When the Archdiocese of Denver and the Diocese of Honolulu this spring announced young people would begin to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation before that of first Communion, they brought the total number of U.S. archdioceses and dioceses returning to what the Church calls “the “restored order of the sacraments” to 10.
This restored order marks a significant shift from the way most American Catholics traditionally have prepared for confirmation, a process which typically included a year or two of formation, some sort of retreat and a certain number of community service hours.
But this familiar practice doesn’t actually have anything to do with the sacrament, proponents of restored order say. Rather, confirmation is supposed to a baptismal sacrament and should be the second of the three sacraments of initiation: baptism, followed by confirmation and concluding with holy Communion.
That’s the way the Catechism of the Catholic Church orders them, that’s the way it was done in the early Church, and that’s the way it is done for those who enter the Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, said Msgr. Kevin Irwin, a professor of sacramental theology and liturgical studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
As a sacrament, confirmation is not something to be earned, Msgr. Irwin said, calling into question the need for written reports and service hours, as valuable as those things might be on their own terms.
“A sacrament is a gift from God given through the Church,” he said. “You can’t stand there and say you earned it.”
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the sacraments of Christian initiation — baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist — lay the foundations of every Christian life. ... The faithful are born anew by baptism, strengthened by the Sacrament of Confirmation, and receive in the Eucharist the food of eternal life” (No. 1212). The Catechism goes on to say that, “The holy Eucharist completes our Christian initiation” (No. 1322).
As such, confirmation can rightly be seen as a step toward the Eucharist, which signifies full communion with the Church and is meant to be continued for the rest of a Catholic’s life, Msgr. Irwin said.
If confirmation, like all sacraments, brings special graces to the recipient, then there is no good reason to delay those graces until adolescence, said Scott Elmer of the Archdiocese of Denver.
“As the shepherd of the archdiocese, Archbishop (Samuel) Aquila wants to provide the most sacramental graces to the most people he can.”
Archbishop Aquila announced in May that all parishes will confirm children before their first holy Communion within the next five years. In doing so, the shepherd of Denver is repeating a change he made in 2002 in the Diocese of Fargo, North Dakota, where he previously served as bishop.
As the Archdiocese of Denver’s parish support specialist, Elmer is the point person for working with parishes as they figure out how to make the change. So far, he said, it hasn’t been a tough sell.
“What parent doesn’t want more graces for their children?” he said. “Children today have a lot of challenges.”
Elsewhere, though, the shift hasn’t been as easy. Denise Foye, director of faith formation in the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan, said that returning to a restored order of sacraments makes good theological sense, but when the diocese adopted the practice more than 10 years ago, “it was a pastoral disaster.”
Many parents did not continue to bring their children to faith formation after they received confirmation and first Communion, and, in some cases, whole families stopped coming to Mass.
There was, perhaps, not enough catechesis about the theological underpinnings of the change with the priests of the diocese or with the laity, she said.
“In reality, (moving to restored order) is a huge paradigm shift for laypeople.”
After a diocesan survey got a more than 90 percent response rate, with opinions from strongly positive to strongly negative, then-Marquette Bishop Alexander Sample (now archbishop of Portland, Oregon) decided to return confirmation to 11th grade, where it had been before.
“Unfortunately, we’ve really gotten into a culture where confirmation is seen as a graduation,” Foye said.
Elmer acknowledged that making the change could be a “logistical nightmare” in large dioceses and archdioceses and added that their ordinaries might want to see more fruits of the effort before making a change.
The roots of the sacramental timing most Americans have grown up with stem from the 1910 decree by Pope Pius X, Quam Singulari Christus Amore (“How Special Christ’s Love”), which said Communion should not be delayed beyond when a child reaches the age of reason. U.S. dioceses complied, but they did not bring confirmation forward with it. Throughout the following century, American Catholics developed a rational for introducing confirmation later, including giving it significance as an adolescent rite of passage.
But, said Msgr. Irwin, it was never meant to be that and is never referred to as such in the Catechism. What’s more, said Michael Lovette-Colyer, assistant vice president of university ministry at the University of San Diego, it hasn’t been used that way in many other countries, including those that are sending many Catholic immigrants to the United States, such as Mexico. When it comes time for their children to receive Communion, many such immigrants are confused about why they haven’t been confirmed first, he said.
In his April letter to the faithful of the Diocese of Honolulu, Bishop Larry Silva explained his reasoning for implementing the restored order.
“Some may point out that we have been doing what we are doing for 100 years, so why change now?” he wrote. “The reason is simple: What we are doing is not working very well. Confirmation is often experienced more as a graduation from the Church than as a free gift of God’s grace.”
Joe Paprocki, a Chicago-based catechist and national consultant for faith formation for Loyola Press, said that for many teens while confirmation is meaningful, “the majority of young people” leave the Church following the reception of the sacrament.
“Something is truly not working,” he said. “We have to rise to the challenge of helping families to recognize faith formation as a lifelong experience. Being fully initiated should mean not only coming to the Eucharist but also being mobilized to go forth and be Eucharist for others by being of service — participating in the mission of the Church to the world.”
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.