Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
On Pentecost Sunday, Archbishop Samuel Aquila made history in the U.S. by announcing that the Archdiocese of Denver would be the first U.S. Latin-rite archdiocese to restore the order of the sacraments of initiation to Baptism, then Confirmation, and finally Holy Eucharist.
As the Register reported on Saturday, the age for Confirmation will be lowered to third grade and received right before First Holy Communion at the same Mass, reversing a century long custom in the Latin Church in favor of a traditional order for receiving the sacraments that dates back to the Acts of the Apostles.
In this Register interview, Archbishop Samuel Aquila shares that he decided to restore the order to help as many Catholics as possible in his archdiocese “reach heaven” with the graces of Confirmation. And by doing so, he’s fulfilling a dream pope-emeritus Benedict XVI has had for the entire Latin-rite Church.
What are the theological and pastoral reasons for restoring the order of the sacraments of initiation in the Archdiocese of Denver?
The theology on the order of the sacraments of initiation is clear, and through my many experiences as both a parish pastor and a bishop, I knew that this was the right decision to make. As the title of my pastoral letter Saints Among Us suggests, the decision to restore Confirmation to its original place is motivated by my desire to help the people of the Archdiocese of Denver reach heaven.
Was the decision a collaborative process?
The process for the timing and the implementation was collaborative. We have had a committee working actively with pastors and youth ministers for over a year to discuss the implementation.
For the past 100 years, Catholics in the U.S. have come to view Confirmation as a rite of passage for teens, and a lot of youth ministries are geared around this. What are the pastoral and catechetical challenges involved in making this transition to the restored order?
To view Confirmation “as a rite of passage for teens” is an erroneous understanding of the sacrament, especially in light of the teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the RCIA, and the Code of Canon Law. While there are many logistical challenges that will require some work to figure out, the pastoral challenges are more difficult to address. It will require the youth ministers to rethink how they are helping our young people grow in their faith, and to change the structure of their ministries so that they are geared toward forming authentic disciples of Christ.
How do you plan to address those challenges? Do you have a plan for helping youth ministries make the transition, or will parishes and Directors of Religious Education (DREs) have to develop their own plans?
Our Office for Evangelization and Family Life Ministries is helping pastors, parishes and youth ministers look for ways to address the pastoral and logistical challenges this change will present to them. I believe we have models that are out there which emphasize discipleship. The model of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) can be very helpful. Each pastor will implement the restored order in the way that makes the most sense for his parish community as the parish communities are very different in the cities and rural and mountain areas of Colorado.
Part of the concern is that parents whose children will drop out in 8th grade post confirmation will drop out in 3rd grade. How did you address that challenge in Fargo, and how do you plan to do it in Denver? I’ve heard that in Fargo, when you went to restored order, you filled the vacuum (so to speak) with a program engaging young people in lectio divina [a form of prayer that combines Scripture, prayer and meditation]. Could you elaborate on that as well?
The fear that many have is that our children will drop out of religious education, and this might happen. Parents are the teachers of their children in the ways of faith, so their example is critical. Confirmation is not graduation or in the words of Pope Francis “the sacrament of farewell.” A key component in the restored order is the formation of the parents in assisting them to encounter Christ.
The greater challenge to address, however, is how do we form our children in the faith in a way that truly brings them into relationship with Christ, and that this relationship lasts and grows throughout their lives. We don’t have all the answers, but we are working with pastors and catechists to rethink how we approach youth ministry. One of the greatest helps I have found in helping people to encounter Christ, even young people is to teach them lectio divina. Every class should begin with lectio even with the children. Through lectio even young children can encounter Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit and it instills in them a love for Scripture and especially the Gospels.
Why did you choose now as the time to announce the restored order? Could you explain why the transition period begins in 2017 and is there a possibility that parishes could start sooner?
Some parishes began to lower the age of confirmation to the 6th grade the minute I was named Archbishop of Denver, which they were already allowed to do according to our local archdiocesan law. For many of the smaller parishes, they will be able to implement the restored order this year or next year.
The 2017 timeline is intended to give larger parishes time to educate their staff and parishioners, as well as offer time for them to draft and implement their plan for bringing Confirmation down to the 3rd grade. It’s up to each pastor to determine the timeline that fits best for his parish, but the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries has developed three models that parishes can use or adapt to lower the age of Confirmation by 2020.
Thanks so much, Archbishop Aquila. As a final comment, can you share the personal impact that then-Pope Benedict XVI made on you regarding the restored order?
During my 2012 ad limina visit while I was Bishop of Fargo, I shared with Pope Benedict and the other bishops present what I had done to restore the order of the sacraments of initiation for children baptized in infancy. After my presentation, his response surprised me, “You have done what I always wanted to do.”