My Little Big Day

Since I returned to Ireland in 2013 and reacquainted myself with the Church in the country of my birth, having departed to study for the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ when I was eighteen, I can confirm my impressions in respect to a number of elements of parish life in Ireland as opposed to the US.  One of my impressions is that First Communion is a bigger event in Ireland. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that it is unimportant or badly done in the States (indeed many of the aspects of the celebration are better organized in the US), however it is undeniably often still the most important day in one’s childhood for many Irish people growing up today.

I have posted on PrayTell before about how sometimes these celebrations can get out of hand and the challenges of dealing with a more multi-cultural society, where many children come from non-Catholic or non-practicing homes. Part of the issue in the Republic of Ireland is that the vast majority of primary schools are under the patronage (i.e. management) of the Catholic Church. This allows the tradition to continue in most parishes whereby the First Communion is organized by the primary school in conjunction with the parish.

Undeniably many many children still joyfully celebrate their First Communion in a spiritual fruitful way. Indeed the wonder and excitment of an eight-year old often puts older Catholics to shame in comparison. However you do also have the problem of certain parents feeling that they are obliged to have their child participate in a sacramental celebration that has very little meaning for their family (not to mention the problem of non-practicing primary school teachers, who are ultimately civil servants and not Church employees, preparing children whose parents and grandparents don’t practice either, to participate in a Roman Catholic Sacrament). In many parishes it has become common for some children to dress up and participate in the First Communion Mass with their classmates, and not actually receive Communion themselves.

However today I became aware of a new initiative in one area in Ireland: My Little Big Day. This is an initiative of some families who are not practicing Catholics. For various reasons, their children were not receiving First Communion with their classmates. But they decided that the children could do with a similar celebration, which came to be called My Little Big Day. They hired a nice room in a hotel to conduct a celebration with their children. And contracted a humanist presider to conduct a non-religious ceremony for the children. The theme of the My Little Big Day celebration was “we are all connected” and it was centered on the children’s connections to their families, their connections to each other and to nature and the importance of an ecological awareness. The families also planted a tree with the children as a prelude to the celebration.

It is important to note that the event was not organized in competition with or as a criticism of the parish celebrations of First Communion. It was even scheduled for a Sunday so that it wouldn’t clash with the parishes’ Saturday celebrations of First Communion (maybe it is best to leave the discussion on the ideal day to celebrate First Communion for another post). This meant that children were free to participate in both events or to participate in one event and attend the other to support their classmates.

I know that there is something to be said for a parish using events like First Communions as moments of evangelization and that a well-managed relationship between a parish and its Catholic school can be a great boost for a parish. It is also true that many parents experience that they themselves have drifted somewhat from their practice of religion as young adults, but reawaken in their appreciation for the Catholic Faith as parents themselves as they are anxious to have something spiritual to pass on to their children.  However, it is also true that obliging parents to participate in a Sacrament that they don’t believe in is against the Catholic understanding of religious liberty. It is true that nobody is obliged to participate in the First Communion celebrations, but are we doing justice to our children by using social pressures to our advantage? Also would making participation in First Communion a clear choice allow the celebration to become more spiritual and meaningful for those families that truly cherish their Catholic Faith?

There is not one single solution to the pastoral problems surrounding First Communion in Ireland today and those involved in the Parish/Catholic School nexus need to make reasoned choices for the benefit of everyone, showing the virtues of understanding and flexibility. It is also true that on one level the easiest course is not to make any changes whatsoever. But maybe it is time to allow some more courageous choices, even to the extent of a school with a Catholic ethos officially organizing a Little Big Day event in conjunction with the First Communion celebration so that all of the students can enjoy themselves and grow in a loving environment where both the individual family’s values and the Catholic Faith and its ethos can be respected by everyone, and most importantly the children can be children and every child can have precious memories that they can treasure from their childhood.




7 responses to “My Little Big Day”

  1. Jim Pauwels Avatar
    Jim Pauwels

    It’s pretty interesting that these parents feel drawn to have some sort of a quasi-sacramental celebration. Does that indicate a thirst for something sacramental, or numinous, despite the lack of formal religious affiliation?

    1. Fr. Neil Xavier O'Donoghue Avatar
      Fr. Neil Xavier O’Donoghue


      While it may be true that every human heart searches for God regardless of what they profess or are conscious of believing, I think that here it can be more easily explained that for many children in Ireland today the celebrations around First Communion constitute the biggest celebration of childhood. Parents who do not belong to the Catholic Church (for whatever reason) realise this and don’t want to deprive their children of the day. Then to organise an alternative you need to do something to clebrate, I.e. you need a ritual.

  2. Alan Johnson Avatar
    Alan Johnson

    I can see the sense in secular rites of passage for births, weddings and funerals, graduations, coming of age etc.
    But what is significant about being eight that it needs a special celebration?

    1. Fr. Neil Xavier O'Donoghue Avatar
      Fr. Neil Xavier O’Donoghue

      The age of 8 does not need any particular celebration per se, but this has been caused by Catholic theology and pastoral care and the intersection of the splitting of the unity of the Sacraments of Initiation, Pius X’s liturgical reforms, the concept of an “age of reason” etc.

      Then in an Irish context the Catholic Church still has cultural dominance. In the words of Joyce the Catholic Church means “here comes everybody” and if everybody else’s child celebrates a bid day for 8 year olds (whether their family actually believes in the Catholic Church or attends any other day in the year), then many loving parents who have the conviction not to simply go through the motions, may see in this option a more honest alternative that allows them to remain true to their beliefs, whilst not depriving their children of the celebration that everyone else is having.

  3. Rita Ferrone Avatar
    Rita Ferrone

    Neil, forgive me if I have missed something here, but for the child, First Communion isn’t a celebration of childhood. This seems like an adult idea, which imagines that the child is being celebrated for the sake of childhood.

    As a child, did you think that your first communion was about your childhood? That it was “making memories”? I can’t say the thought ever entered my head. As pleasing as it was to have pictures and keepsakes and a party, it wasn’t about the pictures or the keepsakes, or even the envelopes. 🙂 The act of receiving communion was the focus. Maybe we didn’t understand it very well, but we sure practiced, and surrounded it with a lot of preparation.

    So what the children think they are celebrating in this non-religious ceremony is — what? I am trying to see this from the child’s view. Tree planting? Or “me”? Something else?

  4. Fr. Neil Xavier O'Donoghue Avatar
    Fr. Neil Xavier O’Donoghue

    from the child’s point of view the First Communion celebration is not a self-referential act, nor do they consider it as a celebration of childhood. However, and again I am speaking to the particular Irish context, it is THE major celebration of their childhood. Once upon a time everyone more or less practiced Catholicism, so there wasn’t any great issue around it. However, today, the numbers are way down. Last year the European Social Survey (ESS) found that 24% of young people attend Mass weekly in Ireland. I think this number is a little high when judged by my own experience and there is a big difference in attendance between cities and countryside. But even if we take 24% of young people go to Mass regularly, I would guess that somewhere around 80% make their First Communion. That would give a statistical break down of about 25% of children attend Mass regularly with their families, 55% don’t go to Mass but receive First Communion and 20% neither receive Frist Communion not go to Mass. Which would mean that over half the children in Ireland today receive First Communion and yet aren’t practicing Catholics. Even if my figures are a little out (and to be honest I think they are optimistic), it must be admitted that this is a huge pastoral issue. In the US a lot of people may turn up at a given parish for Sacraments despite not attending Mass regularly, however, you do not have the problem of half the children in a given town coming to the Catholic parish for First Communion and not being practicing Catholics.

    1. Fr. Neil Xavier O'Donoghue Avatar
      Fr. Neil Xavier O’Donoghue

      So I see this as a possible way forward. Most parents, despite not practicing Catholicism, will not forego a celebration for the child. If they are going to have another culturally appropriate celebration they need to celebrate something (albeit if the reason for the celebration is initially somewhat fabricated). A pastor would be run out of his parish if he refused First Communion, even if it is a pantomime for many families. The radio and TV (not to mention social media) would be merciless to him. Therefore if there is a way to ease people out of a false practice of First Communion. Then resources would be freed up in parishes and we could concentrate on providing a meaningful beautiful celebration for the families that are practicing Catholicism. Then hopefully we could build more vibrant parishes that can better evangelize and have something more than a cultural relic to offer people.

      Deep down the issue is not whether the children need to celebrate themselves, it is about their parents feeling the need to celebrate them (and to be honest I don’t think it is wrong for parents to want to celebrate their children). Then basically the children cooperate in being spoiled so that their parents can celebrate them. All I am proposing is that Catholic parishes should seriously consider whether its mission is best served by facilitating celebrations where the legacy of cultural Catholicism often drowns the truly religious and spiritual or whether we should encourage other alternatives, and then work with those who truly desire to participate in their parish.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *