Recently my son made his First Holy Communion. I use capital letters because everything about the event seemed to demand formality. All of the girls appeared in stunning white silk dresses, lace veils, satin shoes, bright nervous smiles. Take-your-breath-away beauty. The boys, my son included, wore little miniman clothes. Some suits here, some suspenders there. Several parents managed to get their boys into actual shoes. Ours wore his black sneakers.
But some concession was necessary. We live in the Ireland of the Celtic Tigers and the greening of the euro. With two days left until “C” day, Declan was still battling his father and me about his wardrobe. He couldn’t understand why it was not OK to wear his (one and only) dress shirt, sans tie or jacket. And why should he have to tuck it in?
So before long we were into the usual “If you don’t do what we say, we won’t let you have...” rat-a-tat-tat. He refused to go shopping, the ante got upped and upped and upped, and before we knew it, we were forsaking him and all his offspring, and swearing off any future ceremonies he might one day like his old parents to show up for, such as his graduation or his wedding. Or, maybe we would show up, but we would show up with shirts untucked, and tieless. So there.
At one point I heard myself saying, “I don’t make up the semiotics of clothing, Declan, they’re just there.” He looked at me blankly. Then he pleaded, “Mom, I don’t want to look like a geek, OK? None of my friends will be wearing jackets!” Angry tears. So I said softly, “But we’re not sheep, are we Declan? We don’t have to do what everyone else does, do we?” And as the words left my mouth I became aware of two things. First, I was taking shameful advantage of Declan’s seven-year-old innocence. A mere two years from now, I suspect, and this same bright boy would have retorted with a screaming, “Then why don’t you let me wear my regular clothes, if we’re not sheep? It’s because you and Dad are big, fat semiotic sheep, that’s why!” And second, acting like sheep was exactly what his father and I were doing, not only by making him dress up, but by encouraging him to participate in First Holy Communion in the first place. Baaaa, Baaaaaaaaa, I could hear in my head.
Since when were we so religious, I wondered? We live in Ireland which is, of course, still a predominantly Catholic country. The national schools are diocesan. But we send our son to a multidenominational school in Dublin where Catholic instruction is an extracurricular option. Most, but not all, of the kids in Declan’s class would be receiving Communion. Most, but not all, of the parents at the school are highly educated, upwardly mobile, property-owning “creative-classers,” and fully as secular in mentality as you’re likely to find in your average Northeastern American suburb. We chose the school because of its ethnically inclusive philosophy, its world-religions-and-spirituality curriculum (a requirement to get partial state funding), and its ethos of parental involvement. We love it. Declan loves it too. It has a renegade history.
My husband and I, we don’t have renegade histories. We each grew up in resolutely Catholic households, he in Ireland, I in America. He drifted from the church, physically if not emotionally, and I’d given its big ol’ patriarchal self the slip a long time ago and become a semipracticing Unitarian. So what were we doing suiting up our son for his first taste of the body and blood of Christ? And, for that matter, why had we signed him on for the after-school Catholic instruction?
As I reflected on these two questions in the days and hours before the ceremony, that phrase from Genesis, “and God created man in his own image,” kept playing through my head in an endless loop. I couldn’t figure out why, until one morning my eyes flew open and I said to Donal, “We’re trying to make Declan into us.”
And he said, “Well, we have to make him into somebody, no?” (Donal is great for picking up midway on those silent conversations I’ve been having with myself.)
And I said, “Sure, sure...but we are questioning, thinking, critically minded people. We’re sending our only begotten son down the Eucharistic aisle with nothing but his two hands clasped together and a prayer book in his pocket. Shouldn’t we tell him we’re not really, you know, believers?”
“Speak for yourself,” he said.
“Oh, come on, you know what I mean: You believe in God, I believe in God. We both believe in ‘love thy neighbor.’ But all those literal specifics about virgin mothers, transubstantiation, original sin. Neither one of us subscribes to the whole Catholic metanarrative.” And it was at this juncture that Donal reminded me and my metanarrative that it had not been he but I who had suggested signing up Declan for the extracurricular Catholic instruction classes. And then he wondered how our narcissistic parenting could be coming as such a surprise to me. “Don’t you remember,” he said, “you wanted him to get some good old-fashioned Catholic indoctrination before his childhood became so radically different from our own—I think were your words—that we wouldn’t even recognize him in later years?”
That sounded like me, all right. And in truth, I was really satisfied with the Catholic instruction that Declan was getting on Tuesday afternoons. He now knew who Jesus was, so he had a clue about “good works.” He was saying that lovely “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer in the evenings. He had confessed at First Holy Penance that he’d been a right brat to his little sister. Catholic instruction was, well, a godsend.
But First Holy Communion would mean hook, line, and sinker, wouldn’t it? I recalled the biblical metaphor of Jesus as a fisher of men, and I thought once Declan swallowed that wafer, he’d be a real Catholic on the line, wouldn’t he? And, if that were true, then wouldn’t we have an obligation to reel him in? To be real Catholics too? Uh, uh. Been there, done that, not gonna do it anymore. Having stopped pretending to be genuinely Catholic for my parents in my twenties, now in my forties, I’m hardly going to pretend to be genuinely Catholic for my son, am I? That’s just wouldn’t be fair to anyone, would it?
I remember the furor a while back when the writer Anna Quindlen explained to her New York Times readers that she and her husband were cultural Catholics. She wrote, “Catholicism is to us not so much a system of beliefs or a set of laws but a shared history. It is not so much our faith as our past.” She said she believed in “those guidelines that do not vary from faith to faith, that are as true of Judaism or Methodism as they are of Catholicism: that people should be kind to one another, that they should help those in need, that they should respect others as they wish to be respected.” I am sure you can imagine what the bishops had to say about that.
Admittedly, Quindlen is not a theologian. Holy Communion, whether First or subsequent, is meant to be a sacrament. It is a sacred offering. It is, in the eyes of the church, the body and blood of Christ. So where do less-than-devout parents like Donal and I get off slipping their children into this piety parade—a prepubescent rite of passage enthusiastically attended by grandparents, aunts, uncles, and godparents the world over—and then standing by and taking photographs?
Well, to begin with, I suspect we are far (really far) from being the only ones. And, to be honest, I don’t think the church minds (much). What concerns me is whether this sort of quasi-ecclesiastical participation constitutes good parenting. Is it OK, in other words, to use religion for ritual, or, in this case, to use Communion for community? I wanted Declan to join religion class and to participate in First Holy Communion because I wanted him to “be like us” when we were children, to sing from the same hymn sheet, so to speak. But I also wanted him to be a part of the wider group, to stand with his classmates and don his tie and endure an hour of relative sobriety away from the television and the electronic toys and even the junior soccer team, and just achieve a little poise, share a little prayer, and contemplate a higher being. That the Catholic Church offered us a vehicle by which to achieve such ends is something for which I am grateful. I can think of no other available substitutes. But I am still left with the dilemma of whether a good-enough parent ought to model to her child such halfhearted conviction.
Ironically, I guess, this is where real faith comes in. When we were at the Communion celebration itself, and at the reception in the church hall afterward, I still didn’t think we had necessarily done the right thing, but I definitely felt we had. Families had brought baked goods, the coffee urns were piping hot, moms and dads were serving tea, the kids were laughing and playing with balloons. We were all a part of something benign, and we were all proud. I suppose all religions must offer their faithful and their semifaithful such moments. And I suppose that, from time to time anyway, all good parents must honor their intuition at least as much as their reason. A little bit of pomp? A little bit of piety? It’s all for the good.
Read more: Letters, May 23 & June 6, 2008
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