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Commentary on the Pope's Teaching

by Father Michael Gilligan

In these few paragraphs, the Pope is introducing a change in pastoral practice that will be unsettling for many in the U.S., especially directors of religious education. Although this teaching is but a small part of the Pope’s exhortation, it is important.


Throughout Christian history, the order of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist was consistent. Only in the twentieth century and only in the Latin Rite, was this traditional order upset. Pope Pius X, with good reason, demanded that the Latin Rite promote frequent Communion, even daily. He also ordered that children around the age of reason be given First Holy Communion. Although extremely controversial, the Pope’s edict of 1905 was appropriate and well founded. In accord with Church structure of the time, the Pope gave the order from on high; it was implemented through the chain of command. Nevertheless, it took at least a generation for the change to be implemented widely.

While this change was wise and prudent, Pope Pius said nothing about confirmation. In the West, this sacrament remained in use at about the same age as before, from 12 to 15 years of age. So, to give the sacrament meaning, religious education directors and catechists treated confirmation as a rite of passage, a sacrament of maturity, or perhaps, as in Protestant churches, a reaffirmation of baptism. But neither our bishops nor Roman documents promoted this misunderstanding. As the Pope mentions, confirmation by its nature is ordered to the Eucharist, as is baptism. Both sacraments point to Holy Communion as the fullness of membership in the Church.

About fifty years ago, Father Bernard Botte, O.S.B., drew attention to the incongruous situation of his time, in which Latin Rite Catholics were given confirmation, a sacrament of initiation, after they had already received Holy Communion, the fullness of initiation. Since Father Botte’s time, a chorus of scholars and pastors have amplified his insight. The Church, too, has commended confirmation within the celebration of Mass and enshrined in canon law the age of reason (about seven years) as the time for both confirmation and First Holy Communion. Moreover, a bishop may not refuse confirmation to parents of a child of that age, if the parents say the child is prepared. The 2005 synod of bishops in Rome similarly said that many people do not understand confirmation. The bishops also asked if the traditional order of initiation for adults, as in the RCIA, should not also be put into effect for children.

Pope Benedict

Unlike Pius X, Benedict has not behaved in an authoritarian manner. Rather, the opposite is true. He made arrangements for the bishops of the 2005 synod to express themselves openly. He listened carefully. And he urged that the concluding resolutions of the synod be widely disseminated and discussed. For this reason, we posted some of these resolutions on our website,, in “News on Liturgy” so that you could read what the bishops proposed.

Now, after a year and a half, you have had plenty of time to study and discuss the right order of Christian initiation. Meanwhile, the Pope has carefully edited the text of his exhortation and seen that it was translated into seven languages, accurately.

In implementing this new teaching (new to most of us, anyway), the Pope again does not behave in an authoritarian manner. Rather, first he gives the theological rationale, namely, that the Eucharist is the fullness of Christian initiation. He explains that rationale, competently. Then, he points out that today there are two sequences of the three sacraments of initiation, one of the RCIA for adults and the Eastern order, and one that is only of the twentieth century and only of the Latin Church.

Instead of ordering us to implement the right order, he asks bishops’ conferences to “examine the effectiveness of current approaches to Christian initiation.” The bishops themselves, says the Pope, are to study the matter. They are to determine which order better enables people to see that the Eucharist (not confirmation) is the center and goal of the “whole process of initiation.” In a sense, then, the Pope wisely passes the ball to the bishops, in each regional conference around the world. Obviously, up to now, they haven’t studied the question from this perspective; that’s why he’s asking them to do that. Most of the American bishops in particular have not only not studied the question from this perspective; like many of their priests, they have promoted the common practice of giving confirmation after First Communion. Some individual bishops have studied the matter, such as Bishop Aquila of Fargo, North Dakota, Bishop Corrada of Tyler, Texas, and Bishop Thomas Olstead of Phoenix, Arizona. Because of their study, they have restored the traditional order of the three sacraments. In the next few years, they will be vindicated and acknowledged as prophets.

Just in case a bishops’ conference doesn’t want to restore the traditional order of these three sacraments and just in case a conference doesn’t want to study the topic, the Pope does direct that bishops should work “in close collaboration with the competent offices of the Roman Curia.” In other words, the head of the Congregation for Worship will help bishops appreciate what needs to be done, diplomatically and tactfully.

In this way, the Pope has introduced a new practice to the Roman Rite, with gentility, openness, and with a keen sense of the virtue of subsidiarity. He respects the contribution of the bishops of the 2005 synod and also respects the role of his own congregation for worship and the role of regional bishops’ conferences. Could we ask for more?

Pastoral Implementation

Practically, what will happen? After much brouha-ha, bishops in their dioceses will probably end up visiting parishes to give confirmation and First Holy Communion in the same celebration. Other dioceses may separate the two sacraments, giving confirmation first, then in a later year, First Holy Communion. In both cases, the textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods will have to be corrected.

Another point is also to be part of that catechesis. First Holy Communion has meaning especially inasmuch as it is a family celebration, as the Pope points out, and especially inasmuch as it is the first of many times a child receives Communion at Sunday Mass. It is that faithful, repeated, regular participation on Sunday Communion that fully initiates the Christian. So, receiving First Holy Communion on Saturday morning is not, strictly speaking, First Holy Communion. Rather, when the child begins to receive Communion at Sunday Mass, when a lifelong habit is begun, then and only then is initiation fulfilled. Confirmation catechesis will be not primarily about confirmation but primarily about Sunday Mass and the Sunday gathering at the Church.

Link back to Pope Benedict XVI Exhortation.


(Reprinted from Parish Liturgy, July-September, 2007, pp. 5-7, 37).

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