The Importance of Discernment in Sacramental Prep

thinking-statueMy 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
confirmation

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.

Comments

  1. Interesting connection with the catechumenal model. In the early Church, candidates for entrance into the Church were “scrutinized” to see if their lives matched up with someone who was a disciple of Christ. Did they still go to the bathhouses? Did they still participate in the pagan festivals? If they did, they might not get in! At the Rite of Election, they had to bring a sponsor to vouch for their conversion and life-change before the bishop.

    Now we’re worried that if we don’t get them while their young, no matter what their disposition, we won’t get them. Here’s the deal though. Even if it doesn’t do anything at the moment, they’re still confirmed. If (when?) they do turn toward God and get faith, the graces of Confirmation will kick in. That’s what happened to me. It’s like an investment. Still, there should be an overhaul of the way we do things with much more emphasis on evangelization and living the faith instead of merely learning the faith. I think we shouldn’t talk so much about discernment until we have in place a curriculum/mechanism for formation that can produce the characteristics we’re trying to discern.

    • I think it’s a both/and — yes, we need to overhaul our catechetical programs to emphasize evangelization, but we shouldn’t neglect discernment in the meantime. Otherwise we’re saying that you may not be ready, but since it’s our fault we’ll give you a pass.

      I’m thinking of the story in Sherry’s book of the guy who, after the Easter Vigil, proudly proclaimed that he learned nothing and just talked sports with his sponsor during the RCIA. That’s the RCIA equivalent of what we’re doing with many of our youth in preparing for Confirmation. Yes, they may have the grace of the sacraments, but they are in no way capable of receiving the fruits of that grace. My fear is that, given the statics showing the the era of “they’ll return when they have kids” is over, they never will be.

      • You make a really good point with the example from Sherry’s book. That is essentially what we’re doing. And, they’re not returning because the grace is not getting activated…except when they join protestant churches because they’re being converted there and they cling to those places where they found Jesus. But it’s hard to deny someone something because we’ve failed to get them up to standards. I’m not saying we don’t need discernment, but I’d have a hard time not giving some special considerations to kids that didn’t know because they weren’t taught.

        • Janine McDonald says:

          I cried last time I met with our parish priest to talk; cried because I “didn’t know”. The ache/sorrow of that ignorance was very real. The admission/confession – healing. But the trust in Our Lord, in His Timeless Timing – A Rock.

          I hear John’s wisdom and see Marc’s point.

          Vital Truth: I was able to grow in my conversion because of the faceless faithful and their prayers – every fiber of my being knows this.

          Discernment = Evangelize – Convert – Pray = Perpetual Adoration

  2. I don’t know. The grace conferred is certainly real… But I don’t like the magical thinking implications of “confirm ‘em anyway”.
    I rather think young people should need to request Confirmation, and hold off on 1st Communion until afterwards. If people don’t get confirmed young, they’ll still need Confirmation before they can be married, and being married in a church still has a draw.

    Ultimately, doesn’t it come down to the harsh reality that we can’t force the gospel on closed ears?

    • While I generally agree, I don’t think we want Confirmation to become a hoop for people to jump through before marriage. The sacrament has its own integrity and value.

      • I didnt really mean confirmation to be a hoop on the way to marriage (although I’ve already seen it treated as such). I’m just so thoroughly uncomfortable with the “sacramentalize ‘em anyway so they get the grace” mentality. Our deacon head of religious education* has this attitude, and nothing will deter him from it, it seems.
        But at some point don’t we have to worry about the profanation of the sacrament? I’d be more comfortable confirming and administering Holy Communion to infants than I am with the current state of affairs.

        * I am going to have a major argument on my hands when it’s time for my son to go to 1st Communion classes. I have no cultural attachment to the current age based model and don’t really intend to abide by it.

  3. Jennifer Fitz says:

    JFS – I agree entirely. I’d strongly prefer that religious ed / faith formation was entirely separated from sacramental prep. Parents or youth (per the child’s age) would request the sacraments and assistance with preparing for them, including suggestions on which classes might be helpful, but that the discerning and conferring of sacraments be separated from the completing of coursework or mandatory activities.

    (–> Nothing at all wrong with determining that for most students, a two-year course of study combined with xyz activities is indeed a great way to prepare. But the moment we put the checklist in as our substitute for discernment, we’ve got a graduation ceremony and not a sacrament.)

    • “The moment we put the checklist in as our substitute for discernment, we’ve got a graduation ceremony and not a sacrament.”

      Oooh, I’m totally stealing this quote — love it!

      Whenever I suggest separating sacramental prep from religious education, people usually look at me like I’ve grown a second head — it’s such a foreign concept. Especially when it comes to schools: I had one Catholic school parent tell me “I send my kids to Catholic school for the sacramental prep.” Makes me wonder what they think the parish is for.

  4. Janine McDonald says:

    Thinking, praying, wondering: What if after Confirmation, during high-school, the Catholic in-formation, had to continue prep inorder to receive further Sacraments – MARRIAGE?! How much true understanding and discernment are applied to this Holy Vocation? Thinking: Knowledge of Theology of the Body???

    Hearing Gospel: Trust in Christ – recast! :)

    • Janine McDonald says:

      I know there is Pre-Cana, but it seems to me that there is a great chasm of knowledge between the Graduation of Confirmation and this other “ceremony” that should/needs to be bridged. Do this make sense?

      Keep them growing…

      Remembering: In preparation for our first child’s baptism the Episcopal priest declared that we, as parents, had to meet with him for several months prior to the receiving of the sacrament – discernment on our(my) part was critical. He only baptized on Holy Days and with the larger community present during Sunday Worship. He had us(me) read a book in preparation. He did his best to help us grow in knowledge of what we were committing our family to. It wasn’t just a ceremony – it was a vow; he took it very seriously, expecting us to do the same.

      During this time of discernment, grace lead me back to Mother Church. The child was baptized almost a year after her birth on All Saints Day in the Catholic faith. Since then, every child’s baptism day has been carefully, prayerfully chosen – to have deeper meaning, to foster deeper awareness and connection with the Sacredness of what we are bestowing upon them in this Gift of Faith.

      Leaving the Church so I(we) could meet this man – our family’s blessing.

      The Holy Spirit works in wonderful ways.

      God Bless.

  5. William O'Leary says:

    I found your thoughts about discernment interesting. I wonder if “questions about age” would actually disappear. Coming up with a process of healthy and good discernment is challenging. I agree completely that discernment is a good idea but it’s hard for me to get my head around how to do that and do it well.

  6. The Eastern Churches grand slam their babies with Baptism, Eucharist, and Chrismation (Confirmation). As I understand it, getting that dose of Gifts of the HS in infancy helps the kids learn the faith as they grow up. And considering the relationship between Confirmation and Pentecost, if God had waited for the apostles to discern they were ready, they may never have gotten that third fiery dose of the Holy Spirit.

  7. Sadly bishops and whole parishes are welcoming many who are known not to even profess faith in Christ who reject the gospel to come and receive the sacrament and with it Holy Communion. This is very damaging to the Church and her mission and witness. It is a grave disservice to mislead our children in this way too. My daughter makes her Confirmation in two weeks I must very painfully decline her request for me to be her Sponsor and stand outside the Church during the ceremony rather than collude in such damaging sacrilidge. This is sadly a very widespread failure in sacramental stewardship. The first and most urgent step we need to take to renew the Church is to be authentic in our sacraments of initiation. Instead of challenging with the gospel we are effectively lying to them sacramentally about what it means to be a Christian. Many want a notion of sacrament for merely social convenience and a party day. It is so urgent, we must do everything possible to raise awareness here especially among bishops. Please help.

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