The Hamster Wheel of Sacramental Routine:

The season of First Communions & Confirmations is over for some of us. The Baptisms and Marriages are ongoing.
I was interviewed for a Radio Documentary on First Communions months back. The interview amused me: The interviewer had a child for Communion and was very ambivalent but had been swayed by the enthusiasm of the child. The parents then felt rather hypocritical. My teasing presence was a little torment in the midst of such agonising. At least there were questions.
Our 56 celebrated last weekend. They were delightful. I am certain that if there was no Holy Communion – there is a need to have some ‘Rite of passage.’ The children are so spontaneous; so enthusiastic; so uninhibited; so open; It is Godly. I found this year’s group awesome. God had to be dancing in the aisles with them and with us. I had been a little fearful in recent months that they might have too much ‘religion’ as they joined us, weekly, for the Eucharist Their singing was inspirational. Their praying was rather thoughtful. Even the lost Malaysian plane was prayed for – when the News had forgotten about them.
Our Confirmation was celebrated on 11th April. We celebrate the Sacrament with no Mass. The lead-up was good. The special occasions during the year were good. Ray Field (as always) dealt with each child as if this was the only one in the world at the time. We made a big play on each child calling out their name – and the pride they had to have in their unique place in the world of God. The adults were quite good on the day. In the distant years when Mass accompanied the Celebration; the smokers were in and out during the Service and didn’t have the patience or interest or reverence to stay around. Our pruning of the Ceremony has helped. Confirmation day was Friday; none of the 65 was back on the Sunday!
Our Baptism Team work tirelessly with home visits; Meetings; as a familiar face on the day and with their involvement in the Ceremony. The babies are always great. We ensure that the adults pray most of the prayers and are drawn into the Ceremony. Sometimes crowd control takes over. The church part can be a sideshow. The ‘party’ is really the thing. However, if Francis thinks we should Christen even the Martians – who are we to question these special occasions?! However, we must be careful of magic- this is not Sacrament.
And then there are Weddings. There is a huge investment of energy and time with Marriage preparation. As with Baptism, Communion, Confirmation – where people aren’t in touch with Church; it takes much more effort in the need to get to know people and relax them. We do everything possible to make those profound moments a time where something of God is caught. Am I on my own? I find funerals easier! Wedding day comes and the day takes hours. The Bride has to be late – whatever that custom means. The day passes. There is very seldom any whisper back afterwards. In fact, I wonder most times – is the story of the ten lepers applicable. Where there is a lack of obvious gratitude or awareness; I worry for them.
I am musing over those special moments and wondering. What can we do about reverence? How can we create a sense of wonder? How can we help to let that world of God be glimpsed? Where are the hints and suggestions? These so called Sacramental moments – are they touching the God- world at all? Mary Oliver in her recent book (A Thousand mornings) says (I have been standing) – ‘does the cat pray; or the oak tree; or the wren……’   She finds God and Prayer and Wonder so naturally – how can ‘we’ spread such Good News?
And I wonder too – is our Mass a Prayer? (Is it wonderful?) Is the Scripture a Prayer? Are we praying when we gather in Worship? Has the literalism of our understanding not only diluted our sense of God but has it almost killed it? Or is it the philosophy of the age – the destructive element? We are consumed by the Now, the Immediate, the Obvious and the Particular. How can we break through that ‘sound barrier’ and hear the ‘rumours of angels’?
The Evangelisation spoken of by Francis – can’t be about bringing people back into what we have. We need a new imagination and a totally new creation. How can we go about it? Can this website help in bringing something of that new and essential world alive for us all?
Seamus Ahearne osa

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  1. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    I have never previously read the page by Ross O’Carroll Kelly in the Irish Times magazine, but the title on Saturday 17 May caught my eye: ‘Do you know how difficult it is to get a window cleaner on this side of the city in Communion month?’
    Among other things, he says:
    “Saturday, I should mention, is the day of Honor’s First Holy Communion – which, in this part of the world, is basically a dry run for the debs. It’s a massive, massive deal, in other words, not least for Honor, who’s had the money she thinks is coming to her spent since the first day of January.”

  2. Padraig McCarthy @1.
    It appears we have something in common Padraig. We are both selective in what we read in the weekend edition of the Irish Times. You do not read Ross O’Carroll Kelly’s weekly article and I do not read Breda O’Briens weekly article. I wonder could we both learn something if we were not so selective in our reading?

  3. maureen mulvaney says:

    Well spotted, Padraig! I can say “YES” to that. I have experienced that after my years in primary education and being involved with First Holy Communion and Confirmation. The limousine and entertainer were left out!!

  4. Just think about this–wonderful preparation for Confirmation throughout the year, inspirational talks, mini-retreats etc. all culminating in a beautiful Confirmation ceremony. And then Seamus tells us, “None of the 65 was back on Sunday!” If ever there was anything shouting STOP, this is it! And we have every reason to believe that the experience in his parish is replicated in every other parish in the country. As for First Communion, both Nuala (2)and Padraig (1) have highlighted some of the shocking and troubling red flags that are also screaming STOP.
    Truly, there is major work for the Holy Spirit here and a serious re-think is necessary for parishes. Perhaps we should we be concentrating on parish renewal rather than on Evangelization which Seamus says,”can’t be about bringing people back to what we have.” I believe we are being invited here to offer some practical ideas however radical they may seem.
    For a long time now I have thought that 7-8-year-olds are far too young to appreciate what Eucharist is all about. And the same can be said about 6th class students and Confirmation. Surely we can come up with imaginative age-appropriate rites of passage for these young children without attempting to stuff their heads with theological realities that many adults in their own lives do not understand or appreciate. Is it any wonder that these children concentrate on the things they do fully understand, like money and bouncy castles?
    Back then to parish renewal as a starting point. Education, education, education is sorely needed, in my experience. And here I am talking about education of adults. There is a wealth of material available out there on Eucharist, Scripture etc.– DVD’s, books, and other wonderful programs that could be used. And there are many educated lay people who would be more than happy to help out in their parishes with this if given the chance.
    Is it time now for priests and people to get together to address what is a real crisis in our parishes? Time to stop being satisfied with lovely orderly ceremonies “on the day” complete with all the beautiful dresses etc. and dig down much deeper, even at the cost of upsetting the apple cart for a time?
    Thank you, Seamus, for raising what you call “the hamster wheel of Sacramental routine.” Indeed!

  5. Donal Dorr says:

    Thank you, Seamus, for this very moving and thoughtful piece. Your description of the children at the Holy Communion ceremony is delightful. It convinces me that children at that young age (perhaps especially at that age) can be open to God and deeply touched by God’s grace. So please don’t give up even if there is little obvious appreciation. As the Sufi mystic Hafiz says: ‘You have not danced so badly trying to dance with the Beloved… in fact you have waltzed with great style …’ And also please don’t give up on sharing both your experiences and your reflections, even your agonizing. It rings a bell for me and I presume for many others.

  6. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Beautiful piece Seamus. Children see things so plainly. Explain a problem to them and they will solve it simply and efficiently. You never have to worry about creating a sense of wonder in them – but this changes as they age. I am witness to that. The more they age, the more they are concerned with details and the rather mundane complexities of life. They become more self aware and less likely to be grateful for the things that they take for granted – like the ten lepers in your earlier reference. It was only the Samaritan (who by all rights was not considered one of God’s children at the time) who appeared to be grateful to God. That Samaritan is alive and well in all of us but will likely remain hidden if not challenged. I would have liked to see the group of children who were in my daughter’s first communion group be held together with a common goal; possibly having those children continuously fund raise and provide for Catholic sponsorships of some kind. They could all adopt a child or several children for that matter and raise money through simple things like recycling programs. They could provide their donations in a special way each week. When this starts at an early age and children are challenged to provide solutions to world problems, they will not lose interest if their efforts are recognized and they are rewarded with results. Establish a long running program of this type and disassociation will not be common especially when these children know they are helping to end poverty by such simple acts. Hopefully this might awaken the Samaritan in them and in us as well.

  7. When I ask this question parents will feel cheated and priests may say they have enough to do, but here goes – wouldn’t our bishops be better employed working and meeting with lay leaders in parishes rather than limiting their engagement to children? Is the confirmation circuit a wonderful excuse for the avoidance of such adult engagement? Is it time for them to forget about the photographs and instead get their sleeves rolled up and their heads together with those working weekly on the ground in back rooms, endeavouring to imagine and shape a local church that is relevant and suitable for 21st century purpose? Our maybe the term ‘lay leadership’ is still considered to be an oxymoron?

  8. There are the people who turn up rarely in church, for the “essential ceremonies” and there are the people who are the committed regular core. If you want to look for the barriers to getting the message of Jesus across, I would suggest that it’s in this second group that’s the place to look. Or, at least, among the people who are hooked on ritual. (The Roman ritual as laid down in canon law) The barriers, I would suggest, are routine, ritual, rote recitation of prayers, literalism, infantilism, fatalism, depression. One thing one could do perhaps is make a pile of the pews in the church yard and have a good bonfire. Then perhaps people could move more freely in church. Another thing one could do is abandon for a time the wretched “homily” and begin to cultivate the practice of inviting people to the front (whoever wishes to) to speak out, thanking God for whatever blessing they wish to thank God for and speaking out whatever they want to ask of God. Over time, people may develop a voice for praising God.

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