Saints Among Us

Children need the strength of the spirit

Amid the many theological and pastoral reasons for lowering the age of confirmation and restoring it to its original place before first Eucharist, none ranks higher for Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver than to provide children with much-needed spiritual strength to become “courageous, authentic disciples of Jesus Christ.”

“In an increasingly secular world,” he wrote in the pastoral letter Saints Among Us, released on the solemnity of Pentecost, “the reality is this: the souls of our children are the battleground.”

“As the shepherd of the Archdiocese of Denver, I must do everything I can to help those who form children win that battle,” he added.

In Saints Among Us, the archbishop explains that one way to do this is to “make available every sacramental grace the Church has to offer to children who have reached the age of reason [around 7 years old].”

“This is profoundly important,” he wrote, “because we live in a different spiritual terrain than our parents or grandparents did. Indeed, the spiritual landscape of modern American society underscores the need for children to receive grace earlier.”

The release of the pastoral letter marked the beginning of the process to restore the order of the sacraments of initiation in the Archdiocese of Denver so that the sacraments will be conferred as follows: baptism, confirmation and first Eucharist.

While infant baptism will continue to be normal practice, confirmation and first Eucharist will take place in third grade at the same Mass.

The change will be implemented during a five-year step-down process in which pastors are encouraged to facilitate a smooth transition according to what works best for the circumstances and size of their parish. By 2020, all children should receive confirmation and first Eucharist in third grade.

Archbishop Aquila is the first to implement the restored order in an archdiocese in the United States, and the first bishop to restore the order in two dioceses. In 2002 he restored the order in the Diocese of Fargo. The move also makes the Archdiocese of Denver the tenth diocese to implement the restored order not including the dioceses of Greensburg and Marquette, which rolled back the restored order in 2009 and 2012, respectively.

Other dioceses that have restored the order include Saginaw (1995); Great Falls-Billings (1996); Portland (1997); Spokane (1998); Fargo (2002); Gaylord (2003); Tyler (2005); Phoenix (2005); and Honolulu (2015).

In 2012, Archbishop Aquila discussed the restored order in a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI other bishops from the United States. “You have done what I have always wanted to do,” the pope responded.

The sacraments of initiation will be reordered so graces are available to children at a younger age.

The sacraments of initiation will be reordered so graces are available to children at a younger age. Photo by Dollar Photo Club

A culture of death
Theologians with connections to the Archdiocese of Denver have echoed the archbishop’s concern for the spiritual needs of children in an increasingly secular society.

“Our culture is not nice to kids,” Anthony Lilles, academic dean for St. John’s Seminary in Los Angeles, told a gathering of catechists in Denver last fall. “We have a culture of death all around us, and our young people, they are dealing with friends who are dealing with suicidal thoughts, and cutting themselves and drug addictions and sexual addictions.”

“It’s a very, very serious time in our culture,” he added. “We live in such times today [that] call for great courage. … The Lord asks of you great courage. Even more, the Lord asks of our children, great courage.”

He encouraged the catechists, who were attending the Catechetical Congress of the Archdiocese of Denver on the topic of the restored order, to study the experience of the early Christians and how they “experienced the sacraments, understood the sacraments—sacraments that conferred divine live, that gave them courage in the midst of very difficult situations and circumstances.”

Scott Powell, director of Scriptural theology at the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center in Boulder, Colo., told the same gathering that most Catholics misunderstand the true nature of confirmation.

“Confirmation,” he explained, “is the Church saying, ‘look, you’re baptized, which means you have a big job ahead of you, and you are going to be fed on the Bread of Life soon, but you need strength.’”

“And now more than ever, in the state of the world, in the state of ‘utter evil,’ we need strength,” he continued. “And if we can give that to young people earlier, then I say praise be to God, and I speak as a parent, as a teacher and as a catechist—all of them. I want my kids to have as much strength and grace to go through this world and this time of darkness as they possibly can.”

Theologian Jared Staudt, former professor at the Augustine Institute in Greenwood Village, wrote in 2013 that “the reception of the 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,” he added, “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.”

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COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.