On the Deacon's Bench there has been some conversation about marriage preparation — should widows and widowers do the same preparation as twenty-something first time brides and bridegrooms — and in Ireland a priest has suggested pushing back the age of First Communion to the late teens. What should the Church do to prepare people to fruitfully receive the sacraments?
Ashes and palms are the bookends of Lent in the Catholic Church, threads that weave together two liturgical years, pulling us hand over hand deeper into the Paschal mystery. The palms that we held aloft at the end of Lent one year are burnt for the ashes to ushers us into the next year's season.
These two sacramentals not only hold together the years, but they are sometimes the last threads holding Catholics to the Church. People come to be marked with ashes or to get a blessed palm branch who might not even edge into the vestibule on Christmas or Easter. (Based on CARA's data, roughly 1/3 of Catholics who come to mass rarely if ever, still come to get ashes.)
Is it perhaps because there are no obstacles to the reception of those sacramentals, those bits of grace? We ask no questions, impugn no motives, other than a desire to participate in the life of the Church, to be part of the Body of Christ in this way if no other. The branches are still rooted in the vine.
However, if you want to be married in the Church, or bring your child for baptism or to receive the Eucharist your relationship with the Church can become almost instantly adversarial. Approach via the parish web site, or by checking the bulletin and you will often be presented with a list of requirements and restrictions and demands. Most often there will no explicit connections drawn between the requirement and the desired sacramental encounter. We ask a lot of questions and more importantly, we assume a lot.
It's the assumptions that bother me. Yes, it may indeed be true that most brides select a church for the photographic backdrop it provides. Or that parents are bringing their child for Baptism because they want (are expected) to throw a huge family party. Or that the parents of potential first communicants are woefully uncatechized. But is that how we should greet everyone - by assuming that they are shallow and ignorant and wish to mock the sacraments? Will they not sense our patronizing attitude?
And what of the bride who was raised in the parish, the parents who are not having a large baptism party, the parents who are well catechized and faithful, the mature widowed who want to remarry? You will have to have your bulletin signed to show you went to Mass. You will have to take 40 hours of basic catechetical instruction, no exceptions. You must take a mandatory pre-Cana coursewith the twenty-somethings and learn about budgeting and family planning or a "remarriage" course where you can learn about fidelity and the importance of developing covenantal love (trust me, such instruction would not have made my first marriage last one second longer - I stood there very faithfully while the ER staff tried to resuscitate my husband; and it was quite clear how deep that covenant went was when it was severed). The message we send them is that regardless of what you say, we don't believe you or trust you. We don't care about your preparation for this sacramental encounter, we just need to tick a box. If you really want this sacrament, you'll suffer through something pointless. That's not preparation, that's ransom.
It's not clear to me that this adversarial and regulation driven stance serves either population well. The Sacraments are not cheap grace to be dispensed without thought, but in trying to be certain that they are taken seriously I wonder if we don't take them seriously enough. Sacraments are not a seal of perfection, but a source of grace that perfects.
We can get it right, see the guidelines for the Diocese of Sacramento: The pastor and his delegates must welcome the couple as Christ would, that is, with “a warm and caring, positive and joyful attitude of hospitality” (Faithful to Each Other Forever, p. 59).