. A number of my friends who are not religious have let their children make first communion on the basis that it’s more trouble than it’s worth for them to opt out and they enjoy the day. As a practicing catholic my inner smugness [doubtless carrying me straight to Hell] allows me to shrug my shoulders at this approach [though I like to think that I would not do this myself – more inner smugness – doubly damned].
Bear with me, there is a point to all this context. So, non-religious parents believe their children have a right to their first communion “day out”. The church is, understandably, not entirely delighted with this approach and has insisted that children and their parents attend regular masses in the academic year during which children are to receive their communion. Hilariously, this is greeted with outraged indignation by many parents. I think that they want to remove the sacrament of communion from the church’s keeping because it’s really for the children. Seriously?
The local freesheet “The Northside People” recently reported the latest church first communion outrage under the inevitable [front page!] headline “Holy row over Communion change”. Essentially, the church is trying to lay greater emphasis on the religious aspect of the sacrament which I would have thought would be hard to argue with. I am totally wrong. Parents are “up in arms over changes being introduced”. According to the People “The new changes will involve parents, teachers and parishes working together to see smaller groups of children receiving their First Communion during Sunday mass instead of Saturday, as has been the tradition for generations.” Harmless enough, you might think. Well no, in fact “some parents believe the change will limit the amount of time their children have to celebrate the occasion and feel their children are being deprived of what is considered a traditional family day. Many families with children making their First Communion on Saturdays spend the rest of the day visiting relatives before organising a family day out on the Sunday. But under the new guidelines being introduced on a phased basis, the children will be back at school the day after they take the sacrament.”
“Saturday has always been a traditional day for children to celebrate their First Communion and we now feel that they are being robbed of that tradition” said a parent adding for good measure – “We also feel that it’s an attempt to tone down the hype surrounding First Communion celebrations, which is not very nice for the children.” This seems very odd to me, either she cares about its religious significance in which case the change of day doesn’t matter or she doesn’t in which case I think she’s daft to have her child go through what is to her a meaningless rigmarole and could give her some other kind of party.
The parent went on to say, “If it doesn’t change I won’t be allowing my daughter to make her Communion at the church. I’ll probably take her to Lourdes instead where she’ll be able to feel like the day is really special.” Oh Lourdes, be very afraid.
A certain ignorance about the nature of the sacrament is arguably also displayed in the comment “We don’t tell the church what to do so the least they could do is listen to us and stop telling us how we should celebrate our children’s Communion.”
I appreciate that this situation largely arises because of the historical legacy of an overwhelmingly catholic education system at primary level and I suppose during times of transition odd quirks are likely to be thrown up but still I find this very strange. Am I alone? Am I completely out of tune with how everyone else in Ireland feels? Is it because I’m a practicing Catholic (on the other hand very much the wishy-washy liberal wing)? Do you think this is insane as well? I would be interested to see if anyone has comments. No pressure now.