A parishioner asked me recently to explain why all the children who are due to make their First Holy Communion next year were all together at Mass in her local church one Sunday last month. Chatting with her, I learned that her understanding of how children prepare for the sacraments has not changed much over the years. She had no reason to stop and think about it since her own family celebrated theirs a few decades ago.

In a related experience, some people are also asking questions about why a parishioner turns up on their door to talk about Baptism after they have booked a christening at their local church. Again, people’s sense of what happens at baptism hasn’t changed much over the years.

In parishes across the Diocese of Cork and Ross – and in most dioceses of Ireland now – the way the sacraments of Baptism, First Penance and First Communion are celebrated is changing. The changes are not happening in all parishes at the same time, however. This is because it is up to each parish to initiate the changes.

Why change? Because a number of concerns have been voiced by parishioners, teachers, parents, clergy and all the partners in religious education. These concerns include the fact that the context in which people celebrate these sacraments has changed dramatically. Many of the couples presenting a child for baptism have no connection with the parish. They have bought a house there and are only beginning to make connections and get to know the place. There is a high probability that one of the parents has a weak connection with church or may belong to a different tradition.  They may not have any family members near by to help them understand the meaning of the sacrament.

The group of adults who have children in second-class in the primary schools is an even more diverse gathering. In most classrooms, there are various faiths, nationalities, levels of church attendance and varying familiarity with the Christian faith. Teachers in primary schools have supported the preparation for the sacraments with dedication and professionalism but sometimes they have not had the support of the broader parish and some parents, which the programme requires. In the absence of a clear commitment by parents and the rest of the parish, First Communion can become a one-day event rather than the beginning of something which enriches the child for life.

In response to the reflections about people’s experience of baptism in parishes, parishes are forming groups of parishioners who become Baptism Preparation Teams. Essentially, they give a commitment to help bridge the gap between couples and the established parish into which the child is being introduced. If the parent(s) of the child welcome it, the parish arranges a visit to the home before the ceremony at which the Baptism Team explains briefly the key elements of the ceremony and help the family to plan to be take a more active part in the ceremony. Before doing any of these visits, they receive training and then link up with the priests and staff of the parishes to coordinate their work.

In some parishes, the pre-baptism meeting takes place in a parish centre or hall and involves a group of parents. This works well where the number of baptisms in the parish is considerable (Some of our parishes baptise over 250 children a year.) It is also becoming more standard practice in parishes now that more than one child is baptised at each ceremony. This fact, along with the presence of the Baptism Team members at the ceremony, enhances the understanding that baptism is the entry point into a community of believers.

In order to help address concerns about preparation for First Communion, a new programme for parishes has been developed in Ireland over the past three years. It’s called “Do this in Memory”. It seeks to link the child’s preparation for this important day in his or her life with the parish celebration of Mass and with the wider parish community. It also aims to help parents be involved in the spiritual preparation of the child in a way that works in harmony with the religion programme in school.

Almost all the parishes of this diocese have now adopted the programme. It is planned and carried through in each parish by a group of the parents of the children who work with the local clergy to make the arrangements. It has two essential elements: roughly once each month throughout the school year the children participate in the weekly Mass in the local church. Their activities link into the theme of the Mass on the particular weekend.

At home, each family is asked to designate a “sacred space” in the home where the family lights a candle each day and says a special prayer with the child. The children bring these candles to Mass each Sunday of the programme and place them in the “sacred space” in the church where they remain lighting during Mass. This is a very visible sign of the connection between home and church.

Some parishes are introducing this programme for the first time this year. Over the last three years there has been a very encouraging response to it throughout the country. There is a tremendous amount of goodwill and enthusiasm among parents/guardians, priests and parish teams for such work. There have been positive reactions from teachers, too, who have found that it is easier for them to teach Alive-O, the Religious Education Programme in Irish primary schools, because of the children’s familiarity with the church and the celebration of the Eucharist. The Sunday community has also benefited from the atmosphere of life and added energy which the children bring to Mass when they attend together with their families.

The hope in these initiatives is to make the celebration of the sacraments more meaningful – not just on a specific day – in a way that endures for life, for the children and for their extended families.

(Published in the Southern Star, Nov 2008.)