Forming saints in our midst

When we celebrate Pentecost this year, something will happen that people have been talking about since I was appointed Archbishop of Denver in 2012. On the day when the Church celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, providing them the grace to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, the process of restoring confirmation to its original place will begin.

I have decided to do this because it is my responsibility to do everything I can to help every person in the archdiocese reach heaven, to help you become a saint, to grow in holiness. The Church, our families, and our society urgently need more saints.

Under the restored order, the sacraments of initiation will be conferred as follows: baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. While baptism will continue to take place at its normal time, confirmation will take place in the third grade, during the same ceremony as first Eucharist.

When I was Bishop of Fargo and I restored confirmation to its original place, I found third-graders to be very receptive to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Their childlike trust and wonder is beautiful to behold. Many times, their ability to see the truth and to trust God completely surpasses our own, and this allows them to receive the graces of the sacrament more deeply. St. Thomas Aquinas acknowledged this when he said in the Summa Theologica, “Age of body does not determine age of soul.”

There are also important theological reasons for placing confirmation before first Eucharist. In the early Church, Christian initiation began with new life in Christ through baptism. This was followed by confirmation, which perfects the grace of baptism, fills us with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and prepares us to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. In other words, the sacraments of initiation are “are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it” (Catechism, no. 1324). The Eucharist completes initiation and is the lifelong sacrament that nourishes and strengthens us to be authentic disciples.

Unfortunately, the current confirmation process is not consistently forming authentic, lifelong disciples of Jesus Christ. Instead, as Pope Francis said in a 2013 address to Italian young people, “what is this sacrament called? Confirmation… No! Its name has changed: the ‘sacrament of farewell.’”

In the early Church, the descent of the Holy Spirit was an experience of empowerment that bestowed spiritual gifts on Apostles and brought them to spiritual maturity. Christ desires for this to be the experience of every believer today, too.

By imparting the graces of confirmation at an earlier age, it is my hope and conviction that children will be better prepared to live a life of authentic discipleship, even as society becomes more secular. My conviction comes from trust in Jesus Christ and the real, transformative power of the graces he pours out upon every person in the sacraments.

In contrast to this stands our culture, which will teach children to be nice, fair, and feel good about themselves, but will neglect their profound need for salvation and redemption. It will neglect virtue, teaching right from wrong, good from evil, and teaching them that true happiness is found in a relationship with God. But the secular approach is doomed to failure because it offers no help to those who fall short of being nice or good. It does not offer true healing or transformation, which can only be found in Jesus Christ.

“The Lord,” Pope Francis told the Italian young people, “is always with us. He comes to the shores of the sea of our life. He makes himself close to our failures, our frailty, and our sins in order to transform them.” Those of you who are parents are the primary teachers of the faith for your children and it is your task to show them how Christ has changed your life, to seek conversion, and to help them cultivate the graces they receive in the sacraments.

With the gifts of the Holy Spirit first given in baptism and completed at confirmation, the spiritual nourishment of the Holy Eucharist, and the generous commitment of all the people of God, we can expect to see ever-greater numbers of saints-in-the-making fill the Archdiocese of Denver.

To help form your children and grandchildren in the faith, I ask that you read my pastoral letter, “Saints Among Us,” which explains the restored order of the sacraments of initiation in greater depth. Along with video and print resources, the pastoral letter will be published on May 24 at and will be available in your parish.

As we celebrate Pentecost, may the Holy Spirit stir into flame the gifts he has placed in your hearts!

COMING UP: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.