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BY Barb Ernster
PHOENIX — It's one of the key sacraments called the sacraments of initiation. It's the sacrament most focused on the Holy Spirit — and on the courage to spread the Good News.
So it was distressing to a task force in the Diocese of Phoenix, Ariz., when it found that the sacrament of confirmation was falling out of favor. Only 40% of its adolescents were getting confirmed, and the percentage of adults was even lower.
The finding has led Bishop Thomas Olmsted to lower the age of confirmation from 16 to third grade (usually age 8). Now the sacrament will be received during the same Mass as first Communion.
In a pastoral letter on the new policy released in June, Bishop Olmsted said, “Since over 60% of our teens are not confirmed, we have thousands of adults attempting to face the challenges of the modern world without the grace of confirmation to help them.”
By lowering the age, said Director of Youth Ministry Bill Marcotte, the diocese hopes to help young people and their parents understand what the sacrament is — a fulfillment of their baptismal graces given as a free gift to further grow in the faith. The diocese hopes to confirm more youths and evangelize the parents by requiring their involvement.
Marcotte also hopes the new policy will benefit youth ministry programs because confirmation will no longer be viewed as the “carrot” to draw teens in.
“You have people coming in with the end in sight, instead of understanding confirmation as a beginning that leads to a vision of how they can impact the world,” said Marcotte. “If a kid has to go through a youth program with no understanding of what it means to have a relationship with God, it can be really empty. By having confirmation in third grade, the Eucharist then becomes an ongoing model for faith formation. We never stop being formed.”
The Phoenix task force also wanted to restore the original order of the sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation and then Eucharist. Since apostolic times, the sacrament of confirmation has been seen as the second sacrament of Christian initiation. For the first five centuries in the Church, baptism, confirmation and Eucharist were celebrated together in one initiation rite, for adults and children. Orthodox Christians continue to be confirmed at baptism. But by the 13th century, infant baptism was the norm, and confirmation was celebrated at the age of discretion (7), while first Eucharist took place in pre-adolescence.
It was not until the 20th century, in 1910, that the age for Eucharist was lowered to 7 or 8, by Pope St. Pius X, who wanted to encourage more frequent reception of the Eucharist. Confirmation was then celebrated between 8 and 18. It was the first time in Church history that the Eucharist was first received before confirmation.
Today, the Church sets the age for confirmation at the age of discretion or older, according to Canon 891. Shortly after the new Code of Canon Law was approved in 1983, the U.S. bishops conference authorized each bishop to determine the age of confirmation in his own diocese. The age of first Communion is dictated by Canons 913-914 of the Code of Canon Law:
“The administration of the most holy Eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion….
“It is primarily the duty of parents … to take care that children who have reached the use of reason are prepared properly and, after they have made sacramental confession, are refreshed with this divine food as soon as possible.”
Phoenix is the eighth U.S. diocese to restore the original order of the sacraments, according to a study conducted by Stella Jeffrey, director of evangelization and catechesis in the Diocese of Fargo, N.D., which initiated third-grade confirmation in 2002. Nearly 50 other dioceses have either partially restored the order, are considering it, or have reverted back from such a policy.
To Think Like Christ
Results have been mixed in Fargo, noted Jeffrey. One parish had a 40% drop in attendance at catechesis programs as young as fourth grade; another parish of identical size has not lost even a single high school student in religious education. But what is emerging among her counterparts across the country is a new focus on confirmation and what keeps young people engaged in their faith.
“The way to get them to keep coming is to introduce them to Jesus Christ,” Jeffrey said. “When he has touched their lives, they will want to know him more. One key is catechizing parents. Parents whose hearts are on fire will pass that zeal on to their children.”
She added, “I'm so excited when I hear New Evangelization, and then I think, ‘But please don't make it be another program.’”
Jeffrey said Pope John Paul II wrote in Catechesi Tradendae, the 1979 apostolic exhortation on catechesis, that the aim of catechesis is to inspire the person to “set himself to follow Christ, and learn more and more within the Church to think like him, to judge like him, to act in conformity with his commandments and to hope as he invites us to.”
The restoration of the sacraments, she added, gives the person great hope because they have the strength to actually think, judge, act and hope like Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas, reverted to a 10th-grade confirmation from a second-grade policy several years ago after it experienced a major drop in attendance at religious education programs. The diocese is strengthening its catechesis to anticipate the teen-age group.
“We're trying to develop interactive programs that focus on areas of discipleship to instill in them that now is the time to go forth [after confirmation], rather than thinking, ‘I'm done,’” said Delia Carranza, Corpus Christi's program coordinator for youth ministry. “A lot of the youth are really stepping up and deciding to live out their faith, sometimes on their own initiative.”
Dominican Father Brian Mullady, adjunct theology professor at Holy Apostles Seminary and College in Cromwell, Conn., favors a policy of seventh- or eighth-grade confirmation, when kids are more open to the faith.
He said many 16 year-olds just don't care about their faith.
“One of the liabilities of having it at 16 is that by that time … they've already been through a lot of temptations — especially sexual temptations — which occur at a lower age every year,” Father Mullady said.
Mary Polasek of Sobieski, Minn., whose son was confirmed at 16, agreed.
“At 13, my son was still into his faith, but in high school, church meant less to him. I think third grade is too young, but if they can get the grace earlier, maybe it would help them get through the rebellious years.”
Despite good pastoral reasons behind current Church practices, most sacramental theologians favor restoring the original order of the sacraments, said Father Andrew Cozzens. He is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who has a licentiate in dogmatic theology with a focus on the sacraments from the Angelicum, the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.
He said, “It's difficult to say to a young person who's 15 and preparing for the sacrament of confirmation, ‘Now you're going to be a full-fledged member of the Church,’ when they've been receiving Communion since second grade.”
Father Cozzens believes Rome will eventually have to rule on the issue.
“From the earliest times, confirmation was considered to be a sealing of baptism with the power of the Holy Spirit, which strengthened the person for the living of their faith in the world,” he said. “It is meant to be a personal Pentecost, and it's at Pentecost that the Church goes from being inwardly focused to being outwardly focused.”
Barb Ernster is based in Fridley, Minnesota.