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 www.archden.org/saints 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!