My friend Marc has a post over at his (excellent) blog about Confirmation, restoring the order of the Sacraments of Initiation for Catholic youth, and possible effects on parish religious education programs. I’ve written about restored order a few times, but Marc argues for the other side of the coin:
If kids aren‘t evangelized the effect of Confirmation will be negligible. With little or no faith, Confirmation won‘t do much for them. They won‘t be any closer to staying Catholic than before. There goes that benefit… I‘m the last one to advocate for the carrot on the stick approach to Confirmation. I don‘t like the implications. However, with the culture the way it is, it might be the only option to keep the majority of kids in religious education.
Go read his whole post; he makes some good points and there’s good conversation in the comments. My purpose here is to point out that often neglected in these conversations is the importance of discernment when it comes to sacramental preparation.
If we take seriously the Church’s assertion that the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is the inspiration for all catechesis then I think we need to look closely at what the RCIA says about discernment. No. 43 of the rite states:
Before the rite [of acceptance] is celebrated… sufficient and necessary time, as required in each case, should be set aside to evaluate, and, if necessary, to purify the candidates motive and dispositions. With the help of the sponsor (see no. 10), catechiests, and deacons, parish priests (pastors) have the responsibility for judging the outward indications of such dispositions.
Similarly, before the rite of election no. 119 says that
on the basis of the testimony of godparents and catechists and of the catechumens’ reaffirmation of their intention, the Church judges their state of readiness and decides on their advancement toward the sacraments of initiation.
Clearly, then, the Church puts a heavy emphasis not only on the preparation of individuals before they are initiated into the Church, but on discernment that the person is ready for the same.
Unfortunately I don’t see a lot of discussion on this aspect of sacramental preparation for Confirmation as it is lived in parishes. Young people are assumed to be ready if they’ve taken all the classes, participated in mandatory volunteer work, and written their letter to the bishop. Rarely do I hear of pastors sitting down and talking with catechists, parents, and the young person to ask about their intentions and readiness to receive Confirmation.
Part of this may be colored by by own experience. While preparing for Confirmation in high school I was wrestling with my faith and unsure if I was prepared to receive the sacrament. No one asked if I was ready; I went to our youth minister of my own initiative to have that conversation and decided against participating in the Confirmation that year. (I later completed my initiation in my sophomore year of college.)
If we were serious about discernment in sacramental preparation, questions about the “right age” to confirm youth would disappear. Instead of waiting for an arbitrary date we would help them to complete their initiation at the right time for them. If that means we have to change our approach to religious education, youth ministry, and sacramental preparation, I say so be it. If the studies are right keeping them in a few more years doesn’t seem to be doing much good, anyway.