FARGO, N.D. — In the largely rural Diocese of Fargo, N.D., Father Paul Duchschere will soon be one among many priests helping to prepare children for a sacrament commonly reserved for later in life.
In August, the newly appointed diocesan bishop, Samuel Aquila, announced he was changing the sequence of first Communion and confirmation, making third-graders receive the sacrament of confirmation immediately preceding their first Eucharist at the same Mass.
Father Duchschere agrees with the new policy, saying that in a world increasingly fraught with vices, the earlier youth can receive the sacramental graces of confirmation the better.
“That's the primary advantage as far as I can see,” said Father Duchschere, pastor of St. Paul's Neumann Center in Fargo. “It seems to me that nowadays our young people have so many temptations out there to drive them away from our Lord Jesus.”
The prospect of such a policy sparked discussion among clergy and diocesan officials last spring, raising concern about third-graders receiving a sacrament usually conferred to those in junior high or high school.
Stella Jeffrey, the diocesan director for evangelization and catechesis, was involved in the discussions.
“The general consensus of everyone, except for one person, was to either do confirmation as late as possible or as early as possible,” Jeffrey said. “Some were very passionate about having the earlier age, and some were very passionate about the later age, too.”
The decision to reverse the order of the two sacraments is not unprecedented. In fact, bishops have opted to do the same either permanently or in pilot programs in other U.S. dioceses, including the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich., and the Diocese of Cleveland. Some bishops in Canada, Scotland and Australia have also adopted such a policy.
They point to the practices of the early Roman Church in the West and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, particularly Pope Paul VI's apostolic constitution on the sacrament of confirmation.
“This is a movement in the Western Church today,” said Father Neil Roy, assistant professor of theology at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “It's catching on.”
Bishop Aquila outlined the new confirmation policy and the history of Christian initiation in an 11-page letter dated Aug. 15, the Feast of the Assumption.
In the letter, the bishop said the new policy was implemented for theological reasons, one being that the reception of confirmation before the Eucharist is more in line with the ancient practice of initiation into the Church.
“I hope by this policy that the true place of the Eucharist as the summit of that initiation and the source of all Church life will be more fully recognized in our diocesan family,” stated the bishop, who was away in Rome and could not immediately be reached for comment.
The bishop also said reversing the order of the two sacraments would put more emphasis on confirmation as a sacrament and not something earned after completing a certain amount of religious instruction.
“The perfection of baptismal grace found in the sacrament of confirmation is not dependent upon age or knowledge of the confirmed,” Bishop Aquila stated. “The grace that is conferred is a free gift.”
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, confirmation is sometimes referred to as the sacrament of Christian maturity, but the Catechism stresses that one should not confuse “adult faith with the adult age of natural growth” (No. 1308).
Early Church Practice
In the first centuries of the Church, bishops administered confirmation immediately after baptism during one celebration. But the increase in infant baptisms, rural parishes and the growth of dioceses often prevented bishops from being present at all baptismal celebrations, delaying confirmations.
The Western Church split from the Eastern Church, where priests — not bishops — administered baptism and confirmation in a single celebration.
In the West, although the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and first Communion were spread out, the order remained the same, with first Communion being received at around age 12. But in 1910, Pope St. Pius X encouraged first Communion at the age of discretion — about 7 years old — which pushed confirmation back to a later age.
When clergy and officials in the Diocese of Fargo began their discussions, Father Duchschere said a few were concerned that celebrating confirmation and first Communion during the same Mass might detract from each sacrament being a special occasion. Others questioned whether educators could properly prepare third-graders to receive confirmation.
Some wondered if the children would quit going to religious education classes after receiving confirmation and Communion, believing they've done all they've needed to do in their faith.
But Father Roy said this mistaken view of confirmation has evolved because of the practice of confirming youth at a later age.
“The sacrament itself was being reduced to a prize for attending CCD classes,” he said. “So they were using the sacrament as a carrot.”
Still, many say confirmation should be reserved for youth closer to their teen-age years or those in high school.
On Sept. 1, the Archdiocese of Atlanta implemented a policy requiring that confirmation not take place until 10th grade. In a letter accompanying the new confirmation guidelines, Archbishop John Donoghue stated he had spoken with priests in the diocese and determined age was a crucial factor.
“Young people in the sixth through ninth grades are at a time in their lives that is full of confusing changes, and I do not believe this is the best time for them to have a full grasp of the commitment they are to make when they receive this sacrament,” the archbishop stated.
But the Vatican has accepted the decision of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to allow children to be confirmed as early as age 7 and as late as age 16, making the U.S. norm effective July 1 of this year.
In Fargo, Father Duchschere said that religious education classes will be held for youth up to the 12th grade, rather than stopping at eighth or 10th grade, as was the policy in some parishes throughout the diocese.
According to Bishop Aquila's letter, the first group of third-graders will be confirmed in spring 2005.
Said Father Duchschere, “I think a lot of the priests are excited about the idea, in terms of this is really in more line with the Church.”
Bart Price writes from St. Augustine, Florida.