While many still opt for a Catholic bap­tism, oth­ers are mov­ing to­wards more sec­u­lar and very dif­fer­ent cer­e­monies

While many non- be­liev­ers still opt for a Catholic bap­tism to ap­pease par­ents or se­cure school places, oth­ers choose a very dif­fer­ent nam­ing cer­e­mony, writes Peter McGuire

The Irish Times Magazine - - CONTENTS -

‘ When is the baby be­ing chris­tened?”

It’s a ques­tion al­most ev­ery Ir­ish par­ent will have heard, and one most can an­swer: a sur­vey car­ried out for The Ir­ish Times in 2015 found that a full 93 per cent of fam­i­lies still opt for bap­tism. This is sig­nif­i­cantly more than the 78 per cent who iden­ti­fied as Catholic in the 2016 cen­sus. What is be­hind this dis­crep­ancy? Why does Catholic bap­tism re­main the de­fault, even for non- Catholics? And do fam­i­lies have other op­tions?

Folk­lore lec­turer Billy Mag Fhloinn and his wife, ac­claimed mu­si­cian Muire­ann Nic Amh­laoibh, live in Din­gle. They’re not re­li­gious and they knew early on that bap­tism wasn’t re­ally an op­tion for their fam­ily, so they de­signed their own cer­e­mony.

“Sad­hbh, the first of our girls, was born in April,” says Mag Fhloinn. “Com­ing up to Christ­mas, we met a ho­tel in Kil­lar­ney and had lunch to­gether. Then, we drove up to the Black Val­ley, a beau­ti­ful wilder­ness area, and into the Gap of Dun­loe.”

Mag Fhloinn made two cop­per bra­ziers. “They rep­re­sented our two fam­i­lies, and the grand­par­ents lit a can­dle from each of the fires. From this, we lit a sin­gle can­dle and put it out onto a small boat, which I had made my­self, and put the boat out onto the lake. The flame was sym­bolic of new life, and the boat was an idea that my mam said would rep­re­sent the baby’s jour­ney into the world. It was very mean­ing­ful for us, and it took place in a beau­ti­ful and el­e­men­tal place. We brought a Kelly ket­tle and used it to warm mulled wine for our guests. The cer­e­mony was eco- friendly: the boat was made from straw and tied with nat­u­ral string, while the soy can­dle was biodegrad­able.”

Mag Fhloinn and Nic Amh­laoibh may be in a mi­nor­ity, but they’re not the only peo­ple who want al­ter­na­tives for their chil­dren. In re­cent years, the Hu­man­ist As­so­ci­a­tion of Ire­land and the One Spirit In­ter­faith Min­istry, which serves peo­ple of all faiths and none, are among the or­gan­i­sa­tions which have been of­fer­ing dif­fer­ent ap­proaches.

Fiona Arm­strong Ast­ley and her wife, Ralph Arm­strong Ast­ley, re­cently had boy- girls twins, and held a hu­man­ist nam­ing cer­e­mony for the chil­dren on Easter Sat­ur­day. Ralph is orig­i­nally from Birm­ing­ham and her fam­ily is now largely athe­ist; Fiona, on the other hand, had the same Catholic up­bring­ing as the ma­jor­ity of Ir­ish peo­ple in their 30s.

“I do have a be­lief, but I long ago be­came an à- la- carte Catholic and then, when I fell in love with an­other woman, I be­came non- Catholic,” Fiona ex­plains. “In a way, I am sad that my chil­dren won’t go through Com­mu­nion and Con­fir­ma­tion, but I can’t place my re­la­tion­ship with my wife and two chil­dren into an or­gan­i­sa­tion that doesn’t ac­knowl­edge us as a fam­ily unit. I feel we’d be

hyp­o­crit­i­cal promising to raise the chil­dren as Catholic. There are priests who would wel­come us, I know, but we’d be ask­ing them to go against their teach­ings and it could get them into trou­ble.”

Just what does a hu­man­ist nam­ing cer­e­mony in­volve? Hu­man­ist cel­e­brant Siob­hán Walls ex­plains: “I meet with the fam­ily to dis­cuss what they want to do, per­haps mak­ing sug­ges­tions around can­dles that grand­par­ents could light. We can or­gan­ise a blan­ket- wrap­ping cer­e­mony and, often, par­ents will write some words they want to say.

“If there are sib­lings or cousins, they might draw a pic­ture or give a gift. There are po­ems and read­ings. Par­ents might chose ‘ guide­par­ents’, ‘ good­par­ents’, ‘ odd­par­ents’ or guardian, but most still go with ‘ god­par­ents’ be­cause it has mean­ing for them. I’ll ask them to make a for­mal com­mit­ment to the child. If there’s a mu­si­cian in the fam­ily, there’s often live mu­sic.”

Niall Mol­loy and his wife, Gab­bie Varga, re­cently had a nam­ing cer­e­mony presided over by in­ter­faith min­is­ter Karen Dempsey. “I didn’t want to tac­itly sup­port the church’s con­trol over schools and hos­pi­tals by bap­tis­ing our lit­tle girl,” Mol­loy says. “We de­cided to have some­thing per­sonal, in my mam’s house, to mark the oc­ca­sion. We felt it was more in­ti­mate than 20 fam­i­lies in the church, and we were able to write and say what we wanted for our baby’s fu­ture.”

Dempsey’s prepa­ra­tion in­volves talk­ing to the par­ents about what par­ent­hood means to them and how they will make the tran­si­tion to be­com­ing a larger fam­ily unit. “I have a back­ground in ob­stet­ric nurs­ing and psy­chother­apy, and I talk to the mother about her ex­pe­ri­ence of preg­nancy and what she knew of the baby be­fore they were born,” Dempsey says. “I ask how they chose the name and ex­plore what sig­nif­i­cance it holds for them. In some ways, it is very sim­i­lar to how I plan a wed­ding, but now I have this third per­son in­volved who can’t speak words, and it’s up to me to get the child’s mes­sage across some­how.”

Grand­par­ents can be scep­ti­cal of al­ter­na­tive cer­e­monies, if not openly hos­tile, but cel­e­brants say they al­ways come around. “I did a cer­e­mony re­cently where the grand­moth­ers had a strong re­li­gious [ be­lief], so I in­vited them to do a read­ing of their choice,” says Dempsey. “The cer­e­mony it­self usu­ally in­volves some co­conut oil, anointed on the baby’s head, heart and hands. There’s a sec­tion where the guide­par­ents and par­ents make their pledges to the child, usu­ally promising to be there un­con­di­tion­ally and to sup­port them al­ways.”

Mag Fhloinn re­cently com­pleted his train­ing as a hu­man­ist cel­e­brant. “I love rit­ual and think it is im­por­tant,” he says. “In­deed, it is the kind of thing re­li­gion, es­pe­cially Catholi­cism, does well. Some peo­ple who are not other­wise re­li­gious might still hang onto re­li­gious rit­u­als be­cause they don’t see any al­ter­na­tive. They do it be­cause it is the done thing. But it’s im­por­tant to have rit­u­als in a sec­u­lar world, and we need to cre­ate them.”

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Above left: Niall Molly and Gab­bie Varga had a nam­ing cer­e­mony for daugh­ter Mia; left: Billy Mag Fhloinn and Muire­ann Nic Amh­laoibh sent a lit can­dle onto a lake to mark the birth of daugh­ter Sad­hbh; above: Siob­hán Walls with Han­nah and Dan Boy­lan at a...

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