Saturday, 17 May 2008

Sacraments, young people and lapsation

This post has been prompted by two things seen on other blogs in the last day or two. The first is from a series of posts at Ecce Mater Tua, on Bishop O'Donoghue's "Fit for Mission" review in Lancaster Diocese (the schools element of that review has been highly praised):

Are we cheapening the sacraments? “How would you react to a diocesan policy where the age for First Communion is 8+ and Confirmation 16+?” “Many request baptism, communion, confirmation, and marriage in the Church as a rite of passage ceremony rather than an expression of faith. There is an unspoken complicity between them and us. At most, we see it as an opportunity to once more try and catechise those who don’t practice the faith. However, if we don’t value our sacraments, why should we be surprised if they don’t?”

The following is from a post assessing the pontificate of Pope St Pius X, which appeared at the Hermeneutic of Continuity:

Similarly, the introduction of the idea of "partecipazione attiva" (the original expression was in Italian) has left us with problems that the Church still continues to wrestle with.

In reflecting on the first of these observations, I have asked myself the question: Why do young people approach first Communion and Confirmation without it being an "expression of faith"? or, what is the more easily seen manifestation, why do they receive these Sacraments and then lapse from their practice of the faith?

Is it because of the age at which they receive these Sacraments? Well, no I don't think so.

And, because I don't think the age at which they receive these Sacraments is what causes young people to lapse after receiving them, I do not think that raising the age at which the Sacraments are received is any answer to the problem being raised. [Side note: yes, if the age of Confirmation is raised, fewer of those who are confirmed might lapse - but a complete evaluation should also include those who are not confirmed at all along with the lapsees as part of the "drop out" rate.]

Reflecting on the second of these observations: One of the saddest things I see each Sunday is young people and their parents who are present at Mass, but in a very real sense "not participating". There are several signs of this non-participation: inattention to the actions taking place in the sanctuary, not joining in with responses, children who have toys or drawings with them, a casual posture that shows no appreciation of the sacred. What will happen when the teenager in a family of this type finds that there is something else to do on a Sunday? It is not going to take much to get him or her to stop going to Mass, perhaps once or twice, and then more often ... and into lapsation. So, a major pastoral priority seems to me to be that of training families and young children (who will become the teenagers) to participate properly at Sunday Mass. Singing in the choir or altar serving may provide an opportunity for this formation - but not the essence. The formation needs to teach people what participation is when they are an ordinary member of the congregation, with no specific role to fulfil. Young people who, when they come to Mass on Sunday, particpate properly are more likely to "stick with it". The elements of this formation will be both doctrinal (you cannot take part properly in something that you do not understand) and practical (there are strategies that parents and catechists can use to promote participation). They will also be Liturgical (a worthy Liturgy will hold attention and fascinate) and devotional (devotional practices such as Eucharistic Adoration can provide a locus in which the art of participation is "practised" in an order towards participation in the Liturgy). Perhaps in a slightly different way than Fr Tim, I feel there is still a crisis as far as proper, Liturgical participation is concerned - the hopes that the best of the Liturgical movement intended by the term "participation" are not being realised, despite the introduction of the vernacular.

I have two difficulties with the implied criticism by the "Fit for Mission" document of parents who bring their children for baptism or first Communion. Firstly, however imperfect it may be, the fact that they bring their children to these Sacraments is in some way an expression of faith. But, more fundamentally, these Sacraments, along with the Sacrament of Confirmation, have the nature of Sacraments of initiation. Children who are brought to these Sacraments, who, either themselves or through their parents, have a basically good disposition towards them and who have been appropriately prepared, have a right to be able to receive them. The obligation of the parish is, not to make it unecessarily difficult for young people to receive these Sacraments, but rather to provide programmes and a generally evangelising environment in which the grace of the Sacraments will be more fruitful rather than less fruitful.

I think that parishes need to show their valuing of the Sacraments through improved Liturgical and catechetical practice, not through arbitrarily raising the age at which Sacraments are received, something that penalises practising families as much as it does non-practising families. We all have mixed motives about what we do with regard to our religious practice, some more mixed and perhaps some less mixed - so neither do I think it wise to insist on children or young people "applying" themselves to receive the Sacrament as if parental encouragement were a bad thing (teachers, of course, very much value parental encouragement with regard to school work!), or being "interviewed" as if passing the interview were in some sense a condition of admission to the course of preparation for the Sacrament.

And, at the bottom line, we can never know how the grace of the Sacraments might show itself at some point in the life of the young people involved.

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