Last fall I had the pleasure of submitting an article to Catechist magazine exploring the pros and cons of the movement to restore the order of the Sacraments of Initiation for Catholic youth. The article is now online:
At the same time, moving the sacrament of Confirmation to an earlier age is not a panacea for the Church’s evangelization of young people. Simply moving up the age of Confirmation doesn’t address the need to evangelize young people — to proclaim the kerygma, mentor them in a life of faith, and accompany them in their growing relationship with Jesus.
When you first examine the Church’s precept of confession, you may tend to wonder at it a little bit, just as you do, perhaps, at the precept of Holy Communion. Once a year seems a foolishly rare reception of these wonderful sacraments. On further examination, though, you discover that this law isn’t too bad an idea at that, both spiritually and psychologically, and we can begin to give the Church a little credit for some sense. First of all, the yearly precept is precept, but the desire of Christ and His Church is that you go far beyond the precept of yearly confession and Communion.
The really big reason for this precept of yearly confession, however, is that the Church knows there are people who have so little grasp of what their Faith is all about that they need this sort of moral pushing around. These people go by the “principle” that if a thing isn’t commanded, it shouldn’t be done. Of course they don’t follow this “principle” in other matters – nobody ever orders them to eat between meals or take a drink now and then, for instance.
It is possible, too, that this precept may have brought some lost souls back to Christ and His Church. The person who has been away from the sacraments for many years often feels scared and embarrassed, a state that sets up an obstacle to his return. But with this precept in mind he will often be more at ease if he feels that there are a number of people going to confession during the Easter Season who, like him, might have been away for more than a week or two.
– Joseph T. McGloin, SJ, Burn a Little! (or, what’s LOVE all about?) (1961)
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.
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.
If we think again of the health of the human body in order to find illustrations of what can happen in the Mystical Body, we shall be struck with another point. It is possible for a body to be free from disease, and yet to lack strength. Suppose a man has had an operation because of some disease: let us suppose further that the operation is perfectly successful so that, after it, he is free from the disease. Nevertheless he will need convalescence before his health is again perfect. For his disease has left an effect of weakness which natural forces will eliminate.
It is similar in the Mystical Body. Even after a diseased member is cured of sin by the sacrament of penance there remain some after-effects. There is what is called the “disposition to sin”; also there may well be a debt of punishment due after the guilt of the sin has been removed. The soul is not a perfect soul, even though it be free from the disease of sin and in possession of the life of grace. There is still weakness.
And just as the natural weakness of the body, after the actual cure of disease, needs to be eliminated by natural means such as rest, careful nursing, good food, plentiful sleep — so also supernatural weakness of the soul, after the cure from the guilt of sin, needs to be eliminated by the action of supernatural means before that soul can be considered a perfect soul.
– Clifford Howell, S.J. Of Sacraments and Sacrifice (1952)
During 1937, in Alicante, a young Spaniard of Nationalist sympathies had been caught while trying to board a foreign ship, and lay in prison under sentence of death. Earnestly he was praying, not for release, but to get confession and absolution before he died.
On the night before his execution the cell-door opened and an old man dressed as a pedlar was thrown in.
‘Get in here,’ said the jailer. ‘Tomorrow you’ll have the cell to yourself.’
The first prisoner lay watching the new-comer take off his shoes and cloak, and prepare himself for the night. Before lying down, however, the old man scratched a small cross on the wall and knelt down to say his prayers.
‘Are you a Catholic?’ asked the young man eagerly.
‘I am. And you?’
They talked in low tones, and soon the young man told the other of his longing for confession.
‘I still think God may grant my prayer.’
‘He has granted it already,’ said the pedlar, with a smile. ‘I am a priest. Ever since the war began I have gone from place to place in this disguise to bring the sacraments to the faithful.’
Next morning the jailer was puzzled to see that the young prisoner, when led out to die, no longer wore a look of fear and strain, but of radiant peace and joy.
– Rev. F.H. Drinkwater, Catechism Stories Part IV: The Sacraments (1939)
Lisa Mladinich (amazingcatechists.com) has written an excellent and engaging resource for catechists and catechetical leaders involved in the sacramental formation and preparation of youth and children. Be An Amazing Catechist: Sacramental Preparation (OSV, 2011) bills itself as “a guide for teaching the Seven Sacraments accurately and vibrantly” and it delivers on that promise.
Mladinich offers a variety of reflections, activities, tips, and tricks for catechists to use in their sacramental prep programs, beginning with some nice reflections on what it means to be a catechist. I especially liked her insistence that “It is a joy for the faithful to pass these truths on to their children so that they, too, might live in loving union with God.” (I may be using that line in some upcoming presentations!)
More specific to sacramental prep, Mladinich has some great suggestions to teaching reverence to children. Proper “church etiquette” is lacking in many parishes, so I was glad to see her tackle it head-on.
She then tackles First Reconciliation, First Communion, and Confirmation in turn. For each sacrament there are plenty of ideas for activities and lessons that will open up the meaning and impact of the sacraments in surprising and effective ways. These include the fun, the prayerful, and the educational. They are also very “doable”, in that they don’t require special resources or prep time.
I do have a small theological quibble: Mladinich states in the introduction that “the sacraments are administered by those ordained for ministry in the Church: bishops, priests, and deacons.” This statement overlooks the fact that, in marriage, the outward sign is the exchange of consent between the couple. Thus, it is the couple who administer the sacrament; the priest witnesses to the marriage. Similarly, while clerics are the ordinary ministers of Baptism, anyone (including non-Christians) can validly baptize if they use the proper formula and intend what the Church intends in Baptism.
But that’s nit-picking an otherwise excellent resource for catechists involved in the sacramental prepration of children and youth.
Like many people my age I made my first Reconciliation in second grade and then didn’t make it back to the confessional for over ten years.
(Of course, come to think of it, my first Reconciliation wasn’t in a confessional. In fact, I don’t think I used a confessional until I was 24 years old!)
When I did make my way back to the sacrament I felt awkward, unsure of myself and, in my normal fashion, probably over-thinking the whole thing. This made me even more reluctant to go. In fact, it wasn’t until I moved to Michigan for a year that I finally resolved to make Reconciliation a regular part of my practice of the faith.
I’ve never liked confessing to priests that I know (which can make things difficult when you work for the Church!) so I turned to the internet for help. I downloaded a good guide to Confession, wrote down the fruits of my examination (my mind usually blanks as soon as I walk in to the confessional), and sat myself in a pew on a Saturday afternoon. When it was my turn I walked inside with my list and guide in hand, knelt down, thanked God for the anonymity of the screen, and started in with the Sign of the Cross.
I wish I could say that it was a grace-filled, holy experience. Truth be told it was a bit of an anticlimax! I launched into the list, read it off without pausing, and sighed with relief as the priest gave me my penance and recited the prayer of absolution over me.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a believer in what the Second Vatican Council calls “full and active participation.” But recently I’ve been wondering if rote participation in the sacraments isn’t sometimes a good thing. Especially for those who have fallen away from the faith, I wonder if we don’t do them a disservice when we lead them to expect that every liturgy, every prayer service, and every interaction with the Church will be a mountaintop experience. Sometimes I can barely get through Mass because I’m so distracted by kids, the lousy sound system, or thinking about what I’ll be doing that afternoon!
Fortunately the sacrament doesn’t depend on how much I do or how I feel. Even when I’m not giving 100% I can be sure that God is giving his all. We need to remind people that it’s OK to be rote sometimes. It doesn’t diminish the grace of the sacrament. Jesus is still really there! We shouldn’t expect perfection of ourselves every time — that path leads to scrupulosity. Rather, we should recognize that, at this particular time, rote participation gets us where we need to be. Better participating in a rote manner than not at all! And eventually, as we get more comfortable and familiar with the prayer or ritual, we can move towards deeper, fuller, more active participation.
Have you had any experience with intentionally praying or participating int he sacraments in a rote manner? Have you found it helpful in your spiritual journey?
This past Sunday, on Pentecost, our bishop confirmed 44 adults from around our diocese at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. As the diocesan director of catechetical ministries I had the privilege of being the œbehinds-the-scenes guy sending out directions, checking in the candidates, and handing out nametags.
Witnessing the Rite of Confirmation is always profound, but I found myself especially moved this time by the diversity of candidates who came forward “ in ethnicity, age, and geography. Some were barely out of high school, others had grandchildren. Some were born in Africa or Central America, others have lived their whole lives in Illinois. Some traveled hours to come to the cathedral, others just a few minutes. Those 44 adults truly represented a cross-section of the faithful in central Illinois.
That is one of the things I love about belonging to a œcatholic (universal) Church “ it not only tolerates, but embraces the diversity of its members. Look at the saints! No two are exactly alike. Just like last Sunday’s confirmandi the saints reflect the great diversity in our Church. They come from Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas. Some died or were martyred at a young age, others lived to be quite old. Some lived cloistered lives, others ministered in the city streets.
Yet the saints also shared a common goal and a common mission: to be holy and to make the world holy. Their lives, though different, were animated by the same Spirit “ the very Spirit shared by the confirmandi. Even in our diversity we are bound together in the Church for a common purpose. We may all serve that purpose in different ways, but we share it nonetheless, for there is
one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call;
one Lord, one faith, one baptism;
one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
– Ephesians 4:4-7