Are We Using Religious Education and Confirmation as a Stick and Carrot?
Growing up in a faithful Catholic family, I received the sacraments at the ages regulated within the Dallas diocese – the same ages more or less seen around the country. Naturally, my baptism occurred about a month into my life and I recall nothing – life changing graces received. I received my first communion sometime around the age of reason and didn’t like the taste of the host, but it wasn’t a big deal because my CCD teacher worked at the bowling alley and that was cool – life changing graces received. Confirmation was when I was a sophomore in high school, 8 years after my first communion. I tried, I tried, to find some sort of meaning in it; though I knew of the importance of a sacrament… I was 15 years old and generally more concerned with keeping oil off my forehead than having a stranger add to it – life changing graces received.
The age of fifteen might have been old and I have since found that confirmation is more common around the 8th grade rather than 10th, but even so, why would the sacrament be received so many years after the other sacraments of initiation?
Bishop Aquila from Fargo, ND has recently been in the Catholic news cycle for the affirmation he received from Pope Benedict in regards to restoring the “proper order” of the sacraments (emphasis mine):
“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,” said Bishop Aquila, after meeting Pope Benedict on March 8.
When the sacraments are conferred in this order, he said, it becomes more obvious that “both baptism and confirmation lead to the Eucharist.” This sacramental assistance helps Catholics live “that intimate relationship of being the beloved sons and daughters of the Father in our daily lives,” he added.
The Bishop of Fargo said the changes have also 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.’”
Instead, young people in Fargo now have “the fullness of the spirit and the completion of the gifts of the spirit” to assist them in “living their lives within the world,” especially “in the trials they face in junior high and high school.”
Search as one might, there cannot by found any doctrinal or theological basis for regarding confirmation as “becoming an adult in the Church” or what have you. Rather, the understanding of confirmation as such probably comes from one (or all) of these sources:
1. Bad education – especially with some analogy involving bar mitzvahs.
2. Justification for using the sacrament of confirmation as a carrot to keep children in the parish religious education program for seven extra years.
2a. Religious education programs trying to motivate 8-10th graders by promising them what they don’t have.
3. Belief that 21st century teenagers are generally better disposed to receiving graces or less likely to be in grievous sin than children at the age of reason.
Obviously, these reasons do not hold water.
The first idea is probably a natural result of the second and third.
The second idea relies on the idea that human RE programs are more efficacious in converting the hearts and minds of young people than divine graces. Given the endurance of a student through years of RE classes and the pomp and circumstance surrounding confirmation, it’s no wonder many people view it as ‘graduation’ from further religious formation.
The third idea of adolescents having a greater disposition toward receiving the grace of the sacrament does have some basis in truth, but cannot stand. Would not a holy 14 year-old, fully disposed to the reception of grace at the time of confirmation, be a holier 14 year old had he been confirmed as a child, receiving the graces gradually as he became more disposed? The character of an adolescent is already largely developed without the assistance of the graces of confirmation – I would wager that a teen in this situation is less likely to be disposed to the graces of the sacrament than a more innocent child with a lesser cognitive ability.
Although Confirmation is sometimes called the “sacrament of Christian maturity,” we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth, nor 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.” Many children, through the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood.’
-The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1308
The relationship of God to a person is akin to the relationship between a man and a woman with respect to courtship and marriage… initial meeting, courtship, 1)engagement, 2)marriage, and 3)consummation. The same holds true for the spiritual life. We have an encounter with God, we make a commitment to God in 1)baptism; we renew that commitment in 2)Confirmation; and we consummate the relationship with God in the celebration of the 3)Eucharist.
The analogy to the marriage relationship helps to explain why we receive Baptism and Confirmation only once, and that both sacraments confer an indelible mark upon the soul who receives these sacraments.
The reception of Jesus’ body and blood in the Eucharist is the greatest intimacy a person can have with God. Since it is analogous to the consummation of the marriage between a man and woman, the Eucharist can be received many times as a celebration of the intimate love between God and the person.
Hopefully, Bishop Aquila’s decision to properly order the sacraments of initiation and Pope Benedict’s public approval will spearhead a move within the United States to reconsider the various motivations that have prompted the delay of the spiritually-formative sacrament of confirmation.