Can we take photos? Will there be room for extended family in the pew? Why do we need to prepare our children? Isn’t that why we pay school fees?
When involved in a parish some years ago, one irate parent contacted me to complain about having to jump through hoops with his son to receive First Holy Communion. His frustrations ended with this chilling statement: “I can’t wait till this is all over and we never have to go to Mass again!” While I was able to reason with him that the Church was not forcing his family to do anything, and that these steps were offered to those wanting to continue their initiation into the Church, his anger has stayed with me.
I have four children of my own. Over the last ten years, my wife and I have attended four lots of preparation for Confirmation, Reconciliation and Eucharist. It can wear you down. In the carpark, after yet another sacramental preparation meeting, a vast majority of parents are resigned to the process, experiencing requests of their time for meetings or formation with the children to be an imposition. They live busy lives and know of parishes where “the school takes care of everything”, leaving parents to turn up and celebrate the day with their child. They ask, why is our parish making them take the road of additional meetings and formation?
I have great sympathy for their viewpoint. Many of our families are not involved in parish life, and do not worship at Sunday Mass. Many of them, by their own admission, do not share prayers at home or talk about God with their children. I wonder, if for many of our parents, the idea of jumping on board family-based sacramental preparation is akin to suddenly being asked to teach their child tap dancing or tennis, when never having been involved in either.
It is not as though our parishes are unaware of this challenge. Numerous sacramental preparation booklets and processes abound to bring parents into a space, to offer them encouragement and materials to aid them. Clergy, catechists, teachers and sacramental preparation teams rally in support of parents, doing their best to make this a meaningful period. And there are certainly successes, both with parents expressing appreciation for the opportunity to open up another door of communication with their child, and to those who have a rekindling of faith themselves, or a desire to become fully initiated into the Catholic Church.
I offer several points that I have found helpful in my own struggles in this vital area.
- The questions listed at the top of this article are significant and deserve respectful space. If this is where many of our parents have their concerns, then we need to spend appropriate amounts of time seriously addressing these practical issues.
- Parents have lives outside of sacramental preparation. Parishes ticking off parental participation in sacramental preparation or participation at Mass as a pre-requisite to receiving a sacrament would do well to familiarise themselves with Evangelii Gaudium: “The doors of the sacraments [should not] be closed for simply any reason. This is especially true of the sacrament which is itself ‘the door’: baptism. The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.… Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.” (EG 47). Some two-thirds of our families have one non-Catholic parent, and there are a significant number of single-parent families or separated families. There are shift workers, families offering full-time care for elderly or sick members, and those wrestling with the added demands of newborns. Hopefully, we are thanking them from the bottom of our hearts when they venture out for yet another sacramental preparation meeting rather than enforcing mandatory minimums.
- We need to start where the parents are at. We need to engage them in the question of “why does this sacrament make a difference in my child’s life?” And the answer cannot simply be about grace and theology. How do we ground the conversation in issues parents are facing with their children: bullying at school, self-harm, isolation, the search for meaning in a complicated world? How might we share what happens in our own parish in terms of ministries, groups and services in support of families and young people?
- We need to recognise the starting point varies from parents who know nothing about faith, are from a different belief system, and may even be hostile to the Church, to those who are very engaged with their faith. Sadly, at times, we lump everyone into one basket.
In the last few years I have been invited to parishes to open up safe and meaningful conversations with parents around faith. We set up the hall with small groups around decorated tables, with wine and cheese or other refreshments. While there is some input, there is plenty of time for laughter and discussion and the sharing of wisdom from the parents. A microphone is passed around and parents stand up and witness to one another about what they think about having faith in today’s world, to sharing some of their strategies for praying at home or finding space in their busy lives to share about faith, and the importance of attending Mass.
One parent shared with me: “I had the Catholic faith forced down my throat my whole life and not sure what I believe any more. So how do I support my daughter?” It was significant that in this session, he felt able to name his dilemma without being judged. I suggested he start by being honest about being unsure, and that he and his daughter might venture on a journey of discovery together. His eyes lit up. “Yes, I can do that!”