Michael Kelly: 'Holy communion is more of a holiday for too many'
'An insult to true believers'
If you're still searching for evidence that the worst excesses of the Celtic Tiger have risen from the dead - at least for some - look no further than first holy communion season.
I hate to admit it, but I sometimes dread this time of year. Friends of mine, people whom I love dearly, often invite me to be part of their son or daughter's 'big day'. "Oh, this is Michael, he's the editor of 'The Irish Catholic'," is how I'm often introduced to grandparents. I might be paranoid, but I'm sometimes left wondering if my role is to provide a veneer of religion to a more faithful generation on a day - in many cases - decidedly devoid of things spiritual.
Communion 'afters' make me long for a simpler time. God be with the day when hiring a bouncy castle and getting caterers in was the definition of pushing the boat out.
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Now some parents are upping their game. It's no longer just fat mortgages and over-sized SUVs that mark our prosperity. Evidently anxious to make sure that this important religious milestone sustains their child's faith into the future, wedding planners are being enlisted to ensure an unforgettable day.
Natasha Gillies, an event planner, recently told RTÉ Radio that the communion business is booming in Ireland. "They're like mini-weddings," she said, adding "it is a religious ceremony, but it is an opportunity for people in the events industries and the entertainment industry to actually make some money".
Didn't someone, somewhere say something about not being able to serve both God and Mammon? But I digress.
Ms Gillies went on to enthral presenter Richard Curran with talk of holy communion parties with red carpets, flamed light displays, illuminated dance floors and tight-rope dancers. "We've been booked out since last September," she said.
It's a far cry from the Carpenter of Nazareth, the reception of whom in holy communion the day is supposed to represent.
It's a strange paradox in Ireland that as people have become less and less religious, faith-based occasions like holy communion have become all the more ostentatious and more and more money is being spent.
Some credit unions are now offering 'communion loans' at a rate of 6.9pc APR. To be fair, it's a darn sight better than dodgy moneylenders, but here's a bit of a hunch on my part: if you're taking out a loan to pay for first holy communion, you're probably spending too much.
Some priests I know have given up. They see first holy communion day as something of an endurance test. They tell stories of children who miss the ceremony entirely because a hair appointment overruns or a mix-up over the limo that was supposed to bring them to Mass.
A teacher friend told me that it's not uncommon to hear of parents who spend upwards of €2,000 on their daughter's outfit in a scene more reminiscent of hit series 'Say Yes to the Dress' than the faith of a man who died naked on the cross.
The Dublin Archdiocese this week said there was an increasing demand from parents that sacramental preparation, such as for first holy communion, should take place in the community rather than in school. They say this will enable parents and the local parish to take on a more proactive role and free teachers - some of whom are not religious - from the responsibility.
That's partly true, but it's also partly wishful thinking. For many parents, the decision for their son or daughter to participate in first holy communion is a largely thoughtless one.
I have avowed atheist friends who would move heaven (if they believed in it) and earth to ensure that their child is part of first holy communion.
Two years ago, I spent a tedious hour with the father of a communicant at the party listening to half-baked internet-assembled arguments for why Catholicism is ridiculous.
When I pointed out that he was pouring thousands of euro into marking his daughter's initiation into that faith he murmured something about making sure everyone had enough to eat before taking his leave.
Far too few Irish people have moved to a mature and grown-up understanding of their relationship with the Church. Some have decisively moved away, and they have other ways to mark rites of passage in the lives of their children. I regret that they no longer find sustenance in Catholicism, but I salute them. They have followed their convictions.
Many others are functional atheists or believe they have outgrown the Church, and yet - having their children initiated in the sacraments is virtually an article of religion for them.
Woe betide anyone who asks why one is raising one's children in a faith that means nothing to them as parents.
It all leads to a sinking feeling for those of us for whom the sacraments actually mean something. We are forced to witness the finery of first holy communion Saturday knowing that only a handful of the children will be back at Mass on Sunday.
The Church needs to help parents to own their convictions and decide whether or not holy communion makes sense in terms of the family's relationship with the faith.
An approach that asks parents to opt-in to the sacraments rather than going with the flow would be a good start.
This would take preparation out of the classroom and mean that reception of the sacraments was no longer the default position.
We will all be better served if people are invited to reflect on the true meaning of holy communion, which is a life-encompassing call to follow the humble example of Jesus and calibrate our lives according to the 'Gospel'.
That will probably mean that fewer children in the future will participate in the sacraments, but it will also mean that the families of those who do really care about it.
Michael Kelly is editor of 'The Irish Catholic'