How important is a flashy Communion?
Last week there was welcome news when a UNICEF league table on the overall well-being of children showed that Ireland ranked 10th out of 29 industrialized countries.
In the same week it was announced that the Grants for First Communion and Confirmation were to be discontinued, meaning families who would have received €242 of a grant up until last year, when it was reduced to €112, will now get nothing to help defray the costs of having their child's big day. This news wasn't welcomed quite as warmly.
When I read about the UNICEF league table, I wasn't all that impressed, because there's a much better result for Ireland in a more important 'league table' which was released 3 weeks ago. The Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite statistic used to rank countries in terms of human development.
It uses three dimensions: Life Expectancy, Education (how many years a 25 year old person or older has spent in school, and how many years a 5 year old child will spend in education in their whole life), and GNI per capita (gross national income at purchasing power parity per capita). The 2013 Human Development Report was released by the United Nations on 14th March and calculated the HDI values based on 2012.
There were 186 countries listed, in four categories: Very High, High, Medium and Low. Ireland was in the top bracket of 47 countries of Very High Human Development, and came 7th. Norway, Australia, United States, Netherlands and Germany made up the top 5, with New Zealand pipping us in 6th place. We ranked well ahead of France (20th), Italy (25th) and the UK (27th). Not at all bad for a little Island Nation with a bad reputation in terms of fiscal responsibility!
Despite all the austerity, despite all the hard times, despite the lack of disposable income, and despite our tendency to moan and complain about our tough life, we're still ranked 7th in the world.
When it comes to getting grants for First Communion and Confirmation, I accept that there is the possibility that some children will feel stigmatized or left-out when all their friends can afford flashy clothes and bouncy castles and nice parties. But realistically, is it that important?
For years people have bemoaned the fact that the focus of Communion and Confirmation days isn't where it should be. The real meaning of the celebrations is on the Sacrament that the child is receiving, and unfortunately the glamour and glitz takes over.
I know of many parishes and schools that have tried repeatedly to change this element of the Communion and Confirmation day, and some have succeeded. Some have adopted a policy where the children wear their school uniform or gowns to cover their clothes so that everyone looks the same and there's no 'competition' or 'keeping up with the Jones's'.
Some others have tried and failed; they met huge resistance from parents who refused to agree to such a simple sensible request. In 2011 €3.4million was given out in grants unnecessarily. Maybe the abolition of this grant will force the issue and more Communion and Confirmation days around the country will move the focus back on to the real meaning of those special days in the lives of the children.
Maybe on the other hand it will drive people to the money-lenders, and further problems will ensue. It's hard to know what's best in that sense, but at the end of the day, having a big party and the perfect outfit for your child's communion and confirmation day is not a basic need.
It won't affect Ireland's ranking on the HDI – neither life expectancy, education or gross national income per capita will be affected. We need to realise that we haven't it all that bad after all. Coming 7th out of 186 countries is fairly impressive. The abolition of wasteful grants could be beneficial.