Apr 24, 2012

Witness and Mission - some thoughts on Confirmation

"Come, follow me"
This past Easter Vigil, when it was time for our new Catholics to receive their first Eucharist, one of the adults who had been baptized and confirmed came forward, hands open properly to receive the Host and rather than say the usual “Amen” in response to the words, “Body of Christ,” she excitedly exclaimed, “Yay!!” “Yay” to Christ and “Yay” to the Church.  I loved her spontaneity and sincere gratitude for what had just happened in her life and that of her two children who had also been baptized with her. One very grateful husband/father as well.  

During the Easter season those sacraments continue and in particular the reception of First Communion by our children and that of Confirmation by our high school youth. While both are given to decidedly different generations of young Catholics each have a direct relationship to each other that is made clear during the Easter Vigil and the RCIA process but I think has gotten to be sadly confused.  In particular, I wanted to share some thoughts on Confirmation.

Back in the late 1970’s when I was ordained and continuing into the 80’s, it seemed most typical to wait until the later high school years to offer Confirmation.  We heard such things as, “Now, you are an adult Christian.”  Or, “Now you ‘confirm’ your faith in the Church.” Or, “Now you can make the choice you couldn’t make in Baptism.” I know because I was saying them as well.

So, we waited typically until our youth reached Junior and Senior year of High School, as if they had nothing else on their minds at that age. It was assumed the maturity level was greater, as it is, and the sacramental life of the Church could be understood more deeply by a 17 or 18 year old.  

However, the vast majority of High School Juniors and Seniors are thinking about sports, games, proms, dating, College and of course Graduation.  It’s not good or bad it’s just the way life is when you’re 17 and 18, typically. Many youth at that age are not regular Church goers and often have not celebrated Reconciliation since their first communion or at least not for a few years.

In some extreme cases they came kicking and screaming or not at all to Confirmation prep classes. Yet, since their parents felt it was their decision it might be better to let them wait if they “are not ready” for Confirmation– if ever.  Most however, while they attended the preparation sessions, often came reluctantly.   The prevailing sense, unspoken for the most part, was to just fulfill this Church requirement and then I can be on my way.  So, whether we wanted it to be or not (certainly not) Confirmation was perceived as a kind of Church graduation that paralleled their High School graduation. 

The vast majority of Youth Group programs, at least in the older high school years, were Confirmation preparation programs.  I personally always felt that we need to find a better way.

It seems today, we’ve learned a lesson about the value of our history and more and more we are hearing about a return to the original order of the three Sacraments of Initiation:  Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist – to be received in that order, as we see so beautifully done during the Easter Vigil.

This leaves the Church, and our Bishops in particular, with some challenges.  Do we wait until high school years to offer First Communion if one is to receive Confirmation before Eucharist?  Of course not.  St. Pope Pius X would not be pleased since he lowered the age of First Eucharist to about seven and I think there would be a sort of Catholic revolution if we suddenly took First Communion away from our children.

So, the other logical, historical and theological choice is to return the Sacrament of Confirmation to its more proper place, closer to Baptism to more clearly respect the relationship between Baptism and Confirmation. It’s our theology after all so it might be good to show it well.

What we are beginning to hear is a return to the ancient order, and that of the Eastern Church, of children being confirmed at the time of their first communion.  In some cases, there are Dioceses in the Country where the local Bishop comes to the parish celebrations of First Communion and Confirms the Children who then receive Eucharist at the same ceremony after being Confirmed. 

While asking the local Bishop to travel to each parish may be easier in smaller Dioceses, generally I can imagine the good Bishop saying it would be impossible for him to visit individual parishes for First Communion celebrations. 

Each Bishop has the authority to decide what is best for his Diocese in this regard but if the age of Confirmation would be lowered and offered closer to the time of Baptism, say somewhere between the ages of 10 -14, it would make sense not only from a practical perspective but more importantly from an historical and theological view.

As the Catholic Catechism states: “The reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace.  For by the sacrament of Confirmation, the baptized are more perfectly bound to the church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit . . .” (CC 1285).   If an infant is baptized why would we wait 17 or 18 years for the “completion of baptismal grace?”

I think the RCIA has been a true gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church and I feel it offers a model for further restructuring in the order of these sacraments for the good of the larger community, the life of the Church as a whole.   

So, what happens to the Youth Programs and Confirmation? Some youth ministers are concerned if the age of Confirmation is lowered then the students wouldn’t come to the youth activities.  What would be their incentive if they are already Confirmed?

Two words that I think our Youth could resonate with:  Witness and Mission. Our Youth programs should be such that they build upon the fullness of initiated Christian Catholic life in the Church and what that now means for our youth in their High School and future Adult years.  It would not be, “Life after Confirmation” but maybe “Life, because of Confirmation.” A ton of Catholic traditions, practices, history and theology are now at their doorstep.

How can I witness to my faith with the grace the Holy Spirit has offered me? What does it mean for me to be a Catholic in this world today? How and where can I share in the mission of the Church, the mission of Christ, which is my mission as a Catholic today, already baptized, confirmed, and in the strength of the Eucharist?

What about my life choices and moral compass?  Where am I being called – Vocation? What is the moral framework that should guide my life?

Witness and Mission I think would ring loud as a challenge to our Youth who have received the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives during their formative years and now seek a deeper awareness of that Spirit as they move out into a world of freedom and independence.

Just some thoughts on this.