But will the tiaras still have lights?

18th October 1996 at 01:00
One of the more cheerful figures that people the Roman martyrology is the deacon Lawrence, a man with a sense of humour. His martyrdom took the form of being grilled over an open fire, and he is alleged to have suggested to the perpetrators that he was done on one side, and that perhaps it was time they turned him over.

Cardinal Thomas Winning may well have felt an affinity with Lawrence as he has been grilled on both sides at the same time by assorted media on the consequences of the Scottish bishops' discovery of an episcopal Munchausen in their midst. Perhaps he took some solace from the knowledge that as far as the rest of the Catholic community was concerned, it was business as usual. At least for a while. The everyday goings on of Catholic education do not stop in their tracks just because of a minor hiccup like a bishop going AWOL, and in the Archdiocese of Glasgow, the prospects of change are in the wind.

If there is one thing that is deeply embedded in the Catholic school ethos it is what the theologians call the rites of Christian initiation. For the uninitiated, these rites mean that children in the course of primary school are prepared for, and receive, three sacraments, essential elements in Catholic belief for communicating fully with God. These are Eucharist, Reconciliation and Confirmation, the first two at primary 3, the last at primary 6 or 7. Equipping and limbering up the children to receive these sacraments is a serious business for the Catholic teachers involved in them, for in religious terms they are the indispensable building blocks of Catholic practice. Change, any change, in these circumstances, can be both slow and circumspect, but a different approach is now being contemplated.

Catholic primary heads heard recently from Cardinal Winning that he intends in the future to alter the timing of receiving these sacraments. Heads had expressed concern about the timing of Confirmation, and some parents are in disagreement with the archdiocese's guidelines on First Communion, that schools do the spadework, that parishes arrange the services, and that Big Top performances be discouraged. The Cardinal has taken this on board, and the proposition is that after a two or three-year moratorium Catholic children will receive Reconciliation at primary 3, Eucharist and Confirmation at primary 4, and that they will be administered together.

These are the bare bones of proposed change, and it is unlikely that parents will disagree, for there are few theological disputants in the pews these days. When it comes to a newer trend that has surfaced in the Catholic community recently concerning the externals, things might be different. Gaudiness has taken over.

It is a great philosophical truth that there are certain propositions that attract flak in the same way that honey attracts bears. In the Catholic community, any proposal to alter what have become accepted as the immutable rules of the sacramental game is like lighting the blue touchpaper. The social lubricants surrounding these sacramental experiences have expanded in recent years from house parties to receptions in hotels. Wedding-dress styling, with parasols, and (legendarily) light-up tiaras, have appeared as part of the decor for girls, while in some areas the Celtic kilt is de rigeur for boys. Style has triumphed over substance to the extent that concerns have been voiced that children may be unsure of the spiritual content of what they are doing because the rest has taken priority. To ensure that distractions are reduced to the minimum, some churches now bar individual videoing of the ceremony.

In a cultural community that views a party animal as a folk hero, any chipping away at the now accepted normative patterns can be both a risky and hazardous business. As a result, few heads or teachers are prepared to grasp the consequences of outright opposition to the rampant materialism that sometimes predominates. That two to three-year moratorium before change takes place might need an extension to give a little more time to make sure the firefighting equipment is in place.

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