In this week’s blog, Fr. Paddy questions the ‘Big Day Out’ mentality that dominates the experience of First Holy Communion and leaves many families in debt.

Fr. Paddy Byrne has a weekly column in the Nationalist papers.

This column appeared in the edition published May 2011.

During the month of May, First Holy Communion is celebrated the length and breadth of the country. Communion Day is a big event in the life of every child and indeed family. I am always uplifted by children’s great openness and indeed enthusiasm to their faith and Good News Story. I find it inspirational when I consider the great sacrifices and generosity given by parents to their children who are preparing for First Holy Communion. I also salute the fantastic preparation regarding Faith Formation in our Catholic Primary Schools. However, when it comes to how best can we authentically celebrate the sacrament of First Holy Communion and indeed all sacraments in the Catholic Church I have many questions.

I was appalled to discover a recent survey concerning how one in every eight families, borrow in excess of €1,200 to finance the ‘Big Day’, that is First Holy Communion. In these very lean times more and more families rely on money lenders who often charge up to 70% interest on such unnecessary loans.

When the focus on First Communion becomes just an adult, nostalgic and secular one, First Communion becomes a ‘Big Day Out’. A day when over-indulgence on the material, compensates often for the poverty and want of many adults, projected onto ostentatious dresses and extravagant parties. Often the most disadvantaged in our community place themselves at the mercy of money lenders to finance the fairy tale hour of Communion for children, that ends up in a mighty hangover for adults.

Do parents in Second Class Catholic Schools really have a choice if they wish their child to celebrate First Communion? Despite the reality of fewer numbers in the pews, well over 98% of children in Second Class continue to receive Holy Communion. I imagine less than 10% return the following Sunday to receive second communion. How real is this?? One way I suggest to break the ‘Big Day Out’ mentality is to place a much greater emphasis on the role of parish in celebrating our sacraments. There is often a clear disconnect between sacrament and faith community. For example, Baptisms are rarely celebrated in the context of the Sunday Mass. Why can’t parishes offer three Sunday Masses in the month of May, with a child friendly focus, inviting children to receive First Holy Communion. Parents, simply could enrol their child for whatever Mass they wish to attend. This practice is happening for many years in Newbridge, the largest parish in our Diocese. This perhaps, gives parents the choice to opt in or out and lessens the focus on the ‘Big Day’ to a more faith filled occasion. Sacraments are a source of nourishment to help us live the Christian way of life.

One of the very positive aspects to modern Ireland, I find, is the call to authenticity and freedom of choice. It is clear to me that First Communion and indeed many of the sacraments, need a fundamental review regarding our attitudes to them. If the ‘Big Day’ is so big, why do so many families not bring back their children for their second, third, fourth etc. Holy Communion. I’m not making judgements, nor am I in any way disregarding the inspirational sacrifices made by parents and heroic work by primary school teachers. If we don’t ‘get real’, the time will come when First Communion will be a thing of the past or at best a pantomime.