Tag Archives: First communion

“Sacramentalisation”

This time of year, filled with First Holy Communions and Confirmations, is full of joy. It is also a time where we risk “sacramentalising” another batch of young people or adults, perhaps without really evangelising or catechising them.

This is precisely the problem that we face in the New Evangelisation – and one which we, to some extent, inflict on ourselves.

It is a theme which occurs again and again on this blog. I am not being overdramatic when I say it breaks my heart to see us shortchanging people by bringing them to the sacraments too soon. Graces are heaped upon them, yet they don’t have the means or the maturity or the understanding to open their hearts to these graces, because they have not been through a sufficient period of formation.

This video clip from Dr Scott Hahn isn’t new, but it is worth taking just over ten minutes out of your day to watch. He speaks about the relationship between evangelising, catechising, and sacramentalising, in depth. I showed it to a group of seminarians, one of whom said it was the most inspirational thing he’d seen all year (maybe an exaggeration…) – but it is truly a good clip from Dr Hahn and a topic all of us in the Church need to wake up to, and think hard about theologically, pastorally, spiritually.


The Month of May

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In the parish year, May and September vie with each other for top place in the list of busiest months. Whereas September is full of parents’ meetings, catechist training, and heaps of enrolment forms, May is full of church seating plans, rehearsals, and threats to teenage girls involving oversize cardigans if they rock up at church not dressed appropriately. Both months have their own stressful charms. In the last couple of weekends, our First Communion and Confirmation Masses have gone almost flawlessly: the pashminas stuffed in my bag in case of under-dressed teenagers have gone unused and First Communion children almost mastered the arts of genuflecting without toppling over and processing in a straight line. This weekend we celebrated a wonderful barbecue with our newly-confirmed teenagers in which they signed each other’s Transitions books (these are excellent end of Confirmation gifts – you can get them here!). Next weekend, we celebrate another adult Baptism, and our Pentecost Vigil – which is both a celebration of our parish’s patronal feast, and the end of our catechetical year.


This Week’s Top Five… Catechetical Highlights

1. Giving catechesis on the Our Father to the catechumens. In the Fifth Week of Lent, they are presented with the Lord’s Prayer as a ‘foretaste’ and reminder of the Father who will be theirs after their Baptism. What I love about our catechumens is – they really know they will become children of God the Father 🙂

2. A great Confirmation catch-up class: two brilliant, bright girls with some fantastic questions about Genesis, the historicity of the Gospels, the meaning of evil… More teenagers like this please!

3. A brilliant Catholicism session on prayer: small groups shared about their own experience of prayer, and we talked about the ‘fasting of the senses’ as a means to deepen our prayer.

4. Showing the first half of the Human Experience to our Confirmation class – a powerful film to get them thinking about the dignity of the human person and the real meaning of happiness.

5. Adoration with our First Communion children. Every term they have half-an-hour of led prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament.


First Holy Communion Preparation

The BBC is currently showing a series of three documentaries entitled, Catholics. One on seminarians (the more inspiring one so far), one on children filmed in a rural Lancashire parish and one on women (Thursday, 9pm, BBC 4). There are lots of interesting things that could be said about its portrayal of Catholic faith and life, and this particular style of documentary.

What interests me here, though, is the catechetical angle – of course… 😉

This clip from the second episode shows the preparation of some children for First Holy Communion. Firstly, I want to make clear that I know these women are doing their best, they are giving up their time, they clearly care about what they are doing. But I feel that these catechists, like many catechists up and down the country, could use a bit of catechesis themselves. “Who wants to try some holy bread and holy wine?” “Next week, it’ll be different…” without explaining how or what it will be. And even in the church: “When you come to receive the holy bread…” “It’s just like a party!” Well, if this is a party, as soon as they are a few years older they’ll be going to parties a whole lot more fun than this one, and this one will soon be forgotten about…

If there were three things I would say to all First Communion catechists (and priests whose overall responsibility it is for catechesis) if I had the chance, it would be these:

  • Children are able to grasp the concept that bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ
  • So call it what it is! Our seven-year-olds can tell you that the “Eucharist” is the “Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ”. They very quickly learn not to call the Eucharist “bread” and “wine”
  • Seven-year-olds can understand (and even say!) the word “transubstantiation” (I recently asked a group what it meant, and a boy blurted out – “it is something that annoys the devil!” but he also knew that it was the change of bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood)
Somehow, I think it’s a different problem than catechists thinking children cannot handle it. I think actually it’s a problem of them not knowing themselves. Later on in the programme a class teacher is filmed giving an RE lesson where she emphasises that the Eucharist is a “mystery” that no one understands really, at all! Using the “mystery” card to avoid explaining any doctrine – the Eucharist, the Blessed Trinity, the Resurrection – is a cop out which misunderstands “mystery” – something that we can know truly, but not fully.

Two thoughts came to me after watching this programme:

1. It would be great to build up a pool of video clips showing good catechetical practice as well as bad – it’s fine learning it in theory, but seeing it happen in practice really helps catechists understand catechetical principles concretely;

2. All Catholic teachers and catechists really should study at Maryvale…


Discipline in catechesis

Throughout the year, and depending on the children you catechise, this can very quickly become a talking point. One year, a particularly difficult Confirmation group meant that Tuesday afternoons were generally filled with anticipatory dread as we faced the class in the evening. Now we can look back on our experience and laugh, but at the time, we didn’t particularly enjoy Tuesday evenings.

The Church recognises that there is a deeply rooted link between discipline and catechesis, since the word ‘discipline’ comes from the same root as ‘disciple’, and what are we doing in catechesis if not training disciples? The section in the GDC on the Pedagogy of God acknowledges this immediately: “God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom a father does not discipline?” (Heb 12:7) is the opening quotation.

But, we soon find that, like the question of children in church, this can be a charged topic. Parenting is unique in every family, and for a variety of different reasons, adults have different standards about what behaviour is or is not acceptable.

I remember, as a nineteen or twenty-year-old, going back to my home parish to help out with a Confirmation class. For the entire evening, the fifty or sixty participants spoke between themselves, were evidently not listening to the catechists, did not engage with their group leaders, and, as far as I was concerned at the time, may as well not have been there. I wondered how the catechists could simply keep going without addressing this evident problem.

There is a balance that we need to create, and that needs to be in place right from the start. On the one hand, catechesis is not school, and it would be wrong to create the same kind of highly-disciplined school environment that young people have just spent all day in. We need to get the message across that catechesis is something different, a place set apart in which they have come to hear the Word of God. The relationships young people have with their catechists, therefore, will be different from ones they have with their teachers. We begin our Confirmation year of catechesis with a retreat in which to create this community which should draw each young person into a closer relationship with God – where they are loved as well as challenged, where they’re accepted as they are, but also called on to holiness.

Catechesis should awaken in children a desire for God

The other side of this delicate balance means that discipline is completely necessary. In the Confirmation session I attended as a late teen, the young people were not being disciplined and so therefore did not experience the secure environment that both accepts them and expects great things of them. This is a challenging environment to get right, especially if you or your catechists do not have teaching experience, or a great deal of experience with young people.

I would encourage every catechist to persevere in this and do not settle for second best. Insist on maintaining the good procedures and habits that you set out with. Always carry through the consequences if your young people get slack at sticking to the rules. Never tire of praising good behaviour and manners. Always show that this comes from your love and care for them. Pray, pray, and pray to St John Bosco!

We forget what it is like being a child or young person. This struck me when this year we had a group of older teenagers helping for the first time with our Confirmation class. I saw very quickly that their perceptions of the dynamics and behaviour within the group were far more perceptible and accurate than my own. They understood much more quickly what was ‘going on’. I began to see that their insights and help were invaluable, and I now regularly ask their feedback on how the sessions are going. ‘Inside’ understanding from young people themselves, I have found, is indispensable.

Catechesis needs to create the conditions for children to understandAnd, as we all know, young people are happier with clear boundaries that are insisted upon. A First Communion class which had got out of control recently needed some help. I had no idea it had got so bad when I walked in and discovered children getting up whenever they felt like it and running around the room. After a couple of sessions, we were back on track, and one of the girls, as she worked on an activity, commented, “I really love it when it’s quiet!” She had discovered the real purpose of their catechesis.

So, discipline is not an end in itself. But it’s a necessary condition for catechesis to be effective. We have perhaps lost sight of this in a society which treats little children like “gods” and where parents experience guilt for not giving them what they want. But we discover, with some common sense and perseverance, that children are happier and freer when their catechesis is not centred upon themselves, but upon God.


Initiation into a Sacramental Life

Sometimes it can seem like we are just preparing children for the sacraments of initiation when we should be preparing them for a sacramental life. John Paul II wrote very strongly about this:

“sacramental life is impoverished and very soon turns into hollow ritualism if it is not based on serious knowledge of the meaning of the sacraments, and catechesis becomes intellectualised if it fails to come alive in the sacramental practice” CT 23

Both of these dangers are apparent in our parishes, but it’s the second one – catechesis failing to come alive in a sacramental life – that I see becoming a danger in many families. The seven-year-olds we have prepared this year for First Communion have a really strong grasp of things at this stage. In the last few classes, our programme covered heaven, hell, purgatory, Mary and the saints – and we keep recapping all the time on the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. These are children with no material needs and who between them travel round the globe each half-term. But I started noticing little remarks which expressed a real desire for something more: “I want to go to Heaven!” one girl said during one class, and another, as we were going into church one day: “I want to be holy!” Even if it was just for a moment, I could see it was a real desire in them. Today I chatted to another mum as her son came out of Confession and looked super-fervent as he went to kneel down and do his penance. “He takes it so seriously!” she commented. “When we were in Malta he wanted me to buy him all these statues and crucifixes.”

The sad reality is that every year families who attended Mass the whole year during sacramental preparation suddenly fall off the radar after the First Communion Mass. This is really sad for the children, whose sacramental life will have just begun then abruptly finished. The role of parents as first catechists is SO VITAL!! How they can ensure that their children’s sacramental life continues to grow? Here are some practical suggestions we encourage in the parish:

  • Weekly Sunday Mass (OK, so less of a suggestion and more of a rule…)
  • Regular Confession (monthly) – as a parish this is possible for children after school on Tuesdays, on Saturday mornings, and during Mass on Sundays
  • Ongoing catechesis (at church, school and home)
  • Adoration for children (on Fridays)
  • Mass on Saturday mornings and during school holidays
  • Visits to the Blessed Sacrament
  • Family prayer at home, reading Scripture together, praying the Rosary
  • Practice of charity – witness of service of others particularly the poor, forgiveness, generosity, cardinal virtues, value of work and order, etc.
  • Talking about faith in everyday life
  • Use of sacramentals at home, e.g. holy water, miraculous medal, relics
  • Memorisation of prayers, Ten Commandments, key Bible verses, etc.
  • Avoiding influences in family life which actively destroy the sacramental life (e.g. individualism such as TV in children’s bedrooms)