At this time of year, many of our young people receive the sacraments of Holy Communion, Penance and Confirmation. These are happy occasions. But what is evident is that the preparation that children receive for the sacraments is far less rigorous than it once was, even taking remote learning into account. Whereas previous generations would have been expected to know the catechism by heart, now catechesis is light on doctrine, at worst an opportunity for children to colour in pictures or fill in word puzzles or, in the case of older children, watch films featuring other young people which are both short on content and very well meaning. Yet the sacraments are often the one opportunity that the Church has to teach children what it professes. The dispiriting reality is that for many Confirmation candidates, this may be their last point of contact with the Church. Previous generations were often lucky enough to receive teaching from nuns; now it is provided by parish coordinators working with volunteer parents. The dioceses offer some training, but they are essentially well meaning amateurs.
Pope Francis has just recognised catechists as ministers of the Church but there is no reason why they should not be qualified teachers. There is also no reason why sacramental preparation cannot take place in schools, perhaps as an after-school club. What we need is a far more coherent idea of what we want children to know. We could usefully require candidates to learn some parts of the old catechism by heart, if this is followed by discussion of what the formulae mean. We should abandon our expectation that parents be active participants in the programmes. Perhaps the best solution is for bishops to ask outstanding Catholic school heads assisted by their staff to formulate a programme that is doctrinally substantial and works for children who are not in Catholic schools as well as those who are. Right now, our children are being inadequately prepared for the sacraments, and it shows.
This article first appeared in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.