Friday, 4 December 2009

Sacraments and the "semi-detached"

I preface this post with a disclaimer! We really should not compare different people in terms of how well or otherwise they live the Christian life. Only God can judge between the "committed" Catholic and the "semi-detached", or even the "fully detached" (lapsed, to use the conventional terminology!) as to which of them really lives the Christian life better. And I do not expect that He will judge between them, as if deciding that one is better than the other, but only as to how well each has lived the Christian life, and I do not expect either that He will categorise them before He judges.

Nevertheless, we inevitably do categorise, and to an extent this reflects a realism in how we look at the world around us. No one individual or family is the same, though one is tempted to categorise them. There are those to whom one might attach the descriptor "committed" before the word "Catholic"; those who might be described as "practising", but perhaps not "committed"; and those who are "lapsed". I have adopted a category of "semi-detached" to describe those who, whilst not practicing consistently and perhaps not having a great formation in the knowledge and practice of the faith, do nevertheless retain a contact with the Church, perhaps at Christmas and Easter and, yes, in seeking baptism for their children.

Which of these categories are those who have the richest experience of living the Christian mystery?

I have never thought it to be the "committed", though that is not to say that I think their experience of Christian life is in any way hypocritical or false. It is very real, and I wouldn't suggest in any way that they change and become "uncommitted". If the Christian mystery is one of redemption, as well as one of fulfilment of the purpose of life, then those who have most experience of its aspect of redemption, that is, those who have most experience of failure in their attempt at living it, are perhaps those who experience it most richly.

It was in this context that I read Fr Tim's post on Baptising infants readily. Apart from what might be termed the pragmatic (in the good sense) discussion about the approach to the baptism of children that will have the best outcome in terms of encouraging the parents participation in the life of the Church, I think there is a question of theological principle. Those who come and go in their participation in the life of the Church live the experience of falling away and returning - of redemption - in a way that those who consistently practise do not. It might not be brilliant, and it might be full of human imperfection, but I think it should be given credit for what it is - as real a living of the Christian mystery as any other living of the Christian mystery. In purely human terms, it might not look like a "well founded hope"; but in the realm of grace it can be just as well founded a hope as that of the committed Catholic.

A similar consideration extends to the Sacrament of Confirmation. The trend for raising the age at which the Sacrament is conferred, and of insisting on the young adult themselves showing a "commitment" goes against what I have suggested above. It also goes against the understanding of the Sacrament of Confirmation as one of the sacraments of initiation. Yes, a basic level of commitment and goodwill towards the Sacrament for what it is should be required, as it should be from the parents for the baptism of an infant. But the very fact of seeking the Sacrament, and a willingness to take part in a programme of preparation, does I think demonstrate that.

Fr Tim's post refers to "gentle catechesis" being offered, instead of insisting on parents having to follow a course before their child is baptised. This has a couple of interesting implications. The first is that it suggests a part played by the priest in the catechesis - so often a pre-baptism course is delegated to lay catechists and the priest opts out. The catechetical role of the priest is irreplaceable. The second implication is that most parents really do not want to have to "turn up for a course". Another form of catechesis, less "academic" and more "personal", is probably appopriate in all except the most "middle class" of circumstances.

Needless to say, yours truly is not involved in baptismal or confirmation catechesis ...


Fr John Abberton said...

I too am not happy with "courses". I have tried them and people quickly get fed up. I tend to take Fr. Tim's view with regard to Baptism AND, I may add, with Confirmation (which has become something of a marathon of late)

However, when it comes to First Communion preparation I am becoming quite strict because it is clear from mine and others' experiences that some parents are sadly just "jumping through hoops" and have no intention of encouraging their children in the faith - they drop them off at school and that's enough. In recent years this situation has become worse and here I think we have to make demands. Although I am not in favour of the lengthy "courses" we are asked to use for 8 year olds, I see no alternative at the moment since so many of them have hardly any experience of Church community, and having lengthy courses at least gets them to Church for part of the Mass (in the way we do it).

I hate having to be "strict", but at times we have to be, just to wake people up to their responsibilities.

Joe said...

Thank you for your comment, Father.

1. A further thought on "courses", and, I believe, a thought particularly pertinent to first Holy Communion: a course tends to be of the nature of "catechesis" - systematic teaching in the faith - when many young children have a greater need of is "primary proclamation" - teaching of an essential core of Christian faith with the purpose of prompting conversion and conviction of faith. Probably true for Confirmation preparation, too - and the phenomenon of young people departing a parish's life after confirmation is down to failure in this regard, rather than to questions of the age or "commitment" expected in conferring the Sacrament. I am sure that "a gentle catechesis" with regard to the essential doctrine of the Eucharist, and participation in the celebration (eg learning some of the responses, and some Eucharistic songs), would be just as effective as a "course". I have pondered the idea that First Communion preparation could be entirely undertaken within the context of Eucharistic Adoration, say on the Saturday morning; followed by a celebration of Mass during which catechists could model with the children reverent participation.

2. As I wrote my original post, I was aware of the "school admission issue" in the background, but thought not to comment on it. I have every sympathy with your response to that aspect.