There was almost a tribunal of inquiry recently when a company renting out bouncy castles failed to turn up to some First Holy Communion parties. Obviously, anyone would sympathise with a small child devastated by disappointment.
It did, however, raise the question of priorities. In fairness to one of the mums quoted in an article about the incident, she said the celebration of the sacrament was the most important thing and the bouncy castle no-show was secondary.
Some of the reactions online and in the media veered dangerously close to one generally reserved for a human rights violation rather than a First Communion child without a bouncy castle.
Whatever about inflatables, it is easy to mock the excesses of First Communion and Confirmation celebrations. Easy, too, to feel middle-class condescension towards those who book the fake tan, eyelashes and more for the child months in advance. And easy to miss the fierce desire to give the best to their children that animates eye-watering spending on a single event.
It’s also easy for regular Mass-goers to roll their eyes at the overdressed, noisy interlopers who come to Mass only under duress. These same non-attendees will ring Joe Duffy if the parish priest suggests the slightest alteration to what they see as the traditional First Communion.
People want to give their children the wonderful day they had themselves. Yet even twenty-five years ago, many of those who made their First Holy Communion would be at Mass the following day. Today the next visit to a church outside of school hours may be a grandparent’s funeral or their own Confirmation.
Priests waver between feeling the church is simply being used as a convenient venue for an essentially secular rite of passage, and worrying that if they take a harder line, they will stamp out whatever smouldering embers of faith remain
One rural parish priest told me of a parent at a pre-Communion meeting who suggested that expecting parents to attend mass in advance of the First Holy Communion was both out-of-date and disrespectful to adults’ right to express their spirituality in whatever way they wished.
In other words, the transactional approach: give us the experience we want but expect nothing from us.
Priests waver between feeling that the church is simply being used as a convenient venue for an essentially secular rite of passage, and worrying that if they take a harder line, they will stamp out whatever smouldering embers of faith remain.
It is not just the fault of the reluctant adults in the pews. The church has done a terrible job of communicating the value of being part of a Christian community.
There is research to show that being part of a faith community has all sorts of protective effects, particularly for young people. As agnostic David Robson succinctly put it, “if you have sufficient willpower to get out of bed on a Sunday morning, for example, you may also have enough self-control to resist life’s other temptations.”
Parents are well-meaning but sometimes muddled. They want to celebrate their children but children do not so much need to be celebrated as rooted. Children are already under tremendous pressure to be amazing in every way in a highly individualised society. Conversely, their experience of being a community member outside of immediate family and friends is atrophied.
Part of receiving communion is about being incorporated further into something bigger than themselves, not so much being the focus of attention as learning how to be part of an interconnected, messy, muddling-through community, complete with obligations and responsibilities.
Attending church for its physical and mental health benefits, though, is just another form of transaction. As an agnostic, even one with as benign a view of religion as David Robson, the experience of the transcendent does not feature.
More than two decades of church scandals have left many disillusioned and angry, yet still hanging on to faith by their fingertips, still wanting there to be more to life than just being passively manipulated by algorithms nudging them to be more efficient consumers.
Perhaps what would work best for everyone is a benign separation. Those who would really prefer a beautiful humanist celebration should go for it
Missing God by Dennis O’Driscoll expresses that nagging sense of something missing when faith is gone – “Miss Him when the TV scientist explains the cosmos through equations, leaving our planet to revolve on its axis aimlessly, a wheel skidding in snow.”
Some of the parents bringing their children for First Holy Communion are not counting down the minutes until they can get on with the real business of the day, the party. They are there because of an inchoate sense of missing something and wanting their children to have a deep connection to meaning. The church, with isolated exceptions, is not feeding these people.
Perhaps what would work best for everyone is a benign separation. Those who would really prefer a beautiful humanist celebration should go for it. Those who would like to skip the whole church/humanist bit and get straight to the bouncy castle and prosecco should use their ingenuity to organise that, too.
Those who are left, the doubters and believers – I never met a person of faith who did not have aspects of both – could get on with trying to thrash out a way to live within the tension of a church that is profoundly flawed but that also still manages, miraculously, to offer the bread of eternal life.