Last Sunday in the parish of Notre Dame des Etangs in northern France saw the return of the Catechism for a new year. Under the 1905 separation of Church and State in this country, religious teaching was excluded from the school curriculum but schools were closed on Wednesdays so that children might attend their Catechism classes. For five years children attend a weekly or fortnightly class, as they prepare for First Confession, then First Communion, and finally something called ‘Profession of Faith’ (which is not Confirmation, which follows during teenage years).
In recent years the numbers for Catechism have dropped off dramatically. One priest told me that when he was first ordained fifty years ago nearly half the children in France were in a Catechism class. In a parish like ours the numbers are very small, and often neither parents nor children come regularly to Sunday Mass.
In my first few weeks in the parish I have had the opportunity to talk and work with three enthusiastic teachers and with some of the children. The Catechism books are beautifully produced, and later on I did some practical work with them, preparing for the celebration of All Saints’ Day – a public holiday in France, though this year it falls on a Sunday.
For some families – maybe an increasing number – the Catechism is part of the ‘Rite of Passage’. The children are baptised and make their first Communion. Then they lapse completely, not even making it to Confirmation. Indeed, I do wonder if Confirmation has become here the Sacrament without a reason. Would it be better to replace the ‘Profession de Foi’ with Confirmation, and to reverse the curious progression which has prevailed since the time of Pope St Pius X, of baptism, first Communion – and then Confirmation?
The late Bishop Gery Leuliet, formerly Bishop of Amiens
Already I sense that the Catholic Church in France – in spite of separation of Church and State – has some of the same problems with ‘establishment’ as does the Church of England. In an attempt to appear warm and welcoming, the Church is fearful of challenging – and becomes perhaps too accommodating. As someone is once supposed to have said of the C of E. “The Church of England is what the people of England want her to be.” But this Sunday’s Gospel (the Rich Young Man) reminds us that Jesus makes demands on people (on us) and demands nothing less than our all. Yes he does so as one who lives by his own demands, giving all for the world. Somehow when Jesus calls us to give our all, what comes over is his utter love for us. How often this is in contrast to the ‘rules’ of the Church which seem to be nagging and narrow. Or would people nowadays have perceived Jesus like that?
As young Muslims respond with vigour to the practise of their faith, perhaps it is time for us Christians to throw off comfortable and undemanding religion and to embrace a renewed Christianity where the Saviour in his love makes powerful, and sometimes painful, demands over our lives.