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First Communion
Do you Remember?

“Pat, do you remember your  First Holy Communion?” I asked. His face immediately lit up. “After more than seventy years I remember getting ice cream in Moran`s shop. ’Twas a big one too! I remember the lovely white suit I wore. It came in the parcel from America. Of course I took it off as soon as I got home in case it got dirty. That same suit was worn by my four brothers when their turn came. I think it was kinda yellow by the time the youngest fella got it! My sister wore her cousin`s dress and that went down the line too. Sure the clothes didn`t matter anyway. The sacrament was the most important thing. Ah, life was very simple then!”

Pre 1970, methods used in the teaching of religion and the preparation for the sacraments of Confession, Holy Communion and Confirmation, remained unchanged for decades. The format was question and answer learned by rote from a short or long Catechism. Formal prayer and prayer times were adhered to---morning offering, the Angelus at noon, grace before and after meals at lunchtime and a Hail Mary at hometime. In the homes, the night prayer was the family rosary in the kitchen. We all have our memories of those nights! Undoubtedly, parents are a child`s first and most influential teachers.
Once a year, the Catechism Examiner visited the school. The children stood in a semi- circle and each answered their question in turn---no hope of having a peep at a book or getting a prompt from a friend! Oh, shame and scandal if you answered incorrectly. Nerve-wrecking times for children and teachers! Written reports were later administered.
Children in first class at the age of six or seven were deemed to have reached the `use of reason’ and therefore ready to receive the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion. How difficult it was for such young children to learn all the formal prayers required! The Confiteor and the Act of Contrition had to be recited in the confessional box for the priest. Then, you had “Jesus Thou art coming” as a prayer and a hymn before communion and “A Hundred Thousand welcomes Jesus” after Communion. But the children always succeeded, thanks to the hard work and efforts of the parents and indeed, the grandparents, who themselves, would have learned the same prayers many years before that.
It is a great privilege for a teacher to be involved in the preparation of children for first confession and communion. It is also a huge responsibility. Of course it affords us an opportunity to think back on our own schooling, our teachers and friends and our own “big day “. That’s when we realize that we have a long tradition of Christian Education in this country. It was handed down to us. We received it, we cherished it and now we hand it on. The children approach it with sincerity, honesty and prayerfulness----again, because of the influence and attitude of the home. The first hurdle was the Examination of Conscience. Now that gave many a giggle! But we usually ended up with “I told lies, I didn’t do what I was told, I forgot to say my morning and night prayers, I was cursing”, and occasionally “I stole.” A priest once told me he would have adults reciting the same list at times. They say, “Once an adult, twice a child!”
Once we had mastered the prayers for confession and had our ‘list of sins’ sorted, it was time to go to the church for a rehearsal—this was weeks before the actual day, remember. Having confessions in the school was out of the question at that time-only The Box would do. But that was the problem. There was a fear of it. Some imagined they saw eyes watching from behind the curtain, others had their own ideas. Our first task was to examine ‘the box’, check it out. Then each took a turn going in, some very unsure and fearful when the door was closed. Gradually they were assured that all was well. The problem then was “Do I stand up or kneel down? How will I know when the Priest is talking to me?” And so, teacher takes on a new role and goes in behind the curtain to “hear confessions”! There was plenty of tittering and giggling from the crew outside. Yes we did have lots of fun. But, the children were well prepared for their first confession when the time came. While a child’s First Holy Communion should be memorable and very beautiful, it should, above all, be holy and with all priorities in place. Most of the preparation took place in the classroom with the help of our local priest who visited almost weekly. Fasting, and the need to fast for twelve hours before receiving, was instilled in the children’s minds, as was the fact that the Sacred Host was never to be touched or chewed. Therefore, to have them accustomed to receiving the Host on the tongue we had a regular ‘’practice-run” with everyday bread or wafers.
Micheal Touhy,Tomas Touhy,,David Cronin,Noel Greaney, Eugene Canny,Cormac Hession,Bernadette Keenan,David Healy,Brendan Keenan,Michael Connally,John Dooley,Patricia Greaney,Edward Cronin,Elaine Cronin Michael Canny Brendan Connally,Susan Healy,Genevieve Connally.

At last, after weeks of preparation the great days arrived---yes it was two days. The children made their first Confession on Saturday and received their Holy Communion on Sunday morning. There was an air of excitement and pride in the area. How wonderful to see our young people grow strong and healthy. They all looked radiant as they occupied the front seats with their teacher, who would accompany them to the altar. The parents and the wider community watched as the new communicants stood at the altar rails. Anyone lucky enough to have a camera took pictures afterwards. Looking at those pictures today, the one common denominator is, every child was proud to show off the new prayer book and rosary beads. Then, it was time to visit the shop for an ice cream, a bar of chocolate or maybe a few spare pence from a relation or neighbour before heading home for a hearty breakfast and later, a little treat.

Confirmation on the other hand, was administered in the parish every three/four years {pre 1976, before the changes} by the Archbishop of Tuam. The children, ranging in age from nine to twelve years from all the schools in the parish attended on the day. The preparation was very intense. The children studied the long catechism, the Old Testament and some church history. Not only had they to undergo the yearly religious examination in the school but they had to face a team of examiners in the church on the day of their confirmation, before the actual ceremony began. A number of children from each school were chosen to go forward to be examined by the Archbishop. How stressful was that for children, parents and teachers alike? Two teachers from the parish were selected to act as sponsors. As each child was being confirmed, the sponsor laid a hand on his/her shoulder. The family did not have an active role in the proceedings but a supportive one, as the children ‘took the pledge’, promising to abstain from alcoholic drinks until the age of eighteen years. Finally, the Archbishop had an important message to deliver---in appreciation of all the hard work the children had put into their preparation, the school would remain closed the following day. That brought a smile to their faces.
When I look back on those events, I remember the solemnity of the occasion, the mass in a language we didn’t understand, the priest dressed in colourful embossed vestments with his back towards the congregation, and marble rails and golden gates between him and us! Religious practices were strictly adhered to in the parish. Men women and children had their own Sacred Heart Sodality. This encouraged them to attend confessions and receive Communion at least once a month. There was regular attendance at the rosary and Benediction on Sunday evening. Parents really led by example.
In 1976 after Vatican Two, a new religion programme called The Children of God series was introduced into the primary school. This was revised in 1983 and replaced by the ALIVE-O programme in 1993. The aim of this was to enable children to grow as people of faith, and that they will become as articulate in this area as in any other area of the curriculum. We hope that eventually they will be able to give an account of their own faith, to say what they believe and why. In the past it was all too easy to pick up a catechism and learn off a series of answers ,but this type of approach to knowledge of faith left people knowing the ‘what’ without necessarily knowing the ‘why’. The programme seeks to engage the children within the limits of their childhood; their experience so far both at home, in school and in church, their experience of the world around them, and the social and natural environment in which they live.
One of its major innovations was the recognition of the different but complementary roles of parent, teacher and priest/parish in the religious education of the child. The programme was welcomed by teachers and children. Games, stories, poetry, music, drama and art are used to promote learning and understanding. It is a journey of discovery on which the children come to know God as someone who loves and cares for them personally. They are also constantly exposed to the liturgical life of the Christian community. Moral formation is taught according to the age, young faith and psychological development of the child; From learning that they are special little individuals (me), they move on to learning about having to think of others, that they must share and take turns and learn to live with one another as best they can. They learn to pray as a response to the things they learn about in school and the experiences they have there. The use of candles, religious images and music all help the children to realise that prayer time in class is not the same as every other part of the day.
 Ireland has changed considerably since 1976 and the introduction of these programmes. Martin Kennedy who wrote about Religious Education in Ireland back in the 1990’s wrote about the concept of “The Three Islands” of religious experience for children; the school, the home and the parish. Children inhabit these three worlds and more and more there is drifting apart of the three islands with the island of the school getting bigger and bigger, and the island of the home and the island of the parish shrinking away! School time is the most important time of our life. Regardless of the changes, our teachers continue to educate our children in the Catholic Faith in line with the ethos of our primary schools, in a holistic way. Recently, I found this:-“Ethos is what one remembers-or perhaps better, what one is-after one has forgotten almost everything else that one learned in school!”.