Approaching Sacramental Preparation for the Lapsed

David Barrett FAITH Magazine May-June 2006

Most priests are familiar with the phenomenon of being approached by Catholics whose practice of their Faith is irregular or even simply non-existent and who are seeking, for themselves or their children, one of the sacraments. How should we respond? The question is difficult since one priest may legitimately have a variety of responses depending on which sacrament is being requested. Baptised Catholics have a right to marriage, provided they have a Catholic understanding of the sacrament and are not opposed to Catholic doctrine on the matter. Baptism is another matter. Should the sacrament be denied to a child on the basis of their parents’ lapsation? What level of commitment should the parents be able to demonstrate? And what are our criteria for discerning a real level of commitment?The same questions pertain also to the reception of First Holy Communion. What is clear is that there is a variety of different policies formulated across the Church in this country.

There are perhaps two extremes in approach. One is to deny that there is any call upon the priest to hope to be able to encourage their ‘lapsed’ parishioner to return to practice of the Faith. This would really be to pretend that their failure to practice the faith is unimportant. Such an attitude undermines the Church’s teaching about the crucial importance for the Christian life of, for example, participating in Sunday Mass or respecting the dignity of human sexuality by not cohabiting before marriage. Such a radical denial is probably fairly rare, and also fairly obviously undermines the heart of the priestly apostolate. The other extreme I would call the approach of giving an ‘ultimatum’ – that is demanding integrally Catholic public practice and behaviour before serious sacramentalpreparation can begin.

In the opinion of this writer this latter approach is not helpful. For example, some clergy declare very early on to parents who have approached them that unless they are coming to Mass in the parish every week their child will not be able to receive baptism. Such an ultimatum can be seen as aggressive. It can also be unrealistic. For a generation or so the level of catechesis and religious education, particularly in secondary schools, has been appalling (I know: I went to a Catholic school). Many of the people approaching us have no real notion of why they should come to Mass. Indeed, many of them have very little understanding of what the Mass is about in the first place. In that sense, they are not the problem. Often they will be coming to the Church with some vague concept thatbaptism is good for their child. They want God’s blessing for the child and for his or her future life. To face them squarely with the demand for commitment to Sunday Mass before anything else has been explained is just not helpful. Indeed, in at least one priest’s experience it is middle class parents who are often very able to jump through that hoop – for a time. Poorer people are not.

The ‘ultimatum approach’ can give a hint of aggression or even of frustration with all these greedy people demanding things from the Church while giving nothing in return. If God were to deal with us in the same way, then there would be no hope for any of us. Indeed, perhaps here is a better paradigm for us. In our spiritual lives, God does not work by a demand for a high level of commitment here and now “or else!” He is patient and kind. He works with us, encouraging us to deeper and more generous levels of commitment. But when we fall He does not refuse us and He does not abandon us. Nor even does he usually show us just how far we really are from where we should be. He “does not crush the bruised reed” (Is 42:3). Thanks be to God! After all, we are all a bit lapsed, we are allunconverted in many different ways: we are all sinners needing His mercy. Of course, God does not abandon the demands of the Truth. However, “the truth will set you free!” (Jn 8:32) Much like the mustard seed, He works on the small beginnings of our hearts so that the Kingdom can flourish – and this takes time and it is gradual and not perfected right from the beginning.

The purpose of such gentleness is of course to present achievable challenges. As pastors we should in a sense ‘meet people where they are at’. But we should not leave them there, pretending that their situation is ‘OK’. We also need to take them to where they are not - to help them live in the fullness of life that Christ offers.

When lapsed parents approach us to have their child baptised, or lapsed couples for marriage, it is very rare that this is done merely for social reasons – that they just want a party (I think on these occasions a priest may well have to make a stand – but only after he has ascertained that they would not be open to some teaching about the Faith). Most people have some obscure religious reason and it is this mustard seed that we need to work with. Many of them know they are not worthy or good enough; as a result they are often anxious, worried or even fearful when they approach the priest. A rigorous questioning of their attendance at Mass followed by an ultimatum is a sign to them that they are not wanted. But they are. “God wants all men to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth.”(1Tim 2:4) Perhaps the first attitude that they should experience is a sincere and generous welcome: “Let the little children come to me!” (Mk 10:14) Yes, these are often very little children spiritually, truly poor ones who have been neglected by the Shepherds and therefore have so little religious formation that at this point they are unable to respond positively to a demand for deeper commitment. A welcome can dispose them more positively and open them up to make some small steps back to the Church.

In the case of infant baptism many of these parents want to do the right thing by their child. From here the priest can gently but clearly point the way. I sometimes have found it useful to arrange to meet a couple or a few couples after the Sunday family Mass (“Come to the 10.30 Mass and I will be very happy to meet with you afterwards.”). With a busy Sunday schedule this is not always easy and can be demanding, but often young families experience something positive and this can be an occasion when they begin to realise that there is something crucial about the Mass.

Step by step. It is a beginning but it is more fruitful than a dramatic demand which can turn people away. It is more in keeping with how God deals with us: “Treat others as you would like them to treat you…Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” (Lk 6:31, 36) This approach does not neglect the Truth. It recognises the necessity of the sacraments. But it also recognises that we are dealing with neglected sheep – and that an initial welcome and some gentle work can begin to enlighten, heal and strengthen them towards a living faith, something that all of us are still struggling to attain in our own daily lives.

This column will discuss actual sacramental reception by the seemingly lapsed in an upcoming issue.

CORRECTION: Our March-April ‘Truth will set you free’ on “Calling parishioners to follow the Church’s teaching on the marital act” had an unfortunate error in its footnote one. The word ‘diaphragm’ should have read ‘intrauterine device’. See this month’s letters.

Faith Magazine