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The Baby and the Bathwater

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Friday Night in Dublin Bay

Most evenings I walk from Clontarf to the end of the Bull Wall. These days I walk for particular reasons. On Friday the 13th of November I was walking on my own and I tuned into Eoin O’Neill’s The West Wind and heard a tune from Dympna O’Sullivan whose anniversary falls on the 20th of November. She was one of earths and indeed heavens delights who left us too early in 2015. And it’s not her music we miss…it is Dympna we miss.  

As I looked at the steam blowing from the incinerator chimney (I used to look to the barber poles at the Pigeon House) I noted that the wind was blowing from the west. I wrote the first two verses when I sat back in my car and completed the other two when I got home. The west coast never leaves us. 

These words are dedicated to Dympna and those who draw us into wonderous moments. @therevhilliard

Friday Night in Dublin Bay

A West Wind blows across the bay  as The West Wind[1] sends tunes  that heave and swirl with night’s dark waves.  Sound-wave and sea-wave arrive as one to this place of ebb and flow.

The heart is carried by wind and tune to places of laughter, story and step.  Carried too to places of rhythm and pitch  where we can taste what it is to be fully alive  in the treasured all too few of our earthly present moments.

Wake to this moment when wind, wave and heart-sounds  rise and fall together in enchanted heaves. Pray that pain past and anxious future do not steal what is truly treasured and of infinite worth in this blustry now.

Let us sit together beneath 
Heavens canopy lulled by rock and shore
Until there is no worry, anxiety or worthlessness
Let us be resilient until new beginnings make us one.

[1] The West Wind is a program of traditional music on Clare FM, 7-9 pm Mon-Fri

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A Scented Moment

A Reflection on Diocesan Priesthood in Ireland for Holy Thursday 2020. Due to the Covid-19
Pandemic there is no Chrism Mass and hence no Blessing of Oils

A Scented Moment

We were good men once. We were believed in.
We gave till nothing more could be given, now all has been taken.
Once we cultivated, built, funded, fought,
Now queue we like children at a dated fairground
Seeking momentary thrill and excitement,
An escape from banality and worthlessness.

Once we had authority given by sacred oil that dripped
Into our every pore now authority, even that of service, is gone,
Stolen in the darkest night, leaving only a bare and disgruntled dawn.
Where to look for that which is lost – no one knows
And the gulf is filled with incompetent grunts and silver tongued syllables.

That which served God has become the god and all is lost.
A new way where oil is poured fresh and new to heal painful pores.
Where the relief of joy
Forces open the fullness of the Promise from He who is promise fulfilled
Where is that jar of hope?
Where is the oil of gladness?
Oh for a momentary scent of what could be.
That scented moment might let us begin again.

Alan Hilliard, April 2020 @therevhilliard

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Aaron O’Neill; Son, Brother, Our Student (TU Dublin) and Friend

Aaron O’Neill R.I.P.

Funeral Mass

St Brendan’s Church Coolock,

May 19th 2019


It is with a heavy heart that I welcome you here this morning as we share this liturgy with Brian, Esther, Evan and Ben. We are laying to rest one who was beginning to dip his toe into adulthood in a very energised and exciting way but he was stolen from us. On behalf of the family I welcome you the extended family, neighbours and friends, school pals for Scoil Neasáin and Coláiste Mhuire. Though we’d love to have Aaron back amongst us we pray now that he’ll be received warmly into the arms of God. We gather to show support to this beautiful family in their hour of need and promise to support them in the days, weeks, months ahead. We are encouraged by the word of the beautiful Irish poem Ag Críost an Síol –   ó bhás go críoch, ní críoch ach athfhás  telling us that death is not the end, but for us humans who remain it can seem frighteningly final.


Is trom atá mo chroí istigh ionam ar maidin agus mé ag fearadh fáilte romhaibh anseo inniu chun an liotúirge a cheiliúradh le Brian, Esther, Evan agus Ben. Táimid ag ligint chun suain ógánach a bhí díreach tar éis blaiseadh a fháil ar shaol an duine fásta, ach a sciobadh uainn go tobann.

Thar ceann an teaghlaigh cuirim fáilte romhaibh go léir:  gaolta, comharsana, cairde ó Scoil Neasáin agus ó Choláiste Mhuire.

Cé gur bhreá linn go mbeadh Aaron ar ais inár measc arís, táimid ag guí anois go nglacfaidh Dia na Glóire chuige féin é le grá agus le féile.


Táimid bailithe le chéile chun tacaíocht a thabhairt don teaghlach álainn seo in am an ghátair agus chun a léiriú go mbeimid ann dóibh sna laethanta, sna seachtainí agus sna míonna atá romhainn amach.


Ardú meanman dúinn na focail seo ón dán Ag Críost an Síol:

“Ó bhás go críoch, ní críoch ach athfhás” a chuireann igcuimhne dúinn nach bhfuil an focail scoir ag an mbás, ainneoin go gceapaimid a mhalairt  ar uairibh.



One day last week I travelled between two funerals. One of a man who did some work for us in the Chaplaincy and another of a colleague from TU Dublin. The first was a typical Irish Catholic funeral; the second funeral I attended took place in the Muslim cemetery in Rathcoole. As I stood talking to many of the Muslim men we chatted about death illustrating our ideas from our various teachings. For some of the conversation I stepped outside both of our traditions and spoke about our Irish Celtic understandings of the cycle of life. Many who listened were intrigued by the wisdom of our ancient culture. I explained one of these. Fiche bhilain ag fás, fiche bhlain faoí bhlath, fiche bhlain faoí neart agus fiche bhalin ag dul ar ais. These few words are a comprehensive understanding of the cycle of human life broken down into four stages of twenty years each. Twenty years growing, twenty years flowering, twenty years growing in our spirituality and understanding of life, and twenty years going back to that which created us.


Five months ago this week I bade farewell to my mother in this Church. Her coffin occupied that spot where Aaron’s coffin now stands. I didn’t like to let her go but truthfully she was at that stage of ‘ag dul ar ais’ or, of ‘going back’. It helped me get my head and heart around the loss. Today we stand around a coffin of a young man who was just stepping into the world of ‘faoí bhlath’. He was just coming to the tail end of the period of growth referred to as ‘ag fás’ and we were beginning to see the buds of his time of flowering. Those involved in his education could see a committed, sincere, motivated student who had found his niche and like a flower popping it’s head through the clay he was catching the sunlight and was heading in a direction that was filled with opportunity, growth and enjoyment. He loved his college – he loved his course. His attendance and his work are evidence of this and it was only going to get better. In biblical sense his seed fell on fertile soil and it was taking  strong roots and beginning to grow and bear fruit. That soil was well prepared by the learning communities in his primary school, Colaiste Mhuire his secondary school, and especially in his wonderful home with his gran, mam, dad and two brotherS.


Like any child or teenager he fought his demons as he grew through his formative years. Some of those demons came from within his own soul and others came from outside him. However, as Brian and Esther agree, in facing these demons Aaron succeeded in making himself a stronger person, and a more sensitive person. His brothers Evan and Ben can testify to this. His sensitivity is seen in the way he protected them and watched over them and also in the manner in which he cared for his gran who many of you know suffers with dementia. Aaron continuously stepped into her world and made her feel comfortable in that world. Rather than dismiss her as illness became worse as some might; he only loved her more.


The tragedy of today, in the perspective of our ancient Celtic understanding of life, is that we have someone –‘ag dul  ar ais’ before his time. I attended a funeral in southern Ireland and the priest said something quite profound. He said that when your husband or wife dies you are a widower or widow, when your parent dies you’re are an orphan but when your child dies there is no word for it. To create a word gives this type of occurrence a place in the natural order…there is no word as it is outside the natural order for you Brian and Esther and for us all in lesser ways.


With this in mind we are left with little to do except grieve, as our first reading tells us… Weep bitterly, cry out with full voice, and observe the mourning period in accordance with the merits of the deceased. Yes we delight in Aarons life and rejoice at all that he achieved but this makes grief all the louder and all the more difficult to bear. This is what our first reading tells us today – we often say Let us Pray but now we say Let us Grieve.


Our second reading tells us to hope; to hope in what is beyond and what has been promised to us in Jesus. It tells us not to be afraid to look beyond the grave and believe that one day we shall be one in the kingdom of light and peace. As one theologian Jorgen Moltmann said, Genuine hope is not blind optimism. It is hope with open eyes, which sees the suffering yet believes in the future.


It is obvious from talking to lecturers and even those supervising the exams this week that Aaron was firmly investing in his future. He attended, engaged, and enjoyed everything about his course. He arrived five minutes late every day for his exams but waited until the very, very, end and checked everything meticulously before he handed his scripts to the invigilator. Brian, Esther, Evan and Ben struggle to piece together all that happened last week as they go over the events that stole him from them and separated Aaron from his earthy dreams and his earthly future. Over time the questions that hover about will be answered. Stories have to be pieced together and examinations have to be completed before conclusions can be drawn. However, no amount of answers will bring him back to us.


It was this day last week that Aaron completed an exam, left his home to celebrate, took sick ,his dad went to collect him and brought him home. At home he got worse and the ambulance was called. That day was the 16thof May -this was the feast of St Brendan who is the patron of this Church here in Coolock. Brendan is noted for making a trip across the Atlantic in a boat made of hazel rods, animal skins and pitch. People scoffed at the legend until the explorer Tim Severin made the same trip and using the detail of Brendan’s writings he charted a similar course proving that Brendan made it across the Atlantic. Isn’t it ironic that this simple humble boat made it across the ocean and the Titanic, which people claimed to be unsinkable, was lost on its maiden voyage.


Brendan’s prayer wasn’t that he’d get to the far shore. His writings tell us he prayed that he’d have sufficient for each day and I think the prayer may have been inspired by this Gospel. When he saw bog waves, ice-bergs and strange unknown lands he prayed for the strength to deal with it in that moment. I copied that prayer on my booklet when I was ordained here thirty years ago and when I struggle I pray God give me enough for this day. Brian and Esther as you look to the future you worry about how you’ll be able to cope just pray for the strength for each day. You too Evan as you face your Junior Cert and Ben if you get worried that Aaron isn’t around to help you step into the future well just pray for the strength for each day. Brendan tells us that if we think of the future and the far shore we can lose our way, just pray for the strength for each and every day and this is what will get you to the far shore.

Fiche bhilain ag fás,fiche bhlain faoí bhlath, fiche bhlain faoí neart agus fiche bhalin ag dul ar ais.


“Help me to journey beyond the familiar 

and into the unknown.

Give me the faith to leave old ways

and break fresh ground with You.

Christ of the mysteries, I trust You

to be stronger than each storm within me.

I will trust in the darkness and know

that my times, even now, are in Your hand.

Tune my spirit to the music of heaven,

and somehow, make my obedience count for You.”


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NOAH’S ARK —-2017

NOAH’S ARK – 2017


(I came across this piece a number of years ago and have made some modifications to the text. If any one knows the original author could they please let me know. I published it once in The Irish catholic and it got some very interesting reactions. )

And the Lord spoke to Noah and said, “In one year, I am going to make it rain and cover the whole earth with water until all flesh is destroyed. But I want you to save the righteous people and two of every kind of living thing on the earth. Therefore, I am commanding you to build an Ark.”
In a flash of lightning, God delivered the specifications for the Ark. In fear and trembling, Noah took the plans and agreed to set to work. “Remember” said the Lord, “You must complete the Ark and bring everything  on board within one calendar year.”
Exactly one year later, fierce storm clouds covered the earth and all the seas of the earth went into a tumult. The Lord saw that Noah was sitting in his front yard. He was weeping. “Noah,” He shouted. “Where is the Ark?” “Lord, please forgive me!” cried Noah. “I did my best, but there were big problems. First, I had to get a permit for construction and your plans did not comply with building regulations. Consequently I had to hire an engineering firm and redraw the plans. Then I got into a fight with Health and Safety over whether or not the Ark needed a fire sprinkler system and flotation devices.  Then my neighbour objected, claiming I was violating planning ordinances by building the Ark in my front yard, so I had to lodge a Rezoning Application for a transfer of my property from ‘residential use’ to ‘industrial use’ with the Council. This has been referred onto An Bord Pleanála. I await an outcome of their decision’’.

”As if that was not enough I had problems getting enough wood for the Ark. You won’t believe it but there was a ban on cutting trees to protect a rare beetle that lived beneath its bark. I tried to convince the Department of Environment that I needed the wood to save the beetles in the face of the impending flood. I can tell you that I was not amused that all the office staff was trying tried to hold back their sniggers while trying to pretend that they were treating me seriously. Eventually they informed me that the beetle cannot be removed from its local habitat’’.

”While I was dealing with all that, the carpenters on the Ark formed a union and went out on strike. I had to negotiate a settlement with them before anyone would pick up a saw or a hammer. Now, I have 16 carpenters on the Ark, but still no beetles let alone any of the creatures on your list.  When I started rounding up the other animals, I got served a summons by the ISPCA. They claimed that the Ark was unfit for habitation by animals.   Just when I got the summons overturned, the Environmental Protection Agency notified me that I could not complete the Ark without filing an environmental impact statement on the ‘proposed flood.’  They didn’t take very kindly to the idea that they had no jurisdiction over the conduct of the Creator of the universe. Then the Department of the Marine demanded that I provide a map of the proposed new flood plain before I could launch the Ark. I did the best I could saying that I hadn’t that level of insight into the mind of the Almighty.  Right now I ‘m trying to resolve a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that I am practicing discrimination by not taking godless, unbelieving people aboard!’’

”Only last week I received notification that Revenue were about to seize my assets. They claimed that I’m building the Ark in preparation to flee the country in order to avoid paying taxes. I also have to wait for the registration of my company for VAT.  Furthermore, I just got a notice from the Inland Waterways that I owe them some kind of user tax and I’m in arrears because I failed to register the Ark as a “recreational water craft.”
”I’ve also need a Boat Drivers Licence but they are debating about how to classify my licence as they have no ‘template’ for the Ark. I am getting continual visits from Green Peace, RSPCA, Archaeological Action Groups, An Gardaí and numerous other officials from various government departments. Finally, the Council for Civil Liberties got the courts to issue an injunction against further construction of the Ark, saying that since God is flooding the earth, it is a religious event and is therefore unconstitutional. I really don’t think I can finish the Ark for another 5 or 6 years!” Noah wailed. ‘’To be honest I was going to let the whole project go as a going concern but my bank informed me that the Ark is only worth fifty percent of its original value so I’m stuck in negative equity. The wife is giving me a hard time because there are no more ‘three- holidays abroad’ and she is parking her BMW two streets away from the house as she fears it is going to be repossessed’’.

The sky began to clear, the sun began to shine and the seas began to calm. A rainbow arched across the sky. Noah looked up hopefully. “You mean you are not going to destroy the earth Lord?”  “No,” said the Lord sadly. “I don’t have to; you people seem to be doing a good job of it without my help.”

Source unknown.

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A-Z of settling into 3rd level college

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A Reflection on the Berkeley Tragedy … ‘Who do we belong to?’

A Gathering in the wake of the Berkeley Tragedy.

cross bran

(Photo taken on Mount Brandon looking out over the Atlantic Ocean towards the United States)

DIT Aungier St.

Thursday the 18th of June 2015

Remembering Eoghan Culligan and all who are affected by this tragic event.

Fr. Alan Hilliard, Coordinator of the Chaplaincy Service.

Last Tuesday was a day in DIT that I’ll not forget for a long time to come. My Facebook page saw many students delight in the fact that they were now graduates, qualified to pursue their dreams. Another stream of information that was opening up saw an awful vista where dreams were falling apart.  My own week was punctuated with extremes. On Saturday we marked my own father’s ninetieth birthday. Today I stand with you trying to mark the passing of Eoghan who is a student of this institute, Nicollai, who was a student here for one year, Ashley, Olivia, Eimear and Lorcan. There is not a lot of difference between the  sum of their ages and my father’s age.

We spend our lives trying to live at one extreme; that of laughter, fun, achievement and flourishing. And so we should. These extremes are what we might call the default setting of our age and for this we are very fortunate. However, sometimes the energy required to live at these extremes is stolen from us. Events occur that turn everything upside-down and we can sometimes wonder if darkness is the place where we shall dwell minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day and even week after week. The default setting collapses and we don’t know how or where to reboot.

The events his week are particularly extenuating caused by what Australians used to refer to as  ‘the tyranny of distance’. Families, friends and support are separated by airports, miles and untold emotional barriers which cannot be solved by multimedia mediums. I spent many years working with Irish emigrants many of whom were successful and happy but many of whom experienced loss and tragedy. Some were unable to relate their difficulties to those at home. As a result I watched as people artfully and creatively put other systems of support, care and love in place. Where friends became family and tragedy became a foundation for a new way of living and a new default setting. I do not wish to promote tragedy as away of redefining life; in truth I would love that each and every person’s default position was the one of laughter, fun, achievement and flourishing and I am quite convinced that the God I believe in would want that too.

As we gather today we know that as much as we’d wish for this default position we cannot promise or guarantee it to one another. However we can assist one another as we try to find a comfortable place from which we can begin to view or even glimpse a road towards contentment again. Experience tells me that times like this beg one question; this one question is at the heart of a lot of our struggle in the face of this tragedy today. Those who are directly and indirectly affected by this event ask ‘who do we or I belong to?’ The nature of this tragedy and the tyranny of distance make this question ring with even louder decibles in our hearts and minds. This may be particularly the case for those of you viewing on-line.

The answer, like the question, is not necessarily verbalised but it is being asked and it is being answered. The desire to be with someone or with many tells us that first and foremost we don’t belong on our own. The work of officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Pastoral Care Centre in San Francisco are actively involved in answering this question by connecting those who were affected in varying degrees by this tragedy. They may not be using words but they are answering this precise question; ‘who do I or we belong to?’.  These organisations were and are working diligently to bring together those who belong to one another.

Today’s refection is a small and simple outreach from DIT to those of you who belong here. We remember Eoghan and all who have died. We struggle to articulate how those have died ‘belong’ to us now. We reach out to you physically present, those watching on our live stream and we want to let you know that we can help if the default position has slipped. The services are here for you and even if is only to drop in for a cuppa to the Students Union or the Chaplaincy or if you need to avail of the counselling or medical service please feel you are welcome. For those of you who knew Eoghan and Niccolai you are especially welcome because your belonging here was shared with them in a special way.

As you are aware I am the chaplain here and am privileged to share this post with a wonderful team of Chaplains and colleagues in Campus Life and Student Services. As a Chaplain who happens to be a Catholic Priest I’d like to share something with you. One thing I notice in my faith tradition is that the stories after the event referred to as The Resurrection are stories about belonging. They tell stories of people who felt emotionally, physically and spiritually isolated who were gathered together so that they could feel that they could live again. That couldn’t happen until they felt that they belonged. Whether we view these stories through eyes of faith or with eyes that are not of faith they have a very important message for us. This message is that the journey back begins with belonging. They beg of us to create places and spaces of belonging in this world that are safe, secure , enriching and life-giving for our fellow human beings with whom we belong.  Those associated with a third level institute have special responsibilities to inform the world how each and every sector can place human belonging at the pinnacle of its discipline.

The line at the back of the booklet is one that is often used to refer to those who have died; it reads ‘Life is changed not ended’. If we are honest a tragedy such as this changes us all. This change may even be that we name and cherish those to whom we belong. When we go home this evening or when we return from abroad we may find that there is a difference in the way we engage with those to with whom we belong. A hug or kiss may be a little longer, a visit to a parent may not be as rushed, the coffee with that friend who always listens may develop into a second cup , the person who has been struggling and who we’ve been meaning to visit for a while may open the door and find standing there smiling. In a particular way we hope that through our actions that those who have experienced life changing injuries may feel comfortable enough to come home in the knowledge that they sill belong to us and that we can find ways to nurture and accommodate their sense of belonging. And to those who have lost a loved one let us be inspired by those stories I referred to earlier and let us walk with them at a pace of their choosing.

We remember especially Eoghan and all those who have died. Though we’d prefer to have them among us we live in the hope that their life has not just ended but has changed in a manner beyond our wildest imaginings; where the default position is one of love and joy without blemish and  for ever. May they rest in peace.

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Eucharist – The Vital Life-Source.

This article was published in the February edition of The Furrow, 2012. Please reference the article to The Furrow.

Eucharist – The Vital Life-Source.


This article reflects on the present position of the celebration of First Communion in the light of Pope Benedict XVI’s call for renewal on the occasion of his recent visit to Germany.

‘There comes a point when, tired of losing, you decide to stop falling yourself, or at least try, or to send up the final flare, one last chance’.[i]


During his recent visit to Germany, Pope Benedict XVI spoke on one occasion during this visit to the Catholic Lay Faithful in Freiburg. During his talk he reflected that the church in Germany is extremely well organised, in fact he said it is ‘superbly organised’. He immediately followed on with a challenge; ‘But behind the structures, is there also a corresponding spiritual strength, the strength of faith in the living God?’ He continued, ‘If we do not find a way of genuinely renewing our faith, all structural reform will remain ineffective’. The talk identified the need for new expressions of faith and evangelization, addressed the crisis of faith that abounds and encouraged the establishment of new places where people can give expression to their inner longings.

The question posed is have we any structures or practices in the church that presently militate against a renewal of faith further contributing to the on-going and deepening crisis of faith. This article proposes that the present practise surrounding the sacraments, particularly the reception of First Communion is one such structure in the Irish Church that militates against the focus that Benedict XVI brings to bear on the current crisis of faith.

Presenting the Problem

The hearts of people and priest are uplifted at a dignified celebration of the Eucharist. Positive experience underlines that fact that the Eucharist is the ‘source and summit’ of our Christian faith. However these experiences are less and less common. The Sunday Eucharist remains a source of nourishment for those that attend; other events undermine the dignity of this great gift. At school masses and on reception of communion the reply, ‘cool’, ‘thanks’ or ‘what’s this’ can more readily be readily offered in response to ‘The Body of Christ’ than the reply ‘Amen’. Following school masses, sacristans and priests now check under seats to make sure that the host hasn’t been spat out or dropped on the floor. Funerals indicate further concern. Standing up at the end of a mass for the standard eulogy, people have to been known to thank the priest for ‘the gig’. At such events the manner in which people present for the Eucharist tells of a generation that see the Eucharist at the fringes of faith rather than at the heart of faith.

The programme ‘Do this in Memory of Me’ has brought new energy to preparation for First Communion. However, one might be tempted to ask is it an admission of defeat? Getting those preparing for communion and their families into the pews before the big event is helpful and even commendable but is it not showing how much the cultural tide has turned? For many years culture supported faith in a more forthright and obvious fashion, now less so. In the past one could assume that culture and faith worked closely together, now in certain circumstances the prevailing culture leaves little room for faith and if it does it may remain an unexpressed or inexpressible mystery. One of the most distressing outcomes of these realities is the impact on those who believe and who try to create a positive environment wherein faith will flourish. Seeing something that you believe in, that you love and have a deep respect for treated with seeming disdain is damaging to morale.

The Origin of Today’s Practice

The present practice of First Communion requires examination. Present practice may be an example of a corner that we have painted ourselves into as described by Eamonn FitzGibbon in a recent edition of The Furrow. It may even militate against Benedict XVI’s call to find a way of genuinely renewing our faith. Apart from being less culturally relevant it contains theological inaccuracies and could be seen as a fossil from a bygone era. The decree to allow young people to receive the Eucharist was issued by Pope Pius X on the 8th of August 1910 in an Encyclical entitled Quam Singulari. He argued that a child has a right to receive the Eucharist and Penance on reaching the age of reason or discretion. He deemed that this age is reached in the seventh year of the child’s life. He deplored practices whereby the safeguarding of the sacrament was placed over and above the right of a person to receive the Eucharist. Perfect knowledge of faith was not required however he did state that,

‘it is clear that the age of discretion for receiving Holy Communion is that at which the child knows the difference between the Eucharistic Bread and ordinary, material bread, and can therefore approach the altar with proper devotion’.

And on the issue of who decides whether a person should receive communion he quoted the from the Roman Catechism;

‘At what age children are to receive the Holy Mysteries no one can better judge than their father (parent) and the priest who is their confessor. For it is their duty to ascertain by questioning the children whether they have any understanding of this admirable Sacrament and if they have any desire for it’.

One cannot doubt the sincerity of Pius X. His intention was that the reception of the sacraments would provide spiritual nourishment needed to protect the innocence of young children ‘and who, amidst so many dangers and seductions of the present time have a special need of this heavenly food’. Prior to Pius X, Leo XIII wrote inspiring encyclicals bringing attention to the negative impact of the industrial revolution on humanity. While some may think that Pius X as a pope tried to save the church from the ravages of Leo XIII both, in their own way, were trying to uphold the dignity of each and every human being. Leo XIII, achieved this by calling attention to the dignity of labour and Pius X by providing humanity with the spiritual nourishment to sustain them in the face of various trials and temptations.

The desire to administer the sacraments to young people before they left school was justifiable. A case in point is Ireland. From 1892 education was compulsory for children between the ages of six and fourteen. However, according to the Central Statistics Office most young people left school before the age of fourteen as children were forced to work or go begging to provide for their families as illustrated in James Plunkett’s short story, Janey Mary.

‘Those who did answer her had been dour. They poked cross and harassed faces around half-open doors. Tell her mammy, they said, it’s at school she should have her, and not out worrying poor people the likes of them. They had the mouths of their own to feed and the bellies of their own to fill, and God knows that took doing’.

In his desire to provide nourishment for the Janey Marys of his day Pius X overlooked a theological matter. Theologically the proper order for the reception of the sacraments is Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, Eucharist rather than Baptism, Penance, Eucharist and Confirmation as it is ordered today. The reason for the original ordering is the belief that the guidance of the Holy Spirit is necessary to fully appreciate and celebrate the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist. By lowering the age for the reception of the Eucharist and by also encouraging more frequent reception of the Eucharist, Pius X was trying to restore the Eucharist as a right rather than reward. In the encyclical, Quam Singulari he was specifically addressing the fallout from the heresy of Jansenism which saw the Eucharist as reward for good behaviour rather than spiritual nourishment for the pilgrim journey. We are all too familiar with the legacy of Jansenism in Ireland. Writing in 1912 the commentator W.P. Ryan in his book entitled The Pope’s Green Island said, ‘the heart and the spirit gave way in a sort of terrorism before the priest. In his days of dominance, he did much to make Irish local life a dreary desert’.

A Markedly Different Era.

This is a different era. The cultural challenges are not as obvious as was the cultural trap of poverty and industrialisation in the early part of the last century; furthermore, there is very little evidence of Jansenism. If the present method of dispensing the sacraments is not serving to renew faith why aren’t real changes being made? Looking at Pius X’s original intention is it possible that those who partake in First Communion know the difference between Eucharistic Bread and ordinary bread? Do parents, teachers and priests note a genuine desire for the reception of the Eucharist which is distinctly different from a desire to mark a cultural rite of passage? Furthermore is there strong evidence to show that preparation for and reception of the Eucharist in its present form is helping young people overcome the negative dimensions of contemporary culture which demean their dignity as human beings? Is the way we presently celebrate the sacraments perceived by people as just another of the cultural packages that are letting us down rather than raising us up?

The Church is using the term Evangelisation more frequently and more lavishly. This is not an era to be tinkering with new toys; it is a time to delve into our deeper traditions. Many programmes are looking for a focus. Communities can form around novel ideas which do not last long.  If preparation was moved from its present cultural prison, then the Eucharist could well be the source and summit of the new evangelisation. In his address to the Catholic lay faithful in Freiburg, Benedict X said, ‘of continuing importance is the link with the vital life-source that is the Eucharist, since cut off from Christ we can do nothing’.


Referring to change in a European setting Ulrick Beck describes two energies of transformation; revolution and evolution[ii]. Revolution describes the decisions that are made to bring about change and evolution describes how the supranational institutions exhausted the potential of these decisions. The only hopeful note in this is that the presence of these two energies has meant that while European integration has faltered it will never regress. Church practise is regressing, basic statistics tell us this, and maybe this is evidence enough to suggest that this is a time for revolution rather than evolution. This article suggests that it is timely to correct the errors in the sacramental programme. Restoring the Eucharist to its rightful place as the source and summit of people’s faith is best left to the actions of the revolutionary rather than the evolutionary. Today more often than not the confused cultural packaging is often deemed to be more important than the precious present lying within.


On reflection both Leo XIII and Pius X were revolutionaries. Neither allowed the prevailing culture dictate the pace. They made strong statements and implemented changes which sought to support people’s faith journey.  We need to revert to their wisdom rather than their practices in the face of current social, cultural and religious challenges. Starting with First Communion, real choices have to be made. Is First Communion presently in the right place? Does it need to be celebrated after Confirmation?  If Eucharist is nourishment for the journey at what age should it be celebrated? Should it be more closely association with understanding and desire rather than a particular year in school? Should preparation and reception of the Eucharist be more deeply associated with the vision that Benedict XVI holds for faith formation where people… ‘come to see more and more clearly that everyone stands in need of this nourishment of love, this concrete friendship with others and with the Lord’[iii].

[i] McCann Colum,(2009), Let the Great World Spin, London, Bloomsbury Publishing. (pg. 126)

[ii] Beck, Ulrich and Grande, Edgar (2008) Cosmopolitan Europe, Cambridge, Polity Press. (pg. 45)

[iii] Benedict XVI, Meeting of the Catholic Lay Faithful, Seminary, Freiburg im Breisgau, Saturday, 24 September 2011

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