Bishop Aquila Finds an Ally for Changing the Order of the Sacraments

Fargo, N.D., bishop discusses his meeting with Pope Benedict — and the Pontiff’s interest in confirming young people earlier.

Bishop Samual Aquila concelebrating Mass at the Basilica of St. John Lateran during his ad limina visit to the Holy See March 8.
Bishop Samual Aquila concelebrating Mass at the Basilica of St. John Lateran during his ad limina visit to the Holy See March 8. (photo: CNA photo)

Last week, Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo, N.D., was in Rome for the Minnesota and North and South Dakota bishops’ ad limina visit — in which bishops are required to meet with the Pope every five years to report on the status of their dioceses — with Pope Benedict XVI. During the visit, Bishop Aquila took time to speak about his diocese’s decision, seven years ago, to restore the order of the sacraments of initiation in their proper order as the Catechism has them listed — baptism, confirmation, and First Holy Communion. He estimated that there are approximately 20 to 25 dioceses that have restored the order of those sacraments to “the age of reason,” when persons are deemed to begin to be morally responsible, usually the age of 7.

Bishop Aquila recently spoke to Register senior writer Tim Drake about that decision and what the Holy Father had to say about the restoration.

Tell me about your ad limina visit with Pope Benedict XVI.

We were told before the meeting to prepare a three- to five-minute presentation on a topic within our diocese. Bishop David Kagan of Bismarck [N.D.] spoke on religious liberty and the present attacks. Bishop Robert Gruss of Rapid City, S.D., spoke on Native Americans and said he was looking forward to the canonization of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha.

Bishop Paul Zipfel spoke as a retired bishop. Bishop Paul Swain of Sioux Falls, S.D., spoke on the use of technology, the Internet and how it impacts the diocese.

I spoke on the restoration of the sacraments of initiation because some of the other bishops in the Dakotas are looking into doing the same thing. The Pope then responded to each of the topics.

How did Pope Benedict respond to your presentation?

He lit up when I mentioned it. I said, “Your Holiness, I want to talk to you about the restoration of the order of the sacraments of initiation for our young people who are baptized Catholic and the placement of the sacrament of confirmation.” He got a huge smile on his face. I shared what we did and why we did it. When I concluded, he said, “This is very good.” He asked me if there were other dioceses that had done it. I told him that there were, with the most recent being the Diocese of Phoenix.

The Holy Father spoke about the East and the early Church and how they had always kept the order. We talked about the primacy of the Eucharist and the proper placement of the sacrament with regard to the Eucharist. He asked if I had spoken to other bishops about it because he said it was “very important.” I told him that I had. He said, “I have desired this.”

What other dioceses are considering a restoration?

All of the dioceses within our province have mentioned it at some point.

Prior to the restoration of the order in the Diocese of Fargo were you aware of other dioceses that had done the same thing?
I was aware of other dioceses in the Pacific Northwest and in Texas that had done it. My interest came primarily after my sacramental studies from 1987 to 1990 at San Anselmo in Rome. I understood the wisdom and desire of the Church in the ordering of the sacraments and the practice in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) for children above the age of 7 to be baptized, confirmed and receive first Eucharist all in the same liturgy at the Easter vigil.

What are some of the problems with the way the sacrament of confirmation is ordered in most dioceses?

It’s really problematic when it’s left for the high school years, and it can become a real abuse of the sacrament. Faith formators want to keep it there because it keeps young people in religious education, and they feel that more seeds can be sown. However, because teens are often in their rebellious years, it can build up seeds of resentment towards the sacrament.
Pope Benedict XVI asked what my experience had been between the difference of children in third grade vs. those of an older age receiving the sacrament. The week prior I had celebrated a make-up confirmation for those who had moved into the area or who had fallen through the cracks and not received the sacrament. We had about 50 confirmands between fourth grade up to 24 years of age. They were all lined up by age, and a professional photographer was there to take photos as I asked them questions.

The photographer said that all of the younger kids had their hands up, eager to answer the questions. The older students didn’t want to answer questions. Younger confirmands are like little sponges. They’re very receptive.

What have been the main criticisms of restoring the order?

Part of the criticism comes from catechists and faith formators who think it is too early for young people to receive the sacrament of confirmation. To me, that is absurd. If they’re old enough to receive reconciliation and the Eucharist, they are old enough to receive confirmation.

The reaction, primarily from directors of religious education, has been a fear that parents and their children will fall out of religious education after confirmation. They see confirmation at an older age as a way of keeping them in.

Certainly, there are some parents who do drop out, but it is the parents’ responsibility to keep children in faith formation. Part of the New Evangelization is reaching the parents now, who were formed over the past 40 years, when we had poor catechesis. We have to help them be the ones who live their faith and set the example for their children. We have had parents who were skeptical at first who say they get it now.

The restoration makes sense to them, and they better understand their role as parents. The question is: How are we keeping both the parents and the children involved in faith formation and continuing to form their hearts?

It has been seven years since you restored the order of the sacraments. What effects have you seen from the restoration?

The effects, I think, vary. We had a very good youth program before, and we continue to build on that. Certainly, within our junior high and high school here, in talking with teachers, they say they have noticed a real difference in young people, in terms of their receptivity to the Church’s teachings. They pay more attention to the teachings and have a real interest in learning about the Church. There is also a natural outflow of community service and pro-life service.

Our high school has now started attending the March for Life in Washington, D.C., which is something they had not done before. About 90 high-school students went this past January, in addition to a second group of students from across the diocese. There are also more young people praying outside the local abortion business.

Parents, too, seem much more receptive when their children receive the sacrament in third grade rather than high school. In high school, the parental attitude seems to be more to let the students decide for themselves.

Register senior writer Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.