MANCHESTER, N.H. — In the name of raising up lifelong disciples of Jesus Christ, another U.S. Latin-rite diocese has decided to restore confirmation to its traditional place before first Holy Communion.
Bishop Peter Libasci of Manchester, New Hampshire, has begun the process of restoring the reception of the sacraments of initiation in the diocese to their theological sequential order of baptism, then confirmation and first Eucharist.
Most U.S. dioceses, for more than 100 years, have followed a sequence of baptism, first Communion and then confirmation, ever since Pope St. Pius X made the age of reason (typically around age 7) the threshold for receiving Communion.
Bishop Libasci has already begun the conversation with parishes and intends to release a pastoral letter explaining the reasons for the move, which will place confirmation reception, along with first Communion, in the third grade.
A “Frequently Asked Questions” compilation for parishes said restoring confirmation to its place after baptism will highlight for youth the Church’s teaching that the Eucharist is truly the culmination of the sacraments of initiation.
Mary Ellen Mahon, secretary for Catholic formation at the Diocese of Manchester, told the Register that Bishop Libasci wants Catholics to understand that formation in the Catholic faith is “lifelong.”
Restoring the order of sacraments is part of a broader effort to strengthen Catholic faith formation at all stages of life and throughout the diocese. The bishop, Mahon said, wants Catholic youth to have the grace of the sacrament available to them at a younger age, in order to assist them in their journey of drawing closer to Jesus Christ.
“He really wanted to emphasize that our relationship with God is something that develops from the time that we are in the womb until we reach the tomb and are united with God through the resurrection,” Mahon said. “That is the primary focus: How can we connect and accompany people throughout their whole lifelong faith journey?”
No changes will occur this year. Instead, the diocese will spend the coming months preparing the faithful and the parishes for the new approach, followed by a three-year implementation phase.
Sister Mary Rose Reddy, director of family faith formation at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary and St. Leo parishes, in Rochester, New Hampshire, told the Register she is happy the bishop made this decision.
She said children and families should realize that following Jesus is an ongoing commitment, not something a person “graduates” from.
“This is something we’re trying to address,” she said.
Confirmation’s Theological Wanderings
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 Manchester Diocese is on its way to become the 11th Latin-rite diocese to order the sacraments of initiation in theological sequence: baptism, confirmation and first Eucharist.
Timothy Gabrielli, a theology professor at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and author of Confirmation: How a Sacrament of God’s Grace Became All About Us, told the Register that Eastern Catholic Churches provide all three sacraments at once in this order, even to infants. Whereas in the Western (or Latin) Church, priests baptize, but bishops continue to confirm.
Gabrielli explained that when St. Pius X — in Quam Singulari (1910), his decree on first Communion — lowered the threshold age of first Communion to approximately 7 years old, he said nothing regarding confirmation, which had been received before the Eucharist. So in the U.S., the Latin-rite bishops left confirmation in place, confirming around 12 or 14 years old.
But the U.S. Church’s theology has shifted as a result, to try to explain this particular order of having confirmation at 14, but first Eucharist at 7.
In the early 20th century, Gabrielli said, confirmation took on militant imagery, where the sacrament turned a youth into a solider of Christ, ready to suffer for the faith — typified by the “slap” from the bishop — at a time when the Catholic immigrant population of the U.S. was in tension with the broader Protestant American culture.
Later in the 1970s, a time when Catholics had assimilated into broader American life, he said, Catholics began searching for a different theological explanation, and confirmation became influenced by the Charismatic Renewal movement.
Gabrielli said by the 1980s, confirmation turned into the sacrament of a Catholic’s “individual choice” for God — almost the Catholic equivalent of a “believer’s baptism.”
However, Gabrielli said this theology of confirmation has also fallen short in practical terms: For most pre-teens and teenagers, confirmation involves not their “individual choice,” but “strong-arming” from parents or grandparents.
The “graduation mentality,” he said, dismisses the need for ongoing faith formation and makes it difficult for young people to understand how they can experience moments of doubt if they made that decision for faith at confirmation.
Gabrielli said no one has thus far conducted a study with metrics about the effectiveness of restored order of the sacraments compared with the status quo in other dioceses. Two dioceses — Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and Marquette, Michigan — had originally restored the order of sacraments, but later reverted to the baptism-first Eucharist-confirmation sequence.
Restoring the order requires a diocese facilitate “quite a cultural shift for it to sink in,” according to Gabrielli. But he said that at whatever age dioceses confirm, they need to get away from the idea that this is a sacrament of maturity and back to the understanding that confirmation is a free, unmerited gift of God’s grace.
The Archdiocese of Denver moved to restore the order of the sacraments of initiation in 2015. It was the second time for Archbishop Samuel Aquila, who had restored the original order when he was bishop of Fargo, North Dakota, in 2002.
In a March 2015 interview with the Register, the archbishop said Benedict XVI had strongly encouraged his efforts during his 2012 ad limina visit, where bishops are required by the Church to report to the pope on the status of their dioceses.
Scott Elmer, director of evangelization and family life ministries at the Denver Archdiocese, told the Register that parishes are on track to make third grade the normative age for confirmation by 2020. Constant and consistent communication, he said, has been key to educating the faithful about the reasons for the change.
“After a couple of weeks, most people were receptive to it,” he said.
The challenge for the archdiocese in making the transition was lack of catechetical resources on confirmation, followed by first Eucharist, for third graders.
At first, staff set out to make their own supplemental resources. However, they ended up developing a four-semester, two-year curriculum, covering reconciliation, confirmation and Eucharist, which parishes can adapt to their needs.
The second edition reflects suggested improvements based on field-testing and is set to come out this fall.
“We’ve been getting a lot of great feedback,” Elmer said.
The archdiocese has also seen the need to make confirmation and first Communion an opportunity to evangelize the parents — if the parents see the faith as important, they will encourage their children to see it as important.
The archbishop, Elmer said, has mandated that parishes make some kind of ongoing adult faith formation program, such as Christ Life or Alpha, available to parents while their children are getting ready to receive the sacraments — preferably in an environment that looks less like a classroom and more like a small group study in a living room.
At the end of the day, the goal is to cultivate a religious culture in families that will sustain their life in Jesus Christ.
Beyond Restored Order
The Diocese of Portland, Maine, has had restored order of the sacraments for 20 years, but Maryanne Harrington, the diocesan director of the Office of Lifelong Formation, said they recognize families are in a different place than they were 20 years ago.
Back then, they focused on retooling youth ministry; today, she said, “our concern is helping parents and children grow in faith together.”
Many families coming for the sacraments today have little in the way of a lived, everyday experience of faith in their lives, Harrington said. But the Church knows from its own reports that a regular sacramental and prayer life as a family correlates strongly with improved home life.
So Portland created a two-year sacramental preparation program for children receiving confirmation and first Eucharist for first and second grade, or second and third grade. And parents are required to go to six adult-formation sessions each year that teach them how to discuss with their children who Jesus is, how to have him in the home, and understand the Mass, as well as the importance of sacramentals in the home (a crucifix, holy water or other religious items) and having family rituals and praying together with their children.
“Each of the lessons really focuses on the parishes having a relationship with Christ, meeting them where they are, and moving them forward in their faith,” she said.
Harrington said this approach forms friendships among the parents whose children are receiving the sacraments.
She is also suggesting to parish leaders that they identify the natural parent leaders in these sacramental groups and invite them to build that parent community and determine the next step they would like to take together in the life of the parish.
“Building that kind of community among them is really a good piece,” she said, “because one of the things that is really important is that it’s not just simply about just going to church today — it’s about being in a community and that sense of belonging that young parents want.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.