Saturday, March 10, 2012

Re-ordering the Sacraments

The custom at Sacred Heart Church when I was first named pastor there in 1990 was to offer Confirmation to young people when they were in high school, in their teens.

Some parents thought waiting until high school was a great inconvenience because their children were expected to attend special classes to prepare for receiving the sacrament, and the times of the preparation classes often conflicted with other schedules, such as sports practice.

In response to the complaints, I asked the staff to individually research the matter, especially what was considered the best age for receiving Confirmation.

I was really looking for background that would support our custom of waiting until the youth were a bit older. Some liturgists and theologians were calling Confirmation "the sacrament of maturity."

When the parish staff gathered to share their findings and recommendations, we were all surprised to discover that each of us had come to the same conclusion --waiting until teenage years was not the best practice!

The clearest piece of evidence that waiting until teenage years was not a good idea was Canon Law (#891) which said that "the sacrament of confirmation is to be conferred on the faithful at about the age of discretion."

Age seven is generally considered the age of discretion, the age when a child is capable of making informed choices.

Church law then was telling us that age seven not seventeen was the norm.

Canon 891, however, goes on to say that conferences of bishops may decide on another age. The US bishops had agreed to disagree about the age, and said confirmation was to be conferred between ages 11 and 16.

Our staff research also concluded that in the earliest days of the Church the traditional order for receiving the sacraments of initiation was Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist.

We had to admit that there were conflicting ways of understanding the theology of Confirmation: completion of Baptism versus sacrament of mature faith and adult commitment. We concluded, however, that historically Confirmation originally followed Baptism, and in fact was normally conferred at the same ceremony as Baptism.

Having assessed the theology, history, customs and law concerning Confirmation, we decided to move its conferral at Sacred Heart from freshmen year to second grade.

The bishop, however, had a different idea. He pointed to the ages set by the US Bishops Conference and allowed us to move the conferral to the middle years of grade school.

My argument that Confirmation is not a sacrament of maturity but rather a completion of  Baptism was not persuasive.

Last week, on March 8, 2012, Bishop Samuel Aquila of the Diocese of Fargo announced that in his diocese the ancient order of receiving the sacraments of initiation was being restored, that is, Confirmation before First Eucharist.

In his visit to Pope Benedict XVI, Aquila learned that the Holy Father was pleased that Aquila was restoring the sacraments of initiation to their proper order of Baptism, Confirmation, and First Eucharist. He had papal approval!

According to the story on the bishop said he made the change because "it really puts the emphasis on the Eucharist as being what completes the sacraments of initiation" and on confirmation as "sealing and completing Baptism."

Aquila also noted that the change distanced the Sacrament of Confirmation from "some false theologies that see it as being a sacrament of maturity or as a sacrament for 'me choosing God.'"

As I read Aquila's explanation I felt our parish staff's conclusion back in the early 1990s was more than justified.

Those of us who participated in that staff study will now be waiting to see how long it will take other bishops to catch up! Forgive our chutzpah!

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