(The Nationalist, June 2007)
For a long time, one of the strengths of Irish Catholicism was the partnership between home, school, and parish in the religious education of children. That partnership needs to be nourished if it is to continue to be vital. It needs givers as well as takers, active participants as well as passive recipients.
The three elements ideally work together to create a nurturing environment for the child’s growth as a human being and as a Christian. Where all three work together, the child is off to a flying start in life. If it’s only two of the three, the process is weakened – and by more than one third. If it’s only one of the three, the partnership isn’t viable.
As things stand at the moment, the home is the weakest link. Many parents have opted out of their children’s religious education. A blunt statement, but I believe it may truly be put as bluntly as that without qualification. Parents themselves, in most cases, are not sacramental. How can religion appear to children as anything other than hollow and hypocritical if parents do not do what they tell their children to do? Recently, I conducted a baptism; part of the ceremony involves those present saying the Our Father. In this case, the parents of the child being baptized were unable to say it because they did not know it. Just a few moments before, they had pledged to bring their child up as a Catholic. What did such a pledge mean?
Children make their first confession well; they have been prepared by the teachers, and the job is nearly always well done. The same is true with first Communion and confirmation. But when children go to confession before making first Communion, they have mostly forgotten it because they haven’t been there since. Their parents haven’t brought or sent them. By the time of confirmation, they have forgotten it almost entirely, and each child has to be nudged and nursed through it by the priest. The reason is the same; parents have left it to the school. Confirmation is the exit sacrament. By the time of secondary school, Mass and sacraments are forgotten. If children do go to confession – which is rare – it is a repeat of their first confession of several years earlier. They have not grown in the faith in the meantime.
Catholic schools are disappearing, in fact, if not in name. It is probably true to say that a majority of teachers today do not practise the faith in terms of Sunday Mass and sacraments. Some of them are teaching Christian doctrine to children. The children are not fooled, and know what’s going on; the word gets around among them, that their teachers also are not doing what they tell them to do. How can this be the foundation for growth in faith?
It seems to me that there is a huge level of dishonesty going on in this matter. It’s not a pleasant sight to see. I ask myself about my own honesty in baptizing children of families who are quite simply never seen in the church – can anyone tell me what the point of it is?
Parents: do you want your children to be Christian? If not, continue as at present; they will grow up inoculated against it. If you do want them to be Christian, take their religious education in hand yourselves – both of you. If you do, you will be the first to learn, and to benefit, and your children will, too.