Friday, 2 March 2012

Catholics: When I was a child

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things" 
(1 Corinthians 13:11)

The second film in Richard Alwyn's trilogy about Catholics centred on children, opening with the Jesuit proverb "Show me the child of seven and I'll show you the man". Indeed, Alwyn spent several months last year in the Lancashire parish of Chipping, watching and listening as a small group of six and seven year olds journeyed towards their First Holy Communion.
St Mary's Roman Catholic Primary School houses only 33 pupils, at the heart of a small community, set against a backdrop of the stunning Bowland Fells.  This close knit area has a rich Catholic history, including Catholic resistance against Henry VIII. The film concentrated on the six pupils preparing to receive the sacrament for the first time, following in an insightful yet unobtrusive way as the spirit of Catholicism was instilled in young hearts and minds.
The selfstyled school-friendly parish priest seemed genuinely honoured for children to address him as Father; he pointed out how nice it must also be for the children who have no fathers of their own, in these days of splintered families. He had a quiet joviality about him, gadding about on his mobility scooter and mixing celebratory Easter pink gins for the film crew. He remembered his own First Communion, in 1943, "vividly"; recalling names of schoolfriends, teachers and nuns. Father believed he had understood Transubstantiation at the age of six, because Faith was something "awesome" to him. My friends' children describe Harry Potter and Gruffalo as awesome and readily accept the existence of magic and fantastic and magical beings. Sustaining the belief can be much trickier. So it was nice to see the emphasis also placed on the essential familiarity of God: the children started their morning prayers with "Good morning God", before thanking Him for the various little things that had made them happy that day. It was endearing to hear what these little children were hoping to sacrifice for Lent, from cleaning the whole house to giving up "everything to do with" a favourite comic character for six weeks. Somewhat more aspirational than the most commonly heard adult repetitions: "I'm giving up biscuits / smoking (again)".

Some of the older children were more challenging, asking the parish priest if God could could ever forgive Satan, if Satan could ever say "sorry"; what happens if someone stops believing in God and starts believing in the devil? The burden of finding the right words and the right tone without stamping out natural inquisitiveness and openness showed on the priest's kindly face. The team of catechists included three local mums. Taking the children through the signs of the cross was achieved as delicately yet as graphically as possible for such little ones; the intent wonder on their faces was at least temporarily tinged with sadness and even horror. The film brought back memories of my own catechism and First Communion. A combination of my parents' sentimental faith and the devotion of the nuns who ran my primary school made it something to look forward to: I knew something special was happening which could make my life different. I suppose many adult Catholics underestimate forget the huge role of catechists and parish priests as children approach the sacraments. I would have liked to see a little more of the family involvement in and understanding of preparations.

Undeniably amusing at times - the soup for the Lenten Lunch looked like "sick" apparently -  I thought the film was perfectly pitched and full of poignant charm. However, it might have made for an interesting contrast to see children approaching the sacrament from a non-rural, inner city and multi-faith background. Although the parish priest seemed indomitably cheerful, painful incomprehension crossed his face when Michael Alwyn asked him about the impact of child abuse scandals on the Catholic church. He finally cited that the devil attacks where he can injure most. This film beautifully illustrated the special, formative trust between children and their Catholic teachers and priests.

1 comment:

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