Next year, the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, will join the small but growing list of Catholic dioceses in the United States that have children receive confirmation before their first Communion.
“This upcoming year is going to be a year of prayer and of preparation,” said Mary Ellen Mahon, the cabinet secretary for Catholic formation and director of pastoral ministry for the Diocese of Manchester.
Mahon told Our Sunday Visitor that the diocese’s adoption of the “restored order” of sacraments of initiation is part of a larger strategy to strengthen lifelong faith formation. The idea is not just to have confirmation occur around the age of reason — 7 years old — but to emphasize evangelization and continual growth in the Catholic faith for children and their families.
“We’re going to make sure we take our time and take a look at all the pieces,” Mahon said. “We’re not just focusing on the age of confirmation as it is, but we’re looking to connect with people throughout their lives. It’s a womb-to-tomb approach.”
An old, new way
At least 10 other Latin-rite dioceses in the United States have moved toward the restored order — placing confirmation between baptism and first Communion — since the mid-1990s. There is a solid theological reason for doing so; confirmation seals the graces given at baptism, and having it come before first Communion underscores that the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life. The sacraments of initiation were ordered that way in the early Church, and those who become Catholic through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) receive the sacraments in that same order.
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“The age of discretion, both for confession and for holy Communion, is the time when a child begins to reason, that is about the seventh year, more or less. From that time on begins the obligation of fulfilling the precept of both confession and Communion.”
— Excerpt from Quam Singulari, the 1910 decree of Pope Pius X lowering the age at which children should begin receiving Communion
But in most dioceses in the United States, young people are confirmed after a one or two-year religious faith formation program in middle or high school, usually after meeting a service-hours requirement. Confirmation is thus seen by many as a rite of passage for teenagers.
“We find that many people think of confirmation as a decision to become an adult in the Church. Rather, the sacraments are gifts from God and require our cooperation. Lowering the age for confirmation reinforces that God is the one taking the initiative and we are saying ‘yes’ to him. God confirms and strengthens the grace he gave us at baptism,” said R. Jared Staudt, a catechetical formation specialist with the Archdiocese of Denver, which decided to move to the restored order in 2015.
Staudt told OSV that the archdiocese has started to make the transition for students in third grade to receive confirmation before Communion. He said the archdiocese is working with parishes to form a vision to reshape catechesis following the change.
“We need more than a classroom model,” Staudt said. “We have made it a priority to involve parents in confirmation preparation and hope that this will set a precedent for keeping them involved afterwards.”
In addition to restoring the order of the sacraments and underscoring the Eucharist’s centrality in the Catholic faith, diocesan officials hope to change the current paradigm of religious faith formation from Sunday catechism lessons in a classroom to a model that emphasizes evangelization and lifelong formation.
Keeping families engaged
For too long in too many places, diocesan officials said, confirmation has been seen as a kind of “graduation” from the Catholic faith where teenagers stop attending Mass. Overhauling traditional CCD programs in the restored order could change that mindset and help youths and their parents to see compelling reasons to stay involved in formation programs such as Edge for middle-schoolers or Life Teen for teenagers.
“It all hinges on conversion, where and how we build these relationships with families, and having something they can go to that’s good and effective,” said Bill Marcotte, a pastoral associate at St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Chandler, Arizona.
Marcotte was the diocesan director of youth and young adults when the Diocese of Phoenix decided in 2005 to move to restored order. Marcotte told OSV that the shift, in order to be successful, required youth ministers to be evangelizers as well as catechetical instructors.
“If you just do a program and ram it through without understanding where the kids are, without them having an encounter with the Lord himself, then you end up with catechized but unevangelized kids,” Marcotte said.
Marcotte said his parish has a talented youth minister and a director of religious education who know how to approach youth evangelization. However, there are still some struggles with engaging families.
“We’re still trying to get the parents to embrace this,” he said. “So we’re doing a lot of adult faith formation opportunities in the parish and trying to do basic evangelization of the adults.”
Difficulty keeping families engaged and encouraging them to send their children to faith formation programs after confirmation in the second or third grades was one of several difficulties that prompted the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan, to put a halt to the restored order in 2009 after six years.
“All of a sudden, our faith formation programs were struggling because there was nobody in them,” said Denise Foye, director of catechesis and adult faith formation in the Diocese of Marquette. Foye told OSV a big reason for her diocese’s struggle with the restored order was, in hindsight, a lack of adequate catechesis and preparation. She said any diocese considering the move needs to make sure that parents understand what confirmation really is and that faith formation does not stop in the second or third grade.
“We have to teach our parents to be evangelizers and the first teachers of the Faith,” Foye said. “We need to have our children fall in love with Jesus so that they want to know more and continue to grow, to recognize that the reception of the sacraments is a moment of grace and blessing to help us grow in our faith.”
Witness and service
Jayne Mondoy, director of the Office of Religious Education for the Diocese of Honolulu, told OSV that her diocese will begin implementing the restored order this coming school year. She said an implementation team of diocesan officials has been preparing for the move since 2015.
“A revitalized youth ministry and family ministry are the fruits of us moving in this direction,” Mondoy said. “There’s been an attentiveness that we’ve always striven to give in those areas, but certainly now they are prioritized for us.”
Echoing other diocesan officials elsewhere, Mondoy said the move to the restored order also recasts service from a requirement in confirmation programs to an integral part of the authentic Christian life.
“It’s about a lifestyle of witness and service,” she said. “When we think of requiring specific service components, we’re focusing on stewardship and on missionary discipleship, which is more than counting service hours.”
Mahon, from the Diocese of Manchester, said her diocese has consulted with representatives from several dioceses that have moved toward the restored order. Mahon said her diocese has been using their resources and adapting them to local needs in New Hampshire.
“We are really hoping to highlight a new, comprehensive approach to youth ministry,” Mahon said. “Catechesis is a component of that, but there is plenty else to do.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.