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Accessed on December 16, 2017 - 4:33:07

Don’t we need a coming-of-age sacrament?

Katie van Schaijik, Oct 02, 2017

* This is not a typical blog post. It's really an article. But I couldn't find a publication to take it, so I'm posting it here. Its subtitle is: One layman's questions and concerns about "restoring the original order" of communion and confirmation.

Two of our sons were confirmed in 2015: the youngest, then 12, with our parish, and the oldest, then 21, at the Easter Vigil Mass at the University of Dallas. Our middle son, 19, was confirmed in Rome last November, during his sophomore semester abroad. Both of our daughters, too, chose to receive the sacrament while away at school, one in high school the other in college.

The reasons for the irregularity are various and complicated, but they have a lot to do with the clericalism and bureaucracy bogging down diocesan religious education programs today. It’s bad enough in our current diocese that even though those programs are doctrinally sound and staffed with great people, my husband and I were genuinely concerned that making our children go through them would cause them to become cynical and lose their faith.

So, I’m more than sympathetic to the idea that substantial changes to sacramental preparation are in order. Many of my friends, including priests and lay directors of religious ed., strongly favor “restoring the original order,” i.e., having confirmation at a much younger age, before first communion. I’m not completely closed to the idea. But, speaking as a layman steeped in the personalism of John Paul II and attuned to the themes of our present Pope, I have serious doubts. Last year’s  announcement of the “restored order” in Denver and its accompanying pastoral letter from Archbishop Aquila increased them. I don’t live in his diocese, but I want to air my concerns even so, because the practice is spreading. Recently our summer diocese of New Hampshire became the latest to adopt it.

There is a strain of traditionalism (if you hang out in conservative Catholic circles, you’ve come across it) that tends to regard all modern changes and developments as errors and corruptions. It talks almost as if “the way it was before Vatican II” is synonymous with “theologically correct,” and at the same time treats theology in a highly legalistic way—as if it were grounded in books and canon law exclusively, rather than in experience primarily.

Christian experience is ontologically prior to theology. It is theology's proper horizon, whereas the reverse is not the case. Theology, understood as systematic and critical investigation, is in itself incapable of producing Christian experience by its own resources. What is more, theology is born of Christian experience and must ceaselessly refer to the horizon that this experience sets for it. (Angelo Scola, in a 1996 Communio article)

I don’t imagine Archbishop Aquila is that kind of traditionalist, but the tone and content of his pastoral letter remind me of it.

For instance, early on he writes, “I have been charged by Christ with guiding each of you on your journey to heaven.” Has he? It doesn’t seem so to me. To me, the claim sounds jarringly paternalistic. I can’t imagine John Paul II saying it. As I understand it, a bishop is charged with guiding his diocese, not each soul’s journey. Persons are self-determining. We are guided inwardly, by conscience and the Holy Spirit— a point stressed continually by John Paul II, who, preferred the term “accompaniment” to “discipleship” when it came to priests’ relations with the laity. Clergy are not to think of themselves as responsible to “form” and “mold” and “guide” laymen, so much as to serve and accompany us on our way, always with a profound respect for our freedom and dignity as individuals. When John Paul addressed the faithful, he sought to awaken in us a lively sense of personal responsibility. “You must decide;” “Be the protagonists in your own lives!” His favorite papal title was “Servant of the Servants of God.”

Pope Francis has, if anything, pressed even further in the same direction, frequently urging priests and laity alike to resist clericalism. (see, for example, Evangelii Gaudium 31, 63, 102, 104, 105)

We could maybe set aside the Archbishop’s phrasing as accidental and insignificant, if the paternalistic tone weren’t reinforced by the content of the letter that follows. I’ll come back to that. First let me first address National Catholic Register news story about the change

After repeating that confirmation-before-communion was the “original order” of the sacraments, the article quotes Fr. Michael Flynn, executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) explaining the history of the change, which came about 100 years ago.

At that time, St. Pius X lowered the age of first Communion to 7 years old, but mentioned nothing about confirmation, where the practice to administer it at 12 continued. Over the course of the subsequent century, U.S. Catholics came to incorrectly view confirmation as a “sacrament of maturity,” because that is how they grew up with it.

I don’t dispute the history, but I question whether it follows that it’s incorrect to view confirmation as the sacrament of maturity, or that the only reason for thinking of it that way is that that’s what we grew up with. It seems to me that there are much deeper reasons. For instance, it makes intuitive sense. In baptism, our parents profess faith on our behalf; in confirmation we profess it for ourselves.

Years ago I heard a series of talks on the sacraments by lay theologian Scott Hahn that drew analogies between natural family life and the supernatural life of the Church. Baptism is spiritual birth; holy communion is sacred nourishment. He compared the graces of confirmation with the hormones released in the body at adolescence empowering us to become men and women. It was convincing.

Here’s another reason: There is an organic link between Judaism and Catholicism. Judaism’s ancient rites are mirrored in our sacraments: circumcision and baptism; temple sacrifice and Eucharist; atonement and confession. Judaism has its rites for marriage and ordination. It also has one for coming of age.

According to Jewish law, when Jewish boys become 13 years old, they become accountable for their actions and become a bar mitzvah… Prior to reaching bar mitzvah, the child's parents hold the responsibility for the child's actions. After this age, the boys and girls bear their own responsibility for Jewish ritual law, tradition, and ethics, and are able to participate in all areas of Jewish community life. (From Wikipedia)

Note how religiously and morally significant an occasion bar mitzvah is. Up until age 13, the child’s parents are responsible in front of God for his behavior. With the ceremony, he formally becomes a man, responsible for himself and co-responsible for the religious life of the community.

The idea of confirmation as a Christian corollary to the Jewish bar mitzvah makes sense.

Thinking of it as “the sacrament of maturity” also coheres with the personalist developments of the modern period, which the Church has explicitly made her own since Vatican II. Increasingly, the theological and pastoral documents of the Church stress personal dignity and responsibility. The faithful are not to understand ourselves as objects of the Church’s work in the world, but as subjects—co-responsible agents of Christ’s redemptive mission.

In a series of retreats given to young adults in the late sixties and early seventies, published in English under the title, The Way to Christ, then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla indicated that he, too, understands confirmation to be connected to Christian maturity.

With the sacrament of Confirmation we become witnesses; and a witness is not simply a conventional figure but is a person who testifies to Christ. A witness is an adult Christian, adult in conviction, in experience and in fidelity to Christ.

Seven year olds can be true believers, even surpassing their elders in faith and holiness. But they are not adults. Barring exceptional cases, they lack the self-standing to make an adult choice for Christ and the Church. They are too young and too dependent on their parents and teachers.

Which brings me back to Archbishop Aquila’s letter. A prime reason he gives for preferring to do confirmation immediately before first communion is that young children are more “naturally receptive” to religious instruction than teenagers. That’s of course true, but to me it seems exactly a reason to favor the current order. Consider these lines from a short address Pope Francis gave to ecclesial movements in November, 2014 [my bold] 

A further issue concerns the way of welcoming and accompanying men and women of today, in particular, the youth (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 105-106). We are part of a wounded humanity—and we must be honest in saying this—in which all of the educational institutions, especially the most important one, the family, are experiencing grave difficulties almost everywhere in the world. Men and women today experience serious identity problems and have difficulty making proper choices; as a result, they tend to be conditioned and to delegate important decisions about their own lives to others. We need to resist the temptation of usurping individual freedom, of directing them without allowing for their growth in genuine maturity. Every person has their own time, their own path, and we must accompany this journey. Moral or spiritual prgress which manipulates a person's immaturity is only an apparent success, and one destined to fail...Christian education, rather, requires a patient accompaniment which is capable of waiting for the right moment for each person, as the Lord does with each one of us.

The temptation to usurp individual freedom and short-circuit the maturing process in religious education is real. I have more than once heard catechists openly express an aim to get as much instruction and sacramental grace into kids as possible before they become teenagers and drift away. I understand the feeling, but it strikes me as a faithless way to conceive of catechesis, and a demeaning approach to persons. Catholics aren’t supposed to be afraid of freedom. We’re not supposed to be afraid of doubts and questions and independent thinking—not even of adolescent rebellion. On the contrary, our formation programs should consciously make ample room for the kind of inquiry, questioning, and intelligent engagement that older children and young adults want and need.

I would go so far as to to propose that it should be made clear to every Catholic or would-be Catholic child and young adult that the decision about whether and when to seek confirmation is entirely theirs. No one—neither parents, priests, nor CCD teachers—will force or pressure or cajole them into it. Confirmation is a gift, not a mandate. Its graces are meant for those who want them.

In his seminal, even prophetic, work, The End of the Modern World, Romano Guardini (a theologian who profoundly influenced successive post-conciliar popes) stressed that in the irreligious conditions of contemporary society, the absolute demands of Christian dogma come more to the fore, and with them the central importance of freedom.

[M]an’s unconditional answer to the call of God assumes within that very act the unconditional quality of the demand which God makes of him and which necessitates maturity of judgment, freedom and choice.” (p.107, my emphasis)

In a pluralistic society, where young people are constantly confronted with other beliefs and with unbelief, it is all the more important to stress in word and practice the mysterious and central reality that, as Wojtyla put it, “Christianity is a religion of choice.”

Learning from evangelicals

Especially those who have experienced the phenomenon readily understand why evangelical Protestantism and the charismatic renewal have been so effective in winning converts: They have captured something largely lost in conventional Catholic life and ethos, viz., the crucial importance of that personal choice for Christ—the “altar call” moment, when we freely “invite Jesus into our heart as personal Lord and Savior.” Often that moment of decision is accompanied by a powerful influx of felt grace—an intimate assurance of God’s love and presence in our lives. We experience that that grace empowers us to live as Christians in a new way.

So potent is that central feature of evangelicalism that many Catholic youth programs have incorporated it. But, typically, when they do, it’s done in a way that is dis-integrated with parish and sacramental life. It takes place “off campus” so to speak—at a retreat or a youth conference. Why should that be so? Doesn’t so momentous a spiritual occasion naturally “belong” to the sacramental life of our parishes?

Where is the primacy of parents?

Another thing about the Archbishop’s letter bothers me. It’s an instance of a wider problem in the Church. He acknowledges more than once that parents are the primary religious educators of their children, but he seems not to draw any practical conclusion from that fact other than parents have a duty to teach their children the faith. Yet, we know through moral philosophy that duties and rights are strictly correlated. In other words, the fact that we have duties as the prime educators of our children means that we also have rights as such. Clergy and catechists owe us real deference. At a minimum, it seems to me, parents should be consulted about major changes like this before they’re instituted, and encouraged to participate in the discernment about it. Do we think it’s a good idea? What is its theological rationale? What are the practical advantages and disadvantages? How will it affect family and parish life? What problems might it entail? What if we don’t think our child is ready at age seven?, etc.

But there is nothing in the letter to indicate that there was any consultation at all with the laity about the change. On the contrary, what comes across (albeit discretely) is something more like “I’m the bishop; it’s my decision; it’s your duty to submit to my authority.” It doesn’t feel like parental primacy to me.

The theological rationale

It goes without saying that experiential and intuitive reasons in favor of thinking of confirmation as a coming-of-age sacrament don’t suffice if the theological reasons for the original order are compelling. But are they?

Archbishop Aquila writes: “Even though it is closely related to Baptism, Confirmation is more than an appendix of Baptism. It is a sacrament in its own right. In Baptism the Holy Spirit is truly given, yet in Confirmation he is given in a way that completes the graces of Baptism and imparts special strength upon the recipient.”

This statement only raises more questions. How and why is baptism incomplete? Why is it not enough in itself? What is the spiritual need that makes sense of there being two separate and distinct sacraments of initiation? And if it’s all about getting as much objective grace as possible as soon as possible in life, regardless of personal subjectivity, why wait till the age of reason? Why not confirm infants immediately after baptism? I fear the question sounds facetious, but I’m asking it sincerely: Why not also give them the sacrament of the sick, so that the healing graces are present even before sickness begins?

Isn’t it so that there is a “natural ordination” of the sacraments to the human need at hand? Infants need the grace of baptism to be cleansed of original sin and welcomed into the family of God. Small children need the sense of belonging, participation and spiritual nourishment that comes with holy communion. When we commit to a specific adult vocation—marriage or priesthood—we get particular grace for that too. Doesn’t it seem fitting and right that the grace of individual empowerment be offered at the moment we, personally, are ready to take up adult responsibility for ourselves and in the Church?

Perhaps the most persuasive reason in favor of the original order that I have seen has to do with the mystery of the Eucharist as the summit and consummation of our faith. As such, it seems right that Christians be fully initiated before they receive it. But even there, I wonder.  Might it not be—as Pope Francis’ seem to suggest—that we have allowed that truth of Eucharist to overwhelm (in our thinking and ethos) its aspect as spiritual nourishment and sacred medicine? Is it impossible to believe that its wider availability today is not simply down to the carelessness of our too-lax age, but a further unfolding of the depth of the riches of God’s mercy and condescension in offering Himself unreservedly to a broken world?

In any case, while I see that it makes good religious sense for adult converts to receive confirmation before they receive holy communion, I also think it makes good sense for children being raised in Catholic families to receive communion even well before they are mature enough for confirmation, because it fosters and nourishes their still-developing religious life.

The Archbishop says that the change has borne good fruit in dioceses where it’s been implemented, but he doesn’t say what fruit, nor does he offer any real evidence for the claim. We’re left to take it on faith.

There may well be convincing answers to concerns and arguments like mine, but I haven’t seen them. It seems to me the real views and experiences of laymen like me aren’t being engaged at all, which is disturbing.

A different possibility

Here is what I wish we as a Church would consider as an alternative to “restoring the order.” I wish each parish would hold an annual Confirmation Mass, celebrated by the bishop, in which anyone over the age of, say, 12 or 13, is welcome to participate if he or she chooses to and prepares adequately.

Doing it this way would have several key advantages:

1)   It would emphasize the theme of personal responsibility and the reality that Christianity is “a religion of choice,” not merely a way of life we inherit from our parents. We are not passive. We are not just children doing as we’re told, but self-standing individuals stepping forward to profess publicly “what we ourselves have heard and believed.” We make a choice for Christ and His Church, in our own name, when we feel ready to do it. And the moment we do it is recognized and celebrated by the surrounding community as a great occasion for the parish and in our lives as Catholics—the moment we become witnesses, co-responsible for the local church, and the moment we are given the supernatural power to boldly live what we profess.

2)   It would revitalize religious instruction in the parish, since now that instruction would have to be adapted to the needs of individuals at various ages and stages of maturity and experience, rather than a class of children of the same age. I think we could expect that many more parishioners would get actively involved in serving as lay catechists and “fellow travelers.” Small group preparatory study and prayer initiatives would spring up naturally surrounding the sacrament, and continue beyond it—because the faithful would experience them as personally enriching, enjoyable and edifying. Sacramental preparation would be a more organic and integrated component of parish life, rather than a sort of department on the side. Catholic adults would learn experientially that ongoing study and formation is a natural part of the life of faith, as is sharing with others “the reasons for our hope.”

3)   It would ameliorate the age-segregation problem typical of parish life today. I recently heard a talk by a veteran youth minister in which he laments the way youth ministry has tended to isolate teens too much from their parents, and the way parents tend to be too disconnected from the religious lives of their kids.

4)   Youth ministry and sacramental preparation would be better integrated.

5)   It would better accommodate modern family life, including frequent relocations.

6)   It would be a way of responding to the Pope’s call for the Church make a fundamental shift from “maintenance” to “mission.” If we fully respond to that call, it should be increasingly normal for parishes to have to accommodate new believers of all ages.

Of course it would be messy, especially at first. It might even necessitate a pretty thorough overhaul of parish life. But isn’t such an overhaul already long overdue?

By way of summary and conclusion, I propose that Christian experience in the modern period—particularly since Vatican II— gives us good reason to believe that the current order of the sacraments should be received not as an accident of history, but rather a development, under grace, of Catholic understanding and ethos. I have in mind our understanding and cultural incorporation of especially three things: 

1)   The dignity of persons

2)   The lay vocation

3)   The centrality of freedom in Christianity

I hope to expand on those three and their relation to the sacrament of confirmation in a follow-up post.