Subscriber OnlyOpinion

€600 Communion money: Is it just a bribe to get people to keep the faith?

Some 25% of children in 2023 raked in more than €800. A further 10% received €1,000. But maybe we should all just relax about it

It’s a Saturday in early May and our doorbell rings in that way that can only mean that somebody under the age of 10 is leaning their entire weight on the buzzer. Sure enough, when I answer my son Ted’s friend – let’s call him Danny – is outside. Instead of his normal garb (hoodie and tracksuit bottoms) he is styled like a tiny hotel concierge. “Hi Ted’s mam.” (I’ve told him before to call me Rachel but he refuses). Today is Danny’s First Holy Communion. While I upend the house looking for cash since children under 10 don’t typically have Revolut, Danny conveys the finer points of Catechism to our Educate Together child. “So Jesus is like ... the king and Mary is .. our queen,” he finishes vaguely, as I arrive downstairs with the small white envelope and hand it over.

If Danny is like the average child, he will have received around €600 for his communion. Some 25 per cent of children in 2023 raked in more than €800. A further 10 per cent received €1,000. Now that the season of religious cash offerings is once more upon us, it’s time to ask: Communion money – a nice ritual, or a bribe to keep the faith?

Here is where I should probably bemoan the fact that some children making their communions today seem to care more about the money and the tiny Simone Rocha-style dresses than receiving the Eucharist. Despite the fact that my own seven-year-old will not be taking part in any blessed sacrament next year (“how about you pay me NOT to make my Communion?” he suggests), I’m here to say “So what?” Communion is a Catholic ritual, but it’s also a watershed moment in the lives of many eight-year-olds. Money has its place in these rites of passage.

By many accounts, money and religion are not supposed to mix. One is profane, the other sacred. But this overlooks how money is also very social. The anthropologist Viviana Zelizer, author of The Social Meaning of Money: Pin Money, Paychecks, Poor Relief, and Other Currencies, has explored how users sometimes “earmark” cash, turning identical banknotes into special-purpose tokens and cold hard transactions into ritual exchanges. By changing the function or the appearance of a paper note – even through something as simple as tucking it inside an envelope or writing a message – money can be turned into a keepsake, a treat, a gift, or a bribe.

READ MORE

In Germany, gifted money is fashioned into paper animals for weddings and baptisms. The National Museum of Australia is full of Convicts Love Tokens, coins that were engraved by the Irish and British convicts sent there in the 18th century with messages to their loved ones. Communion money is another example. In 2021 a €50 bearing the inscription “To Eve on your First Holy Communion, From Terry” reportedly turned up in a Dublin off-licence.

The Communion is the first time most children receive a large sum of money. They become part of God’s family and are legible to a financial institution in one swoop

Another way of looking at it is that money – an act of faith – is always tied up with religion. There is ghost money, burned in Chinese funerals to smooth the passage of the soul from one world to the next (though American dollars are still the currency of choice in the afterlife). There are alms and charitable tokens. Those who paid attention in Junior Cert history may remember medieval indulgences, paid to release a Catholic soul from purgatory. Early units of account like oxen were also sacrificial tokens – appropriate gifts for the gods. What is money really, the anthropologist David Graeber asked, if not a kind of primordial IOU? Catholicism in particular frames its subjects in terms of unpayable debt. We start our lives in original sin and go from there. Over time, Graeber argued, the state became the guardian of this account in the form of taxes. Some have even argued that Ireland’s moral attitude to the financial crash was coloured by our Catholic sensibilities; one must repay one’s debts. Maybe there’s something particularly Irish about these little white envelopes?

Could it be that there is also something redemptive about suffering to give €20 to the little children (or €50 for a close relative)? Money, after all, is a claim on the future. Money, like religion, is an act of faith. Gifting money to a child is a way of wishing for their future prosperity, abundance, health and happiness. Over time, this ritual has warped into a payment in kind for the hotel, the caterer or the bouncy castle (a recent article reported that a group of Communion attendees received a WhatsApp message asking for the Communion cards to be delivered upfront to meet a shortfall on catering costs).

The Communion is the first time most children receive a large sum of money. They become part of God’s family and are legible to a financial institution in one swoop. Spending and saving is a dress rehearsal for the adult world of money. My sister told me a story of driving from one bank to another with an envelope of fifties, trying to open a bank account and deposit her child’s Communion float, only to be turned away because the banks in Kildare are now cashless.

Maybe this year’s flock of Communion children should bypass the envelopes and go straight to Revolut.

Rachel O’Dwyer is a writer and a lecturer in digital cultures in the National College of Art and Design, Dublin, and the author of Tokens: The Future of Money in the Age of the Platform

Read More

Recommended