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Christian Initiation:
A Pastoral Perspective on Restored Order

by Stella Marie Jeffrey

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. . . I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. . . And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. (Jn 14:16-17, 25-26, 29)

And then Jesus was arrested and crucified, died, and was buried.

After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what. you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with F2 the Holy Spirit not many days from now. . . . you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. (Acts 1:1-5, 8-9)

The Holy Spirit came just as Jesus had promised, and the apostles were reminded of all he said. In fulfillment of his promise, they became his witnesses to the ends of the earth. In fact, nearly two thousand years later, we believe now because the Holy Spirit, the gift we first receive in confirmation, continues to strengthen and perfect us. Why wait to bestow this gift? This is one of the reasons that Bishop Samuel Aquila, ordinary of Fargo, North Dakota, has restored the celebration of confirmation before First Communion.

The following is a pastoral reflection on the restored order. The term “restored order” here refers to the practice of chrismating or confirming those baptized in infancy before they are admitted to Sacramental Communion for the first time. As a catechist, I have been blessed to wo4c full-time in the Church for most of my adult life. I began my apostolic work for the Church as a volunte.er catechist for a tenth-grade confirmation class. At that time, I taught the teenagers that this was their chance to say “yes” to being a Catholic. I also taught that confirmation was the sacrament in which they would receive the Holy Spirit. They in turn had many requirements to accomplish, or else they would not be confirmed. Over the course of the next eight years, as a catechist, youth minister, director of religious education, and Catholic school teacher, I reiterated these principles and policies.

My first consideration of the order of the sacraments of initiation occurred when I studied theology as an undergraduate major. In the course of my theological studies, several questions continued to arise. How could “the Eucharist be the source (heart) and summit of the Christian life” if confirmation was celebrated after First Eucharist?1 How could “the Holy Eucharist complete Christian initiation,” if confirmation was celebrated later?2 Why confer confirmation at all? Finally, I was introduced to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults [henceforth: RCIA], and I wondered why the unbaptized seemed to have more privileges than Catholic children: seven-year-old catechumens could receive all three sacraments together at once while children baptized as Catholics in infancy had to wait years for confirmation and Eucharist. The answers to these and similar questions led me to a personal conviction that my children would not receive the Eucharist before they were confirmed.

In September 1999, I accepted a diocesan appointment as the Director for Evangelization and Catechesis, which included the organization of RCIA. On a regular basis, I was faced with the disparity between children baptized as Catholics and children coming into the Church after the age of discretion. For two years, at the departmental level, the chancery had conversations about establishing a uniform practice and perhaps even moving the celebration of confirmation before First Eucharist. Then the Holy See sent us Bishop Samuel J. Aquila as the new ordinary. Confirmation is one of his primary pastoral concerns.3

The Diocese of Fargo soon started consulting the deans, pastors, associate pastors, directors of religious education, confirmation catechists, homeschoolers, and other lay leaders. The question was two-fold: At what age ought confirmation to be celebrated and why? All 159 parishes were represented at those meetings. With very few exceptions, priests and laity agreed that confirmation should be celebrated uniformly across the diocese. Opinions were divided on the ideal age at which to receive confirmation, until the reasons were discussed. In the end, it was generally agreed that ideally confirmation would be celebrated before First Eucharist. Nevertheless, the fear remained that students, once confirmed, would not return for ongoing catechesis.

As part of these consultations, Monsignor M. Francis Mannion was invited to conduct presbyteral education for the diocese. He presented an overview of the history and theology of confirmation, and advised that the original order of initiation be restored. Internally, chancery staff also worked on the details of implementing a uniform practice of preparation, restoring the order, and basically re-catechizing everyone in the diocese about confirmation. Within approximately six months, on August 15, 2002, Bishop Aquila issued his pastoral letter on confirmation, “Send Forth Your Spirit.” This letter stresses the need for sound study of both history and theology: “Important to the development of a common practice of confirmation is the understanding of both the history and the theology of the sacrament” (5). This statement is followed by a five-paragraph account of the history of confirmation and a seven paragraph overview of the theology.

Even a cursory glance at the history of the Church’s liturgy reveals that the most common practice was to celebrate confirmation before first Eucharist, until the twentieth century. But even in the twentieth century, all the relevant ecclesiastical documents — for example, the catechism, the Code of Canon Law, Sacrosanctuni concilium, the text of the RCIA— presume the celebration of confirmation precedes first Eucharist.

Understanding the theology is one of the keys to understanding the pastoral advantages of celebrating confirmation before first Eucharist. Although a complete exposition lies beyond the scope of this paper, a convincing theology readily suggests itself. Paragraph twelve of Bishop Aquila’s letter explains:

The foundational sacrament of Christian initiation is Baptism, which is the door to the whole of the sacramental order and Christian life. Confirmation deepens the grace received in Baptism; it completes and perfects it. The Eucharist is the summit of-Christian initiation and the center of the sacramental life of the Church. Confirmation is ordered to the Eucharist and prepares the Christian to receive and be transformed by the Body and Blood of Christ more fully.

The conclusion, reiterated in paragraph fifteen, notes that, with the graces of confirmation, “the disciple of Christ is more fully prepared to receive His Body and Blood, thereby completing initiation into the mystery of Christ and the Church.” Paragraph sixteen provides additional insights with reference to the sacrament of confirmation:

The grace that is conferred is a free gift and “does not need ratification to become effective” (cf. CCC 1308). The common practice of high school or middle school reception of confirmation could give the impression that somehow the sacrament is merited by virtue of age or training. In truth, the sacrament of confirmation is an effective vehicle of grace at any age as long as it is validly conferred. Thus, those that receive the sacrament are able to reap its benefits from the moment of reception. The invisible benefits of this sacrament conferred at a young age could be of great benefit to young people as they grow toward adolescence and young adulthood.

In summary, confirmation, like any sacrament, is a gift and hence the grace received, both as divine life and divine help, s greatly beneficial. Paragraphs eighteen and twenty clarify, the newly adopted policy:

In the Diocese of Fargo, all baptized persons should be appropriately prepared for and receive the sacrament of confirmation before the first reception of the Holy Eucharist. . . The Church asks each of us. no matter what our age or condition, to grow in our faith throughout our lives. This will entail, therefore, that formal catechesis be given on an ongoing basis both to adults, as well as to all those of school age. Parents have the responsibility to ensure that their children participate in religious education programs from kindergarten through twelfth grade, either by attending our Catholic schools or participating in religious education programs offered through the local parish. Pastors are to ensure that a vital program exists in their parish for all levels, Kindergarten through twelfth grade.

The pastoral letter then provides a section on the persons involved in confirmation preparation, including the parents, siblings, sponsor, bishop, priests, catechists and the parish. A second section treats the preparation for confirmation. Finally, a third section examines the celebration of the sacrament. These two final sections have served as the source for producing catechetical materials and liturgical aids.

The Diocese of Fargo is not the first to restore the order of the sacraments. In June 2005, 1 completed a survey of all the dioceses in the United States, excluding its eighteen eparchies. Diocesan representatives were asked three questions: (1) When does your diocese celebrate the sacraments for children baptized as infants? More specifically, at what grade levels are first reconciliation, confirmation, and First Eucharist celebrated? (2) If confirmation is celebrated before First Eucharist, what year did this become the normative practice? (3) Have there been any discussions about moving confirmation before First Eucharist?

The results of this survey are in the Table on page 252. Most of the 177 dioceses responded via email. Fourteen were contacted via telephone, by which medium they responded to inquiries about the status of sacramental preparation for children who have been baptized Catholic. Table 1 contains a compilation of the dioceses that are or were celebrating the sacraments in restored order.

Currently there are eight dioceses in which all parishes celebrate confirmation before First Eucharist. Seven teen dioceses have some parishes doing so, and six dioceses are in a state of flux. In addition, twenty other dioceses are considering the possibility of restoring the order.

Any consideration of this pastoral change, rife as it is with practical challenges, must take into account the reasons in its favor. To this end, the following pastoral considerations prove helpful when arguing for celebration of confirmation prior to First Eucharist.

1. The sacrament, like all sacraments, is a divine gift, not merited by age or training. (see CCC 1307).

2. Catechesis is a lifetime process. Celebrating confirmation before First Eucharist in second or third grade makes the decision to quit attending formal catechesis and religious education somewhat arbitrary. Most parents know that this grade is too early to quit learning the faith, so they should choose a different time frame.

3. Parents are the primary evangelizers and catechists of their children. Nonetheless, parents will more readily contribute to confirmation preparation if it addresses children rather than teenagers.

4. The baptized have a right to confirmation.

5. Confirmation is not a choice about being a Catholic or not; the baptized are already Catholic. The notion that a teenager is choosing to belong to the Church is false. All the candidate is choosing is to have the strength of the Holy Spirit or not to have the strength of the Holy Spirit.

6. The invisible benefits of confirmation could be a great help to youth as they approach adolescence and young adulthood.

7. Who is more readily docile and willing, to act: a third grader or a teenager?4

8. Why require more preparation for confirmation than for First  Eucharist? There ought to be liturgical and catechetical consistency.

9. Uniform preparation and celebration is beneficial for shepherding a diocese. In Fargo, every parish prepares those baptized as Catholics in the same manner, and celebrates confirmation at the same time. There is also consistency for all those being initiated, whether they were baptized as infants or not baptized until after the age of discretion. In every circumstance, confirmation is celebrated before First Eucharist.

10. For our diocese, the bishop feels freer to visit parishes outside of the celebration of confirmation.

The question is frequently asked, “How is the celebration of confirmation before First Eucharist going?” The short answer is that it is too early to discern the full effect of celebrating confirmation before First Eucharist. Furthermore, I do not know if the effect will ever be empirically evident. We strive and hope that more people may love Jesus  Christ intimately now, but we will not learn the full extent of our success or failure in this regard while on earth.

Implicit in this question is the further question, “Are young Catholics still coming to religious education?” Again, it is too early to know. The transition was completed in April 2005. Fall 2005 marks the beginning of the first academic year under the new policy. During the transition period, some parishes did not lose any students while other parishes lost many students, even into the fourth grade. Parishes with identical demographics have had differing results. The reasons are unclear. The results have little to do with the age at which confirmation is celebrated and much more to do with the faith of the parents; only secondarily has it to do with the parish and the surrounding community.

Restored Order in Dioceses and Archdiocese
in the United States, June 20005
All
Parishes
Restored
8
Fargo (2002), Gaylord (2003) Great Falls Billings (l996), Greensburg (1996), Marquette (2003), Phoenix (2005), Saginaw (1995), Spokane (1998)
Some
Parishes
Restored
17
Est. 75 parishes
Amarillo (3 parishes); Cleveland (10 parishes); Dallas (1 parish); Fort Worth (1 parish); Las Vegas (2 pilots 2004); Rochester, NY (11 parishes, 1995); New York (some); Peoria (few); Portland, Maine (2 pilots, 1999); Sacramento (1/3 parishes in 1980’s, now 10 parishes); Salt Lake City (1 parish); San Angelo (in 2000 some parishes, now only 1 parish); San Antonio (some parishes restored); San Jose (5 parishes of 52); Toledo (1 parish); Tucson (2 pilots, discussing more); Venice (1/2 of parishes, 1990)
Flux 6

Grand Rapids; Raleigh; Sacramento; St. Petersburg; Tuscan; Tyler

False
Starts
6
Amarillo (all 1996, back 2005); Chicago; Corpus Christi (all 1990, back 1998); Newark (pilots stopped); Richmond (pilots stopped); Wheeling-Charleston
Discussing
Restored
Order
20
Conversations in support of restoring the order are taking place in approximately 20 dioceses, some by the bishop and some by diocesan staff. By request, these discussions are remaining anonymous.

from Antiphon , Volume Nine ( 2005), pp. 245-252)


References:

1. Catechism of the Catholic Church [henceforth: CCC], 2d ed. (Washington DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000) 1324, 1407.

2. CCC 1322.

3. Bishop Samuel Aquila particularly manifested this concern in his pastoral letter “Send Forth Your Spirit,” which was published in Antiphon 7.3 (2002)34-41. It is also available on the web site of the Diocese of Fargo at www.fargodiocese.org

4.Cf.CCC 1310.

 

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