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by Father Robert D. Duggan

Joe and Mary are devoted Catholics, trying their best to raise their four children in accord with the teachings of the Church. They live in a large metropolitan area where the borders of three dioceses intersect. Because of a series of moves to larger and better homes over the last several years, Joe and Mary have resided within all three of the neighboring dioceses.

Five years ago they lived in a diocese where policy called for confirmation during eighth grade. Their son Jimmy prepared for the sacrament as part of his regular religious instruction class in the parochial school. The school routinely prepared all eighth graders to celebrate confirmation, much as it does with the sacraments of first penance and first Eucharist for those in second grade.

The next year, however, Joe and Mary moved and were quite surprised to find out that their new parish celebrated confirmation at the time of first Eucharist. There, they were required to prepare their daughter Susan at home for the sacraments of penance, confirmation, and Eucharist. Sacramental preparation classes were held for parents only. This parish stressed that the family is the proper setting in which to prepare children to complete their sacramental initiation.

Again this year, in a new parish and a new diocese; Joe and Mary have discovered that diocesan policy decrees confirmation to be a sacrament of maturity restricted to young adults in senior high school. Preparation requires two years’ involvement in a total youth ministry program complete with service projects, spiritual formation at retreats, and so forth. Because of the nature of adolescence as a time of rebellion against parents, preparation for the sacrament involves more emphasis on peer interaction than parental involvement.

Pastoral Chaos
While this scenario is fictitious, the sad truth is that it could easily be true. It seems that the one clear and indisputable characteristic of the Church’s current experience of confirmation is that we are immersed in widespread pastoral chaos. Contradictory theologies are taught as “gospel”; diverse catechetical approaches are embraced with uncritical enthusiasm; diocesan policies and episcopal leadership run the gamut from rigid demands for conformity to laissez-faire experimentation; pastoral practice on the parish level resembles an oriental bazaar more than a coherent vision of sacramental initiation into the Catholic tradition.

An Immodest Proposal
To offer a solution amid such chaos might seem to be singularly immodest. Nonetheless, I am convinced that the way out of this chaos is available to us if we are guided by good historical research, longstanding liturgical tradition, critical theological reflection, clear direction from Roman canonical legislation, and tested pastoral wisdom. Space restraints prevent me from presenting all of the evidence that could be mustered to support my case. But I do offer here a series of assertions that captures the essence of the argument, which, I believe, must be made more in detail elsewhere.

1. Our sacramental rituals have a history that must not be ignored. Christian meanings encoded in ritual symbols are linked to the specific story of Jesus and reflect a particular history. The traditional belief that sacraments are instituted by Christ was a way of saying what still holds true: we cannot tamper with the meanings connected to our sacramental history. We are not free to make of confirmation whatever we will, simply because we feel the sacrament will be more meaningful if it is presented with a different theological rationale.

2. The history of the sacrament of confirmation demonstrates irrefutably that it is a sacrament of initiation not of maturity. The genesis of this ritual of anointing and laying on of hands is inextricably linked to the water bath which precedes it and to the Eucharist which follows. At its inception and throughout its history confirmation has been and remains a part of Christian initiation. It is indeed a “rite of passage,” but it is a passage from baptism into Eucharist, not from childhood into some arbitrarily constructed developmental stage of “maturity.”

3. Restoring the integrity of the sequence (baptism-confirmation-Eucharist) of the sacraments of initiation is critically important on historical, liturgical, theological, and pastoral grounds. The reasons why we must restore the original sequence are not trivial. They embody many of our core values about the nature of Church and sacrament and our understanding of how the sacramental economy reflects the Trinitarian economy of salvation. What is at stake are the initiatory and the paschal “contexts,” both of which are essential to the preservation of a sound theology of the sacrament. When the proper sequence is lost, the Trinitarian balance is upset, a situation that has very practical implications: catechists and theologians must scramble to “explain” just exactly where and how and when one is joined to Christ and endowed with the Spirit. The result is pastoral chaos.

4. Arguments for confirmation as a sacrament of maturity are fundamentally flawed in that they are based on a defective notion of what constitutes sacramental “readiness.” Developmental readiness is a crucial factor to keep in mind in all catechetical efforts, including preparation for any of the seven sacraments. However, readiness for the sacraments of initiation involves more than catechetical considerations. Theological and ecclesiological considerations are of primary importance, as is shown so clearly by the Church’s ancient practice of initiating even infants.

Many arguments for the delay of confirmation until the end of grade school or high school reinforce coercive elements of religious formation and make it “sacramental bait” to keep youngsters involved in programs they would not otherwise choose freely. This is an abuse of the sacraments and reveals a pastoral approach that is morally bankrupt. It is the destruction of all that our sacraments are about.

5. Legislation implementing Vatican II’s reform of the sacraments of initiation consistently points the way out of the present pastoral chaos. There is an overwhelming body of conciliar, liturgical, and canonical legislation, which makes clear that the preferred Roman practice is confirmation restored as a sacrament of initiation. The documentation is immense, making it incredible that it is so little known or so often ignored. The Roman reform envisions confirmation as a sacrament of initiation conferred between baptism and First Eucharist, presumably at the time of First Eucharist.

As a concession to those seeking pastoral flexibility Rome gave permission for episcopal conferences to choose another age for confirmation—in order to accommodate exceptional circumstances. But that permission to choose a single alternative age has been distorted by our own episcopal conference. The conference has interpreted the law as allowing each bishop to set a different diocesan policy.

Pastoral Care
There are, of course, no villains in this tale of shifting confirmation practices that have led to widespread pastoral chaos. Rather, one can identify understandable historical factors that separated confirmation from baptism in the first place. More recently, in this century, when the liturgical reform of Pius X lowered the age for First Eucharist, confirmation at a later age was left “hanging” in some places. We are all familiar with the heroic attempts of catechists and others to deal with such unintended displacement.

But what has happened is no longer a question of making a virtue out of necessity. Vatican II’s reform has called the entire Church—bishops, theologians, catechists, parents, and pastors—to a better, more authentic, and ultimately more lifegiving practice with regard to the sacrament of confirmation. Proper pastoral care requires that we respect the broad consistency of the reform—illustrated in the revised rituals of infant baptism, confirmation, and especially the Christian initiation of adults, all of which envision confirmation as a sacrament of initiation. True pastoral care will embrace that vision of reform and work toward a restoration of confirmation to its proper place within initiation. Failure to do so for whatever reason—episcopal timidity, theological naiveté, catechetical obstinacy, liturgical insensitivity, or pastoral lethargy—will result in poor pastoral care of God’s people.



(From Church , (Summer, 1991) pp. 39-40.

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Phone: (708) 331-5485   Fax: (708) 331-5484
E-mail: [email protected]