It is not uncommon for people to enquire about having their baby “christened” and this immediately causes me to wonder how church-going they are given that they should know the Catholic Church doesn’t “christen” – it baptises – what we celebrate is the sacrament of baptism.  A central concept with regard to baptism is that it should be the first step in a child’s journey of faith and their initiation into the Catholic Church.  It is very important, therefore, that at least one of the parents should be a practising Catholic otherwise, firstly, why would they want their child baptised into the Catholic faith and, secondly, how can they be expected to fulfil the promises they will be asked to make before God to bring their child up in the practice of the faith if they themselves are not church-going?  The Church constantly reminds parents that they are the prime educators of their children in the ways of faith, and so the rite states:  

You have asked to have your child baptised.  In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training him/her in the practice of the faith.  It will be your duty to bring him/her up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbour.  Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?

One of the concerns, therefore, that the Church has is that there should be (in the words of Canon Law) a well-founded hope concerning the future practice of the faith.  If the parents are not going to Mass on Sundays – as all Catholic are required to do – then, as we’ve just said, why would they want their child baptised into a faith they are not practising?  If that well-founded hope is at all in question, then the Church says that the sacrament should be deferred – not refused but deferred, postponed until such times as there is such an assurance.  Sacraments are not like waving a magic wand, nor should they be celebrated just for the sake of it or just to get children into a Catholic school.  There must be a sincere and on-going commitment to what the sacrament is all about as the first step on the child’s journey of faith.

This shouldn’t be seen as the Church putting conditions on the celebration of the sacrament, rather it is saying that because sacraments are important steps in our journey of faith we take our stewardship of them very seriously and those who request them should do so with equal seriousness.  To do anything less, or for the parish to accept anything less, would be to compromise the sacraments. As they have been entrusted to the Church by God, we will be held accountable to him for our stewardship of them.

Another important element in the sacrament is the role of godparents.  Only one godparent is required though there can be a godfather and a godmother – but only one of each.  Before you ask someone to be a godparent please be aware that they must be a Catholic and have been confirmed, at least 16 years of age, and actively practising their faith (which means going to Mass every Sunday and hopefully also receiving holy communion on a regular basis).  Their parish priest will be asked to verify those details.  The reason for these requirements is that a godparent should be mature enough to take on the responsibility and commitment involved, and their confirmation was hopefully a declaration of their commitment to their own faith.  As more and more Catholics seem not to be church-going, it is becoming increasingly difficult for parents to find someone to be a godparent who fulfils all of those requirements.  In addition being a godparent isn’t just a matter of accepting the invitation for social reasons, but it involves entering into a spiritual relationship with your child, a responsibility they will be asked during the rite to affirm: 

Are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?

And then just before the child is baptised, to make absolutely sure the parents and godparents are aware of the promises they are making and the spiritual responsibilities they are accepting, the rite states:

You have come here to present this child for baptism. By water and the Holy Spirit he/she is to receive the gift of new life from God, who is love. On your part, you must make it your constant care to bring him/her up in the practice of the faith. See that the divine life which God gives him/her is kept safe from the poison of sin, to grow always stronger in his/her heart. If your faith makes you ready to accept this responsibility, renew now the vows of your own baptism. Reject sin; profess your faith in Christ Jesus. This is the faith of the Church. This is the faith in which this child is about to be baptised.

Clearly if the faith of someone you are thinking of asking to be a godparent isn’t that important to them and they are not practising as the Church requires, then they shouldn’t be asked.  I often wonder if those who are asked fully understand what they are accepting to do in relation to the faith of their godchild?  For example, how many godparents of teenagers have stepped in when they have stopped going to church?  How many would know how to diplomatically do that?  How many parents would turn to the godparents for help?  How many youngsters keep their godparents informed as to how they are doing spiritually? 

And then there is the question of the name(s) you give your child.  The Church’s basic requirement is that the name chosen shouldn’t be “foreign to Christian sentiment” as the catechism puts it.  A saint’s name would be the preferred option because it represents the new Christian identity that your child is taking on through the sacrament, and along with that comes the aspect of having a life-long “patron saint” through that name.  This, of course, is a conversation you need to have before the child is born and their name(s) officially registered.

One important aspect of baptism is incorporation – that the baby is being received into the Christian community of the body of Christ and into the Catholic Church.  Historically the majority of baptisms took place with just the parents and godparents present.  In a change to that practice, people of the parish are now invited to attend as representatives of the faith community into which the baby is being received.  Whilst there is both a sacramental and a social dimension to baptism as a family celebration, I think we need to separate the two because we now have a situation where, typically, most of the people present are not members of the parish and, indeed, most are not even church-going and yet have been invited to attend the sacramental admission of someone into a faith they themselves don’t profess and a faith community of which they are not a member – a situation that doesn’t really make any sense.  This then typically results in a lot of noise and disturbance in church beforehand because people no longer seem to know how to conduct themselves in church – and especially in a Catholic church in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.  They are there simply because they were invited.  What we do as “church” in church should really only involve those who are church-going.  The majority of the guests might perhaps be better invited just to the social gathering afterwards where they can more appropriately celebrate with the family whatever it is they perceive the occasion to be all about and in surroundings in which they are more comfortable.  Something to think about perhaps. 

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First Holy Communion

The Church says that:

For holy communion to be administered to children, it is required that they have sufficient knowledge and be appropriately prepared, so that according to their capacity they understand what the mystery of Christ means, and are able to receive the Body of the Lord with faith and devotion.  It is primarily the duty of parents and those who take their place, as it is the duty of the parish priest, to ensure that children who have reached the age of reason are properly prepared. (Code of Canon Law, CC913 & 914) 

Ideally preparation courses should take as long as is necessary in order to ensure that the children taking part understand all that they need to know and have shown that they are ready to receive the sacrament, otherwise it should be deferred until they are a little older.  The course should also involve their parents (who are, as the Church reminds us, the prime educators of their children in the ways of the faith) so that they know what their children are being taught and are able to do follow-up work with them at home.

The faith practice of their family is an important consideration.  If they are not going to church, and neither are their parents, clearly there is spiritual ground to be made up before the sacrament would be appropriate for them.  As with baptism, there must be a well-founded hope for future practice because, basically, what is the point of preparing a child to receive communion if they are not going to be taken to Mass each Sunday thereafter?  Baptising the babies of anyone and everyone who came knocking on the presbytery door (as priests used to and some still do) and also automatically walking whole school classes through their first communion (and confirmation) (as still happens) just because they are of that age, clearly didn’t work and still doesn’t, otherwise our churches would be full. 

On this issue it will typically be argued that it is the child that suffers if the sacrament is deferred as a result of the non-church-going of the parents.  That may well be true, but the parents have a spiritual responsibility toward their child right from their baptism and if they (and their godparents) haven’t fulfilled that responsibility then that is not the Church’s fault.  Nor is it a case of the Church putting conditions on the celebration of the sacraments, rather we are saying that because sacraments are important steps in our journey of faith we take our stewardship of them very seriously, and those who request them should do so with equal seriousness and commitment.  To do anything less, or for the parish to accept anything less, would be to compromise the sacraments, and as they have been entrusted to the Church by God we will be held accountable to him for our stewardship of them.

Catholics are, of course, bound to go to Mass on Sundays and other holydays of obligation and it is a mortal sin if we deliberately don’t go (although that would a very sad reason for going).  It’s amazing how many parents will go to Mass during the preparation programme in order to fulfil that requirement, but then they and their children are never be seen again.  It happens in parishes everywhere all the time, despite everything priests and catechists say and try to do to ensure that it won’t – which in itself is a pretty sad situation and an equally sad comment on the attitude of some parents toward Mass and the sacraments and the spiritual well-being of their children.  Why the deliberate deception? – because that’s what it amounts to: celebrating a sacrament under false pretences.  The catechism teaches that, celebrated in faith [and that’s the important thing] the sacraments confer the grace they signify (para 1127).   In other words it requires the faith-full-ness, the proper disposition, of those receiving sacraments otherwise what is the point?  Also do these parents think God doesn’t know, or that he doesn’t mind?  Ultimately it is their child that suffers spiritually; is that something they are happy about?

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The Sacrament of Confirmation

Baptism, the Eucharist and Confirmation together constitute the ‘sacraments of Christian initiation’.  By confirmation the baptized are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 1285)

In the early Church, when people were received as adults, the three sacraments of initiation were celebrated together: the person was baptized, and then confirmed by the bishop, and then they joined the community at Mass where they would receive the eucharist for the first time.  That was the process that initiated them into full membership of the Church.  Over time, however, the practice of people being baptized as babies developed and this meant that there was no opportunity for catechesis and so, while it was considered essential to baptize a baby as soon as possible after it was born, reception of the other sacraments was delayed until they were old enough to receive instruction prior to receiving them. 

Traditionally children have always made their first holy communion at about the age of seven (the “age of reason”) and they were then confirmed two or three years later.  Typically whole school classes of children would be automatically prepared and “marched” through those sacraments en masse purely on the basis of age rather than on any measure of their readiness.  The emphasis was on ‘the Church militant’, which the A-Z of the Catholic Church defines as “a designation of the condition of Christians in this world, who are still ‘fighting’ against evil on their way to the Vision of God, to join the Church Triumphant”.  Fighting, or perhaps we might say striving, to establish the kingdom of God on earth is a concept adults might understand, but would a ten year old? 

Looking back at my own preparation for confirmation, I have to be honest and say that I remember very little of what we were taught other than having to choose a confirmation name and a sponsor, and that militant aspect – that we were being prepared to become “soldiers for Christ”, but on a theological level how much sense did that make at the time?  I certainly don’t remember any mention of confirmation completing the process of initiation into the Church. 

With the changes to the Church’s approach to confirmation that took place post-Vatican II, it became more a sacrament of personal commitment to our faith and in that sense, therefore, a completion of the process of initiation which began at our baptism.  Typically it began to be celebrated with teenagers and so there was a much greater opportunity to incorporate the elements of mature choice and personal commitment into their preparation for the sacrament.  Many of the programmes that have developed over the years seem, appropriately, to include a review of the candidate’s spiritual and sacramental life to-date and the place of faith in their lives.

Preparation for Confirmation should aim at leading the Christian toward a more intimate union with Christ and a more lively familiarity with the Holy Spirit – his actions, his gifts, and his biddings – in order to be more capable of assuming the apostolic responsibilities of Christian life.  To this end catechesis for Confirmation should strive to awaken a sense of belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ, the universal Church as well as the parish community. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 1309)

This understanding of confirmation implies that preparation for the sacrament should be a matter of free choice and not something that is possibly forced on potential candidates by their priest or their parents simply because they have reached confirmation age.  It should be their choice because it involves their faith commitment and the completion of their initiation into the Church.  This doesn’t mean that someone who hasn’t been confirmed isn’t fully a member of the Church – they are, and it certainly doesn’t make any difference in terms of the day-to-day practice of their faith.  However, the fact that so many of our young people today are choosing not to be confirmed, or are not actively asking if they can be, could present them with a problem later in life.  In theory a person should have celebrated the three sacraments of initiation before they can celebrate any of the other sacraments.  This requirement is strictly applied, for example, before an applicant for Holy Orders can be ordained.  It is also in theory required before someone can be married, but the requirement is typically waved if there isn’t time to be prepared and confirmed.  But if this might apply to you, and now that you know about it, it might be something to think about.

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The Sacrament of Matrimony

The Church teaches that:

The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life, and which of its own nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children, has, between the baptised, been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament. (Code of Canon Law, para 1055)

In marriage a couple make permanent vows to each other before God to be faithful to one another (only) for the rest of the lives, and to be open to having children.  Clearly this is not a step to be taken lightly and the Church has a duty and a responsibility to do its best to ensure that that doesn’t happen.  To this end most dioceses organise marriage preparation courses and it really ought to be a matter of parish policy that all couples be required to participate in such a course.  For that reason alone as much advance notice as possible should be given to the parish priest, not only to ensure that the date for the wedding is available, but also to ensure that the course is in their diaries.  They are about to enter into a lifelong commitment to one another; the least they can do is to commit themselves to a preparation course.

The vowed commitment involved in marriage is just as solemn and just as binding as that of ordination.  The Church requires students for the priesthood to complete six years of full-time preparation, so a two or three part preparation course for marriage doesn’t seem much to ask.  It’s the Church’s way of trying to ensure that couples are entering into marriage with their eyes open and, just as importantly, that come the day of their wedding, they will be standing before God fully informed and fully aware of the sacramental commitment that they are making and the vows they will be exchanging.  The Church has no business putting a couple in a position of making such a commitment and such promises, if it hasn’t done all it can to ensure that they know what they are doing and what is involved.  Our sacramental celebrations are serious business and we need to make that clear.  If there is any doubt about a couple’s approach to the sacrament in that regard, then it would be better to defer the sacrament than celebrate it lightly or inappropriately.  

Depending on whether one or both are Catholic, how strong is the practice of their faith?  If they are not going to Mass regularly, why would they suddenly decide to approach the Church to ask for this particular sacrament?  Why are they asking to be married in church?  If it’s just because it will look nice in their wedding photos, that’s not what it’s about.  What it is about is the celebration of a sacrament, a further step on their sacramental journey, a further commitment in their spiritual life and their relationship with God, not just a one-off appearance in church.  It’s about standing before God and making sacred promises, and the Church takes that very seriously, and so should the couple.  What they are doing is bringing what is, on the one hand, a legal state ceremony, and sacramentalising it – making it holy.   

The unique aspect of the Sacrament of Matrimony is that the couple, not the priest, are the ministers of the sacrament – they are marrying one another, making vows to one another.  It’s what that quote from Canon Law said that we began with: “a man and woman establish the marriage covenant between themselves”.  The priest is there as the Church’s witness to ensure that the sacrament is celebrated lawfully and validly.  Church law requires that consent be given in church before the representative of the Church and in the presence of two other witnesses – usually the best man and the chief bridesmaid.  Civil law requires the vows to be made before a properly authorised official – either a registrar or an authorised person. 

The Church uses the term marriage covenant (rather than marriage contract) quite deliberately because what takes place is a solemn exchange of vows made before God.  It isn’t just a legal contract (contracts can be torn up), nor just a promise (promises can be broken), but a solemn covenant, one that in the eyes of God can never be dissolved.  It is expressed in the exchange of consent and it is consent that makes the marriage.  The vows the couple make and the consent they exchange are fidelity to one another (only), for the rest of their lives, and an openness to having children.  Consent must be given with the intention of establishing a marriage and that means being aware of, and being willing to take on, everything that that involves.  Things that could invalidate the consent that is given include entering into marriage not intending to fulfil any one of those promises; putting any sort of condition on that consent; in any way not understanding or accepting the responsibilities involved; not being psychologically or emotionally mature enough to exchange those vows; or not being legally free to marry.

At some point well in advance of the wedding date, you will be asked to meet with your parish priest to complete the required pre-nuptial forms.  You will be interviewed individually without the other person present in case there is anything that should be mentioned that might not be mentioned if the other person was there and which might be a factor in the validity of the wedding.  You will also be asked if you have entered into a previous marriage, and if there is any reason why this marriage shouldn’t be taking place, and whether you are entering into the marriage freely and are not under any pressure to marry.

And just a final note: couples don’t always seem to know that they need a licence to get married, indeed without one the wedding cannot go ahead.  And so you need to contact your local Registry Office well in advance and find out what needs to be done and when.  This is your responsibility, not the priest’s.  Also you should not make any other arrangements until you have contacted the parish priest to make sure the proposed date of your wedding is available and that so is he.  That should be your first stop before you do anything else. 

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