DENVER — The age of confirmation in the Archdiocese of Denver is being lowered to third-graders.
The move is part of a restoration by Archbishop Samuel Aquila of the traditional sacramental order that places reception of confirmation prior to first holy Communion.
It also makes Denver the first Latin-rite archdiocese in the United States to return the sacraments of initiation to their original order.
Archbishop Aquila timed the official announcement to coincide with Pentecost Sunday. The pastoral letter to be released the same day, “Saints Among Us: The Restored Order of the Sacraments of Initiation,” reveals that by 2020 all Catholic children in the third grade, within the archdiocese’s boundaries, will receive confirmation and then their first Eucharist at the same Mass.
“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,” Archbishop Aquila told the Register. “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.”
Archbishop Aquila had restored the original order of receiving the sacraments to baptism, confirmation and holy Communion when he was bishop of Fargo, N.D., in 2002. He added that he was encouraged by Pope Benedict XVI, after telling him about his efforts during his 2012 ad limina visit.
“After my presentation, his response surprised me: ‘You have done what I always wanted to do,’” the archbishop said.
According to the Archdiocese of Denver’s release, it is the 10th Latin-rite diocese to have moved to restore the traditional order. This does not count the fact that two dioceses — Greensburg, Pa., and Marquette, Mich., — had restored the order but later reverted back to having first Eucharist and then confirmation, which is the case for most of the Latin-rite dioceses in the U.S.
Under the current norms in the U.S., Latin-rite bishops may confirm between the age of discretion in canon law (approximately age 7) and 16 years old.
The change to the restored order is not expected to happen overnight throughout the Denver Archdiocese, due to pastoral challenges involving catechesis and youth ministry that need to be worked out in a variety of parishes. Archbishop Aquila said the plan is to begin the process in 2017 and conclude by 2020, although some parishes have already gone to the restored order, and smaller parishes have anticipated being ready for the change by 2016 or sooner.
“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 third grade,” he said. “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.”
Understanding why most U.S. dioceses do not uniformly follow the baptism-confirmation-Eucharist order requires a short lesson in history — and reveals a number of pastoral challenges bishops have to face in restoring it, explained Father Michael Flynn, executive director of the Secretariat for Divine Worship of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
He said that until approximately 100 years ago, confirmation came before first Communion. The two had generally always been administered together, but after the Council of Trent’s renewed push for sacramental preparation, the date for receiving these sacraments became later and later, until 1910. At that time, St. Pius X lowered the age of first Communion to 7 years old, but mentioned nothing about confirmation, where the practice to administer it at 12 continued. Over the course of the subsequent century, U.S. Catholics came to incorrectly view confirmation as a “sacrament of maturity,” because that is how they grew up with it.
Downside of the Status Quo
Bishops have good pastoral reasons for maintaining the status quo. One is the lack of catechetical materials. Secondly, their diocesan youth ministries have been geared for so long toward reaching out to young adults through confirmation preparation, utilizing this as an opportunity to discuss with them the Church’s teaching and important young-adult issues.
“We have a pretty strong tradition in the United States of reaching out to young people at this very critical age,” Father Flynn said. “If we’re going to do it at some other time other than confirmation, we’re going to have to figure out another way.”
However, new pastoral realities are emerging that are prompting bishops to reassess whether that strategy actually is effective and whether it would be better to restore the sacramental order and retool youth ministry.
“The downside of that [delayed confirmation] is that a lot of families are opting out, and it is not working the way we hoped it would,” Father Flynn said. According to some rough estimates he has seen, as many as 50% of Catholics may be missing the sacrament of confirmation.
“This is one moment of outreach that has been pretty dependable for the last 100 years,” said Father Flynn, “and if you’re not providing that draw to prepare for this very important sacrament, we have to rethink how we keep the attention of young adults and teenagers and keep them interested in the Church.”
Aloha, Restored Order
Honolulu was the latest diocese before Denver to opt to restore the order of the sacraments of initiation and is working through those pastoral challenges now.
Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu told the Register that they have “only begun the process” of restoring the order, which involves a massive collaborative process throughout all levels of the diocese. The diocese is publishing catechetical articles in the Hawaii Catholic Herald and is planning a series of listening sessions, “so that people can ask questions and express their concerns.”
“We do want people to understand that the grace of God we receive in the sacraments is first of all a gift of God, a movement of God toward us, rather than something that we ourselves acquire by our efforts or our participation in a course of studies,” the bishop said. “We also want them to understand that this is by no means an abandonment of our youth, but an opportunity to strengthen and expand youth ministry.”
The bishop said that many parishes’ youth-ministry programs are geared toward confirmation and have “very little” afterward, and consequently “essential to this discussion is making sure that every parish has a comprehensive youth-ministry program.”
“Re-gearing youth ministry from a youth confirmation program to a more comprehensive youth program will also be a challenge, but we are confident that, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, this goal can be met,” he said.
Lessons From Phoenix
In 2005, the Diocese of Phoenix became the largest diocese to restore the traditional order and faced two big tasks: developing in-house catechetical resources and catechizing parents and children that confirmation was not a “coming-of-age sacrament.”
Angela Gaetano, director of parish leadership support for the diocese, said that they have “greatly diminished” the numbers of unconfirmed Catholics in Phoenix, and fears that youth ministry would collapse did not pan out.
“There was definitely an initial impact on youth ministry after restored order, and there were parishes that could no longer afford a full-time youth leader, as teens stopped coming once the confirmation incentive was removed,” she said. “However, the youth-evangelization initiatives that were bearing fruit persisted, and those programs that weren’t [were obvious] — the fact that they weren’t became evident when students said, ‘If I don’t have to do this to get confirmed, I’m not going to do this.’”
“What we have seen over time is that the initial temporary downturn has reversed,” Gaetano added, explaining that now 40-45 parishes have a full-time youth leader, and they saw more than 8,000 middle- and high-school youth participate in parish youth programs in 2014 alone. “We’ve also had great fruit with the parents, because the parents of a second- and third-grader are much more amenable to receiving formation and can see that their job is to pass the faith on to their children.”
Now catechesis in fourth grade onward focuses on mystagogy (a guided discovery of the sacramental mysteries), instead of being reduced simply to sacramental preparation. As a result, Gaetano said people no longer associate confirmation as being the end of catechesis.
“It’s now widely understood that, theologically, confirmation and Eucharist are connected as sacraments of initiation,” she said. “More children are receiving confirmation now under this model, whereas before only 40% of youth were confirmed.”
Denver’s Youth Plan
Archbishop Aquila said the archdiocese’s Office for Evangelization and Family Life Ministries is helping pastors, parishes and youth ministers look for ways to address the challenges ahead for catechesis and youth ministry.
“I believe we have models that are out there which emphasize discipleship,” he said, adding that each pastor will implement restored order “in the way that makes the most sense for his parish community.”
He said the archdiocese is working with pastors and catechists to rethink youth ministry and banish the idea that confirmation is — to quote Pope Francis — “the sacramental of farewell.”
“A key component in the restored order is the formation of the parents in assisting them to encounter Christ,” he said. “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.”
One key that Archbishop Aquila wishes to emphasize is teaching young people to encounter Jesus through lectio divina, a form of prayer that combines Scripture, prayer and meditation, especially at the beginning of class.
“Through lectio,” he said, “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.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.