The following are some challenging thoughts about current sacramental programs which prepare children for First Confession, First Communion and Confirmation. Fr John Speekman is a parish priest in the Sale Diocese.
We know that every parish priest is committed to growing his parish and evangelising the families in it. I am personally hoping to do so in a special way through the parish sacramental program.
Since recent studies have shown conclusively (AD2000, August 2002, p. 6) that most parents no longer send their children to Catholic schools for faith reasons it is reasonable to assume that the primary faith task of the Catholic school has become evangelisation.
As a school teacher, and now a priest, it has become clear to me that it does not help to put all Year 2, 3, or 6 through First Reconciliation, or First Communion, or Confirmation (even with parents' permission) and then send them back into a faith environment which will not allow them to live the sacrament they have received.
I believe this practice of "force-feeding" the sacraments to non-practising children from unevangelised families has, over the years, come to constitute a significant obstacle to the commencement of true evangelisation.
I see it as a failure to trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about through conversion what we seek to bring about through sacramentalisation.
The decision to sacramentalise children should be handed back to the family. I understand this to be the meaning of those programs which claim to be "family-centred".
We should work to awaken families to the fact that it is their responsibility to seek out sacraments for their children from the parish.
What is it that is stopping us from accepting the simple fact that so many of the families - in my parish up to 95 percent - of children in our Catholic schools do not make the effort to bring their children to Sunday Mass? They have, for the time being, chosen to exclude themselves from active Church life. We do not judge them but I think it is about time we accepted their decision. We can then begin the real work of evangelisation in our Catholic schools.
A family which is not conscious of a need to have its children sacramentalised should be evangelised. It should not be offered a "no-strings-attached" sacrament or a "no-responsibility-attached" sacrament or, perhaps, most clearly of all, a "no-community-attached" sacrament.
We are all aware there are three dimensions to Catholic life - word, sacrament and community. A sacrament is always a celebration in and of the community. We cannot alter this fact. A sacrament without its connection to the community is like a fish out of water.
I do not want to encourage or perpetuate the celebration of sacraments that do not have their life within the community and are not tied to the community. The first thing we need to do is stop doing it - and the second thing we need to do is start learning to evangelise.
Of course there will be difficulties and setbacks, but look at what is happening at present! Our present practice, and many others as well, is rapidly weakening us as a faith community, by encouraging nominalism as the hallmark of our Catholic faith.
When a family is successfully evangelised it will ask for the sacraments for its children and there will be no need for the well-meant but ultimately unhelpful prodding of the primary schools.
The student population in our schools is very different today from what it was 30 years ago. Today too many of them come from families which have no real connection to the local parish whereas in the past they were mostly practising.
It might be helpful here to remember what Malcolm Muggeridge once said: "Every step into reality is a step closer to God." I do not think it would be too flippant of me to say that what we urgently need to do now in our search for answers to these problems is to get real - to set our watches to real time.
To have scores of smiling, excited children receiving a sacrament on a "sacrament" Sunday is a pleasant sight, but we need to be a little more hard-nosed and ask ourselves, is this as real as it gets? Is this as real as we can make it? Is this celebration an expression of a point of real growth based on a real foundation of faith, and ready now to grow in a real way in the family and in the parish?
To answer this question I think we need only look at what happens on the Sunday after the big celebration and ask ourselves - where have all these excited, smiling children gone? When will we see them again?
I am very much a supporter of the Catholic school system and I want to see it bring together all its vast potential for the evangelisation of our young people. But to do so, I believe, we have to change direction - we have to cease this preoccupation with sacramentalising children from unevangelised families and begin to support the parish in the difficult but exciting task of evangelising families.