The lay minister's advice

Sometimes the institution that tells us that honesty is a virtue encourages us to lie – or risk being publicly damned.

My nine-year-old daughter Sophie will receive her first communion this Friday. The local parish is helping the school in the event. Over the weekend, I attended a seminar for parents; it was conducted by a lay minister of the parish. He made some suggestions on how we could help our children prepare to receive the Eucharist, one of seven sacraments, as Catholics know.

I arrived a bit late for the talk but as soon as I sat down I realized I had not missed much. The minister – let's call him Brother – was only talking about the details of the ceremonies, reiterating only what was already in the memo given to us long ago: time of assembly, proper attire, etcetera. This would turn out to be the easier – and less disturbing part – of the seminar.

Brother was actually elderly, almost grandfatherly, and I thought he was extraordinarily patient to deal with the third- and fourth-graders during their twice-a-week practices in the past month or so.

He asked the parents to go over the list of sins the children would be confessing to the priest. I was glad to know that the confession would be face-to-face instead of inside confessional boxes. If I were a child, I would be intimidated if my first confession put me inside a box, with only a window making the priest's voice audible.

Remember that Brother was talking to parents of different background: Catholic school-educated ones, faithful church-goers, non-practicing Catholics, or at least lukewarm ones. He explained that confession cleansed a person's heart of sin, so that the Lord would not turn him or her away (“para hindi kayo itakwil ng Diyos”).

I found this quite extreme. My notion of God was a loving one. He was somebody to guide you from day to day so that you make the right choices; if you fail, he would be there to help you up – certainly not turn you away.

Brother also said that only the children would line up in front of the priest for the communion; the parents and guardians would go to the lay ministers, like himself. The Catholic Church sorely lacks priests, he said, because they were getting out to get married all the time. One cannot perform one's priestly duties if one is married, because then one would have to serve one's spouse aside from serving the Lord. This makes practical sense.

But Brother had this way of explaining himself with absolute certainty. He ended each sentence with a nod and a smile, as though to discourage anybody from asking questions and to imply that having a different opinion, while it would be tolerated, would put one in the level of a third-grader.

By then some questions had been brewing in my mind. I wondered if Brother would say that a priest having a spouse would be less “katakwil-takwil” (damnable) than somebody who remains single – but who is extraordinarily fond of his altar boys and takes advantage of their subservience.

Brother also said that because of this inadequacy in the number of priests, there is now a proposal to ordains lay ministers to the priesthood. I wondered again: weren't lay ministers themselves married people in the first place? Why ordain somebody who serves two masters to begin with? But Brother smiled his special smile and I was reduced to thinking that a. he really would not be in a position to answer the question in an informed manner and b. the seminar was not really the venue for such questions. We were there to discuss what would happen during our children's first communion – only that.

Before the end of the session, Brother handed out sheets of paper, guidelines on how parents should raise their children. The instructions were in Abakada fashion and were in non-conversational Filipino. It was all nice and wise advice, compassionate, even, if you understood a language fit for the Balagtasan. I noted, though, that the D portion (on discipline) said “aral at pamalong itinatago'y nakasasama sa bunso (sparing the child of lessons and the spanking rod is bad for him).” Apparently these parenting suggestions were crafted decades ago: the Filipino alphabet now goes A-B-C-D, not A-B-K-D, and there are now initiatives to end the age-old inclination towards corporal punishment. One wishes our Church leaders exerted some effort to update whatever it tells its flock.

The most jarring thing in the orientation were the parting words of the lay minister. As we were capping the afternoon, he asked, “at least all of you were married in Catholic wedding rites, weren't you?” The room fell silent, as if the parents, mostly mothers, did not know what to say. Brother explained further. “The priest might ask, and he's a very strict priest.” Apparently some priests go through the trouble of excluding from the ceremonies adults not married in religious rites, because they were thought to be committing a mortal sin. What of children who were products of that mortal union? Would they be excluded from the ceremonies, too? Will their parents be escorted out of church as the more righteous ones look on (and shake their heads)?

Brother had a solution to this problem. “Just say yes to whatever questions the priest asks,” he advised us. He reminded us that we did not have to call attention to ourselves and away from the real occasion that was the first communion of our children.

Excuse me, but did he just suggest that telling a lie would be more convenient?

What if a couple was married all right, but only in civil rights? What if they received the Catholic sacrament of matrimony but are now separated after years of trying to remain true to their vows? What if the parents of the child have legal impediments to marry but are now happy and devoted to each other and their family? What if the child is being raised by the mother alone, and they do not anymore have communication with the father? Are these children any less worthy to receive the grace of communion? The minister did not tell us this, of course, but that would be a reasonable inference.

This reminded me of a baptism I attended in Paombong town in Bulacan two months ago. After the ceremony, the priest agreed to have his picture taken with the baptized child, the parents, relatives and godparents at the altar. Before the cameras clicked, however, the priest asked the baby's mother: “O, bakit wala kang asawa?(Why do you not have a husband?)” Of course the priest may have said this in jest, as he was a jovial one. Some women can just as easily say that their husbands were sick, or abroad, working. But what if a woman was impregnated by a man who has since disappeared? I am sure not a few women have frozen in self-consciousness as the priest announced this not-so-sensitive observation. Granted that she knew she was stupid to fall for a cad, was a woman supposed to lie, right under the roof of the same institution that tells her that honesty is a virtue, just to save herself from embarrassment?

Brother had yet another advice to those in complicated situations but did not want to lie about it. “Have somebody else go with your child -- a yaya, a tita, a lolo.” What about being there as your child receives grace that is the sacrament of communion? I think that's a higher purpose altogether.

There's a reason many Catholics degenerate to being “cafeteria believers,” choosing only aspects they are comfortable with while ignoring the rest of the dogma they find too extreme. Did not Jesus himself say he was like a doctor who was there for the sick and not for the healthy? Did not the shepherd leave his 99 sheep to search for the missing one? Church leaders should realize they need not alienate their members who live less than “correct” lives. It's the fastest way to lose them.