First Holy Communions

It’s the end of May, and for many parishes the end of the Holy Communion season.

The Catholic calendar is unthinkable without it, and for us another five dozen children were initiated in the rite of the Eucharist. Two sunny days, a rash of colour, and much good humour.

This year, the two weekends left us with one particular anecdote which typifies a problem (and an opportunity) for those of us leading faith institutions.

After Father had given the sacrament to the children, the families and general public followed on their heels to receive communion. One guy skipped up to receive the host. Instead of replying ‘Amen’ to the familiar cue of ‘The Body of Christ, he quipped,

‘Ta, mate.’

Father took it in good humour, but the point is that the guy (a Catholic himself) was not in the least bit aware of his merry ignorance of religious protocols. It’s also not an isolated story. There were many more who simply said nothing, or had forgotten whether to hold the host in one’s hand, or when to actually eat it.

My feeling is that Joe Public is not in the least bit bothered about automatically respecting institutions such as the church anymore.

As leaders, we have to take these kind of experiences in our stride, because otherwise we’d crumble in a heap, worried sick about following piles of protocols, rules and Canon laws. Some parishes have begun to fight back, employing a range of tactics to try and get us back to where we were in the ‘old days’. Some have tried to insist on certain behaviours, registers and codes, even moving the celebrations to anti-social times (Thursdays at 4pm??) in an effort to reduce the focus on the ‘party’ element. I think that’s just swimming against the tide, and if we’re not careful it could be the first step to phasing it out altogether. Just think what happened to the May Procession.

The annual First Holy Communion experience, and the growing feeling that there is a widening gap between the institution of the church and the general public, continues to convince me of the need for a radical step-change in the way faith schools operate, especially those serving communities of socio-economic disadvantage.

We need leadership that sets its aim at a much wider community than its parish. I have tried to explore that with a previous article Faith Schools: A Changing Culture? and I repeat here that unless something radical is tried, we will end up with Catholic schools in name only. Much of this thinking also resonates with other educational discourse. I’ve just finished reading ‘The Best for my Child’ by Fiona Millar and in its conclusion she cites the ideas of the Headteachers’ Round Table group who advocate the use of ‘locality-wide accountability, in which the responsibility for every child in an area becomes the responsibility of all schools in that community.’

Faith schools could be taking the lead on this.

And reflecting on faith leadership, we need to be honest about what is happening. I doubt there are many families, young adults or teenagers fully engaged in their parishes now. At best it is a small minority. And these are the Catholic teachers and headteachers of the future? It’s an ever-decreasing pool, and it also assumes that this group will also be half-decent at the job – the two don’t always go together.

At the same time, secular pursuits are growing like Japanese knotweed – they are pervasive and highly successful. The obvious one is the regular attendance at the ‘gym’ where hordes of earplugged individuals run on the spot for a hour whilst being fed a load of quasi-spiritual twaddle. This is a religion of the body. But it is ultimately a vacuous pursuit; it gives the illusion of belonging to a community, but it is actually rather narcissistic and hollow.

People really do want something more – they want to be part of a community of believers. But the traditional approach to building a faith community is no longer going to work. Going back to our ‘ta mate’ friend – there is no deference anymore, no automatic acceptance of codes, rules and protocols. Of course, there is an upside to this – priests and headteachers are no longer afforded an automatic respect that, in the past, led to complacency and, on some occasions, abuse.

So if we are to meet people’s desire for ‘something more’, then we have to be bold and push our schools and parishes forward into a new, exciting journey.

Let’s take this opportunity. The Catholic Education Service must be bolder – simply partaking in endless legal discussions about quotas, admissions and covenants on land is not enough. Diocesan departments must be more creative and look at how their schools can serve a wider common good.

And the inspiration? The man at the top, Pope Francis, and his ‘culture of encounter’.

Ta mate.

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