Learning the lessons of religion


A couple of years back, a man who had been sexually abused by a priest went to meet Reverend Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin. The individual was apoplectic at the childhood suffering inflicted upon him by a member of the church and the subsequent reaction of the clerical authorities to these horrendous crimes. Predictably, he told Martin he had come to detest the institution and would have nothing to do with it for the rest of his life. Then, at the very end of the conversation, he thanked the Catholic prelate for hearing him out and said: “I believe you will be confirming my little lad later this month.”


In that vignette, we have neatly encapsulated the bizarre, almost schizophrenic attitude most Irish Catholics have towards the sacraments. All over Ireland during the months of March, April and May, families are in a tizzy about First Holy Communion and Confirmation ceremonies. Expensive outfits are being bought, restaurant rooms booked and, in some hideous cases, stretch limos and horse-drawn carriages lined up as modes of transport. In a country where significantly less than half of all Catholics attend mass on a weekly basis, a lot of houses where nobody ever goes to church are spending a lot of money they don’t have on a religion they have little time for.


“For many,” said Archbishop Martin famously, “the sacraments are the social events of a civil religion rather than celebrations of the Church.”


Even an atheist could agree with Martin on that score. That he made this comment while freely admitting just five per cent of Catholics in certain parishes in his own diocese attend mass every Sunday lends it added credibility. The enormous disparity between the numbers participating in the communion and confirmation rituals each spring and the sparsely-populated churches every weekend illustrates just how popular a rather ridiculous brand of a la carte Catholicism has become in 21st century Ireland. People don’t have the courage to rear their children outside the faith, don’t have the faith to rear them as proper mass-going Catholics in it, and yet still want to enjoy a couple of excuses to throw serious shindigs.


It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s an easy alternative available that would improve the long-term health of the Catholic Church, appease those who wish to remove religious control from the vast majority of the country’s schools, and take the sacraments back from the party planners. The teaching of Catholic doctrine should be given over exclusively to the churches and be conducted outside school hours. This would end the monopoly position the religion has enjoyed in the classroom since the foundation of the state, force parents to face up to their own ambivalence towards the faith in which they were reared, and give teachers more time to devote to academic rather than spiritual counselling.


I know this is an option because this is the situation facing American Catholics whose children are in state schools, secular institutions where the teaching of any religion is strictly prohibited. When my eldest son turned six years old, we received a letter from the local church where he was baptised here in New York, inviting us to enroll him in a weekly class so he could make his communion two years later. The programme involved bringing him to the church for one hour of religious education before school every Monday morning.


It doesn’t sound like much but in a country where the world-famous yellow bus picks up every child at the bottom of his or her street and magically ferries them off to class, demanding that parents drive anywhere before 8am is a big ask. Although this is a question of much more than traffic, the scheduling alone makes you think long and hard about whether you want to bother with religion at all.


As a typically collapsed Catholic of my generation, I had to give it some serious thought. And, more than once during the first few months, when it proved logistically difficult and inconvenient, I almost pulled him out of the class. But, crucially, I didn’t, and, instead, I learned a valuable lesson. This was a far better way of inculcating religion than the Irish method. Why? Simply because it makes the parents really question what they are doing and, in the soul-searching that ensues, forces them to make a renewed and genuine commitment. A much larger and longer commitment than planning one fabulous party around the ceremony like so many are doing in Ireland just now.


There were other positive side-effects as well. Just by going to the church once a week outside of Sundays, we got to know the priests and nuns who work there, including Sister Phyliss, a fabulously old-school, Irish-American nun straight from the set of a 1950s movie. By the time the ceremony came around, we were on first-name terms with them all. We knew the work they’d invested in the kids and they appreciated the fact we were going the extra mile to have our children brought up in the faith. A far superior arrangement I would guess than Ireland’s outsourcing of all of this to the teachers at school.


At every juncture, it was also reinforced that this was, above all else, a religious event. The ancillary activities which in Ireland have started to dwarf the sacraments themselves were not even mentioned. Indeed, the only time anybody at the church referenced festivities was around the time of the child’s first confession. To celebrate that landmark, parents were advised to bake a cake with white icing (signifying new-found purity apparently) and to throw a small party for the child freshly absolved of all sins. The idea was to make the kid understand this was kind of a big deal and not something the significance of which should be lost in the shuffle.


Some will scoff at the quaintness of that but these little cameos ensured that when our children shuffled up the aisle to receive the communion wafer for the first time on a Saturday morning in May it was a truly solemn affair. There were no cameras in the church. None of the girls looked like sinister child brides or creepy pageant queens. Nobody acted like they were squeezing a little bit of religious ritual in between visiting family, partying, and collecting money. The event was about the sacrament first and everything else second. As it should be. You are either in it for the faith or you are not.

Contrast this then with the situation in Ireland. Scarcely a year goes by now without horror stories emanating from the communion/confirmation scene about lavish parties, ridiculous outfits, and pre-pubescent tanning. The whole thing is about something very different. It’s certainly not about the children entering the church and receiving the blessed sacrament for the first time. But how could it be any other way when so many people put their kids through this as a matter of course without ever actually thinking about it or considering an alternative?


The willingness of so many Irish parents to sign their children up for these ceremonies is positively Pavlovian. Everyone else in the class is making their communion so my child will too seems to be the mindset. Never mind that they only go to church for weddings and funerals and are utterly and legitimately disgusted by the scandals of the past two decades. Ignore the fact they only got the child christened under duress to please elderly parents who begged them to do it. Sure, if they only have to go to a couple of meetings before the day itself, they might as well keep up the tradition. It’s easier to opt in rather than to opt out.


This entire phenomenon is an unfortunate by-product of the outsized and outdated role of the Catholic Church in Irish education. As an outsider looking in on the recurring debate about removing the local priest as the patron of the primary school, it seems beyond time to take the crucifixes down off the wall of the classrooms and for teachers to devote hours currently spent imparting religious doctrine to teaching mathematics or Chinese. The impetus for this may soon come from the teachers’ unions or the government but it’s the church itself which should take the initiative.


In a policy document from a few years back titled “Religious Education of Catholic Children Not Attending Catholic Schools”, the Irish Catholic Bishops outlined the need for introducing religious education in local parishes to cater for those who haven’t access to it in the classroom. It’s a small step from there to admitting this is actually the way all children should receive their doctrinal instruction in the future.


Anybody who opposes this type of thinking should look at what has happened to the Irish language. Coercing people into studying Irish at school has all but killed it as a living tongue. Taking that lesson on board, the church needs to realise that by making religion extra-curricular it would lose quantity, gain quality, and ultimately improve its own long-term prospects. Only those who truly want to make an effort will remain committed to the process once it entails fitting one more appointment into already overbooked weekly schedules.


Of course, some will wonder where the church will find the people to teach all these classes. The Americans have an answer for that. They make parents sign up to do it. How many of those currently going bonkers about communion and confirmation parties would be doing so if they had to give an hour a week over to instructing the kids themselves? About the same number who go to mass every Sunday.

One thought on “Learning the lessons of religion

  1. Great article and I agree that the US model for religious instruction is a better one. But then I'm a left footer raising his kids more Catholic than Protestant so my perspective may be a little atypical.

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