Ressourcement for Confirmation

A theological case for restored order Confirmation

This article was originally published in The Sower and is reproduced here by permission.

The Second Vatican Council called for a “ressourcement” (a return to the sources) for the sacraments of initiation, particularly in its call for the restoration of the baptismal catechumenate, carried out in the RCIA process.1 Part of this renewal includes the return to the traditional order for the conferring of the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and then the Eucharist. Though this original order of conferring was restored within RCIA, the order that arose later on of Baptism, Eucharist, and then Confirmation continued to be practiced within the regular process for the initiation of children.2 Attention has recently and very prominently been placed on the movement to restore the ancient order for the reception of the sacraments of initiation during an ad limina visit of US Bishops with the Holy Father. After meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Samuel Aquila expressed the Holy Father’s personal approval of Aquila’s restoration of the order of the sacraments of initiation: “I was very surprised in what the Pope said to me, in terms of how happy he was that the sacraments of initiation have been restored to their proper order of baptism, confirmation then first Eucharist.” The Holy Father also asked if he had “begun to speak to other bishops about this.”3 These comments by the Holy Father indicate that the time may be ripe for a ressourcement for Confirmation, specifically in the reordering of the sacraments on initiation, and the way in which Confirmation preparation is practiced. I will offer some theological reflections on reasons why this change is important for the Church.

1. The unity of the sacraments of initiation
First, I would like to emphasize that the traditional order of the sacraments of initiation until recently has always been baptism, Confirmation, and then Communion. The Code of Canon Law (842 § 2) makes clear that “the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and the Most Holy Eucharist are so interrelated that they are required for full Christian initiation.” This interrelation ties the three sacraments so closely together that they can be seen as one initiation into the life of Christ in the Church, “whose unity,” the Catechism enjoins, “must be safeguarded” (§1285). This is the reason why all three are bestowed at one time even upon children in the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church and upon adults in the Latin rite after the completion of RCIA. Though restored order Confirmation does not confer all three sacraments at the same time, it does draw them closer together by conferring Confirmation closer to baptism and simultaneously with the Eucharist.

2. The logical progression of the sacraments of initiation
The Eucharist is the consummation of the sacraments of initiation and the very “source and summit of the Christian life.”4 Confirmation should follow baptism, because it is understood as a completion specifically of baptismal grace. The Catechism states that “it must be explained to the faithful that the reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace.”5 After baptismal grace is strengthened, the next and final step of initiation is entering into communion with Christ, which most perfectly anticipates the eternal vocation of union with God in the beatific vision. The first two sacraments lay the ground for and enable the union with Christ that is found most fully in the Eucharist (the only Sacrament, which is Christ Himself, and is therefore the greatest sacrament). Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that “the Eucharist is, as it were, the consummation of the spiritual life, and the end of all the sacraments … for by the hallowings of all the sacraments preparation is made for receiving or consecrating the Eucharist.”6 Therefore, having received Confirmation, the first communicant will approach our Lord strengthened by the grace of the Holy Spirit, which will aid in making a more perfect reception.

3. The Church teaches that Confirmation should be conferred at a young age
The Code of Canon Law even today stipulates that the appropriate time for confirmation is at the age of discretion (about age 7), which is when First Communion is normally practiced today. Canon Law establishes that “the sacrament of confirmation is to be conferred on the faithful at about the age of discretion unless the conference of bishops determines another age” (§891). The last part of this quotation explains how the age has moved in the United States. There has been a pastoral decision by many bishops to move the age of Confirmation to adolescence. The teaching on the age of discretion as the appropriate age, however, is also affirmed by the Catechism in paragraph 1307. Therefore, lowering the age of Confirmation would simply be in accord with Church teaching.

4. Confirmation as bestowing spiritual maturity, which does not require physical maturity
Confirmation is defined as a sacrament which “impresses a character and by it the baptized, continuing on the path of Christian initiation, are enriched by the gift of the Holy Spirit and bound more perfectly to the Church; it strengthens them and obliges them more firmly to be witnesses to Christ by word and deed and to spread and defend the faith” (Code, Can. 879). There are two essential elements stemming from this definition. The first is a permanent imprint on the soul (a character), which completes and strengthens the grace bestowed at Baptism. The recipient of the Confirmation sacramental is fully initiated into the sacramental life of the Church and, furthermore, is strengthened by the grace of the Holy Spirit who works within the soul in His seven gifts.

The second element shows the ordering  of this grace toward the active role that every Christian must undertake to witness, defend, and spread the faith. The interior life of grace is meant to lead to a mature outward manifestation. It is on account of this second element that many have desired to move the sacrament to adolescence so that the recipient may be more readily disposed to fulfill the outward duties of the sacrament. We hear this sentiment expressed in the common definition of Confirmation as “becoming an adult in the Church.” The Catechism cautions against interpreting this adulthood too literally. It states:

“Although Confirmation is sometimes called the ‘sacrament of Christian maturity,’ we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth, or forget that the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need ‘ratification’ to become effective. St. Thomas reminds us of this: ‘Age of body does not determine age of soul. Even in childhood man can attain spiritual maturity: as the book of Wisdom says: ‘For old age is not honored for length of time, or measured by number of years’ (Wis 4:8). Many children, through the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood.”‘7

Confirmation does not require an adult decision to join officially the Church; it is rather God’s grace binding the recipient more fully to Christ and the Church. In regards to spreading and defending the Church at a young age, the quote from Aquinas affirms that children have done so, but even if this was impossible due to age, the grace to do so would be present and ready when the opportunity arose (as happens with baptismal grace).

5. Need for grace at an earlier age
The reception of the strengthening and maturing grace of the Holy Spirit at a younger age will give children greater courage and guidance in facing the ever increasing difficulties of living a Christian life. Waiting another five or even ten years to receive this grace unnecessarily deprives one of the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is so vital for spiritual growth and maturity. Initiating children into a deeper relationship with the Holy Spirit at a younger age could (and should) be a stimulus for a deeper prayer life, greater participation in the life of the Church, and the formation of virtue.

6. The creation of obstacles
The next point is similar to the previous one. Confirmation is essentially a sacrament of docility to the Holy Spirit. The gifts are dispositions, which allow the Spirit to act in and through us.8 In order for the grace of the sacrament to be operative in the life of the one receiving it, it is necessary that obstacles opposed to this grace be removed. Many obstacles to the reception of the grace of the sacrament (even if they do not impede the imposition of the character on the soul) arise in the teenage years: vices, sins, and other bad habits and dispositions, picked up at an ever earlier age, and also the general lack of respect for authority, religion, and tradition.

Speaking of the reception of the character and grace in baptism (though it applies equally to Confirmation) and the hindrance of insincerity, Aquinas states: “When a man is baptized, he receives the character, which is like a form; and he receives in consequence its proper effect, which is grace whereby all his sins are remitted. But this effect is sometimes hindered by insincerity. Wherefore, when this obstacle is removed by Penance, Baptism forthwith produces its effect.”9 Therefore, insincerity, which means approaching the sacrament without the right disposition or without removing impediments, hinders the reception of the grace of the sacrament. Receiving confirmation at an earlier age makes it more likely that a docile spirit will be found in the child and also that serious impediments will not yet have been formed.

7. Improper catechetical approach
Finally, placing confirmation at a later age has created a catechetical environment that uses Confirmation as an incentive to keep children active in the parish catechetical program. While it is important to keep children engaged, rather than providing a dynamic program, it becomes too easy to simply use the sacrament primarily as a means to ensure participation at parish events.10 This creates the wrong attitude toward the sacrament, which is seen as a “hoop to jump through” and often as a graduation ceremony. Confirmation preparation is also being used as a last attempt to fill all of the catechetical gaps that have not been addressed during previous years (either because there has been no participation since first communion or because the program itself has been ineffective). This gives Confirmation programs a lack of focus without sustained catechetical treatment of the Holy Spirit, the actual sacrament of Confirmation, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit (all of which are normally treated in passing). Confirmation preparation attempts to accomplish too many things, if not everything, while it should be more of a focused time of catechetical and spiritual formation oriented toward coming to know the Holy Spirit and how to be docile to Him.

Conclusion
Restoring the order of the sacraments of initiation can serve as an opportunity for a twofold renewal in catechesis. First, it will restore the proper spiritual dynamism intrinsic to the sacraments themselves: Confirmation completes Baptism and both of them point toward the Eucharist as their consummation. Secondly, it can provide an opportunity for a renewal of Confirmation programs. The Catechism speaks of the proper focus needed for these programs:

“Preparation for Confirmation should aim at leading the Christian toward a more intimate union with Christ and a more lively familiarity with the Holy Spirit – his actions, his gifts, and his biddings – in order to be more capable of assuming the apostolic responsibilities of Christian life.”11 Rather than exclusively focusing on general content, Confirmation preparation needs to make possible the formation of a deeper relationship with Christ and also especially with the Holy Spirit. It needs greater focus, expounding in much greater depth on the realities associated with Confirmation, and must create opportunities for moral and spiritual growth to complement what is learned.

Certainly this process will present certain challenges for parishes. Catechetical programs will have to reevaluate their structure and focus more on Christian discipleship: living out the sacraments of initiation within the life of the community. They must serve as a means of learning how to live the Christian life. This is a great opportunity for the reinvigoration of catechesis. Rather than keeping children within the catechumenate for a long period of time (basically keeping children in a prolonged stage of incompletion), catechetical programs should rather take their bearings from the mystagogical stage of catechesis, deepening the understanding and expression of what has been received. If parishes can effectively overcome the obstacle of reorganization, restored order Confirmation may be an important part of catechetical renewal, bringing about a ressourcement of the way this Sacrament is conferred and hopefully also in the way in which it is received.


R. Jared Staudt, Ph.D. is Coordinator of the Catholic Studies Program at the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served as a Director of Religious Education in two parishes, taught at the Augustine Institute in Denver for five years, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova el Vetera. His main interests are on the relation of faith and culture and the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. He and his wife Anne have five children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

 

Notes

  1. 1.) C.f. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 64.
  2. 2.) For the history of how Confirmation gradually separated from Baptism and First Holy Communion, see .J.D.C. Fisher, Confirmation Then and Now (Chicago/Mundelein, Illinois: Hillenbrand Books, 2005).
  3. 3.) David Kerr, ”Bishop Aquila Receives Pope’s Praise for Reordering Sacraments,” Catholic News Agency, March 8, 2012. See also Archbishop Aquila’s excellent explanation of restored order confirmation in his pastoral letter, Send Forth Your Spirit (August 15, 2002).
  4. 4.) CCC, 1324, quoting Lumen Gentium, II.
  5. 5.) CCC, 1285.
  6. 6.) Summa Theologiae (ST), 111, q. 73, a. 3.
  7. 7.) CCC, 1308, quoting Summa Theologiae, III, q. 72, a. 8, ad 2. Examples of childhood holiness, even before the age of discretion, have been given to us by God in great numbers, affirming Aquinas’ assertion. Ellen Organ (Little Nellie of Holy God) is one example. She died in 1908 at the age of 5. She received permission to receive the Holy Eucharist from her bishop, which in part inspired Pope Pius X to lower the age for first Holy Communion.
  8. 8.) ST, l-11, q. 68.
  9. 9.) ST, IIT,q.69,a. IO.
  10. 10.) Though this sounds harsh, I say it with great understanding, having run two Confirmation programs and desperately trying to keep everyone involved. It is part of the nature of trying to engage teenagers and their parents, who are many times not practicing the faith. Nevertheless, this modus operandi is not the ideal climate for running such a spiritually significant program and time of formation.
  11. 11.) II. CCC, 1309.

COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  


Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash