This is a long one, so please bear with me, but I think it’s worth it. Over the past few years of my life, I’ve had the blessing of being asked to help with preparing kids for the Sacrament of Confirmation in various capacities. A family friend asked me to be his Confirmation sponsor, a fellow seminarian invited a few of us to help out with his home parish’s Confirmation prep program, I’ve been invited to help with Confirmation prep retreats, etc.
To speak to someone about something, you have to actually know what you’re talking about. Everyone, but I think especially the youth of today, are immediately turned off at the first whiff of bluffing and insincerity. So I’ve been thinking for a few years now about the Sacrament of Confirmation. And the first question that naturally arises is: what IS the Sacrament of Confirmation? Our understanding of what something IS has a significant impact on the WAY we approach it.
My own experience of being prepared for Confirmation was something along the lines of: “At your Baptism, your parents chose for you, but at Confirmation, you are going to choose for yourself. So we’re going to help catch you up on the basic things you need to know about the Catholic Faith so you will hopefully make the right decision.” And they meant well. I think they saw that a lot of Catholic kids don’t know their faith. And so if Confirmation is the time that they are supposed to choose to remain Catholic, they should make an informed decision. This approach to Confirmation – based on the understanding that we need to help them make the informed decision – usually ends one of two ways:
- There isn’t enough time or receptivity on the part of the Confirmation candidates to teach them all the things we want to teach them, and so they receive a patchwork formation, which, while it was the best we could do, leaves even the Confirmation prep team unsatisfied.
- There is an exciting, dynamic program in place, and it awakens or begins a lifelong relationship for the Confirmation candidates with Jesus Christ and kindles in them a greater desire to know, love, and serve Him. As great and fundamental as this is, especially in this time of the New Evangelization, the Sacrament of Confirmation is kind of an afterthought, it was the context in which this happened.
Now, I think we can all agree that outcome #2 is preferable to outcome #1. But it seems that in both cases, the Sacrament of Confirmation is not itself the focus, the focus seems to be evangelizing and catechizing the candidates, with the emphasis on their eventual choice. And in some places, the Sacrament of Confirmation is thought to be just the Catholic equivalent of a Bar Mitzvah, or some other “rite of passage.”
But in 2012, Bp. Samuel Aquila was praised by Pope Benedict XVI during a visit with other Bishops from his region for restoring the sacraments of initiation to their proper order of Baptism, Confirmation, and First Communion. I remember being a bit puzzled when I read about this. So did that mean First Communions in his diocese happened after grade 8? After further research, I discovered that his diocese (then the Diocese of Fargo, Bp. Aquila has been moved to Denver since) administered the sacrament of Confirmation around grade 2 or 3. If the Sacrament of Confirmation is about making an informed decision, “confirming” your Catholic Faith, how can a child in grade 2 or 3 possibly have the maturity to make such a decision?
What if I told you that the Sacrament of Confirmation didn’t require any more “informed consent”, or depend on your knowledge for its efficacy, than being Baptized, receiving Holy Communion, receiving the Anointing of the Sick, or going to Confession? What if I told you that this approach is not recent, and as early as 1566, the Council of Trent mentioned, in the Catechism that bears its name, that:
“…the word Confirmation is not derived, as some not less ignorantly than impiously have pretended, from the circumstance that persons baptized in infancy, when arrived at mature years, were of old brought to the Bishop, in order to confirm their faith in Christ, which they had embraced in Baptism, so that Confirmation would seem not to differ from catechetical instruction. Of such a practice no reliable testimony can be adduced. On the contrary, the name has been derived from the fact that by virtue of this Sacrament God confirms in us the work He commenced in Baptism, leading us to the perfection of solid Christian virtue.”
Catechism of the Council of Trent: The Effects of Confirmation
Don’t feel bad if you winced a little at the tone of the quote. That was written during the tumultuous time of the Counter Reformation, and it was important for the Church at the time to forcefully and decisively respond to objections that reformers like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc. were raising. People were perhaps also a little more “thick skinned” then than we are today. Pope Francis has understood this, as a Boston Globe headline observed – “Pope Francis softening tone, not stance.” And today, when religion is seen mostly through a psychological or sociological lens, the ideas of the Protestant reformers about things like Baptism and Confirmation seem to be more acceptable. But the substance of the teaching is this – confirmation is not about our choosing God. It’s about God choosing us. And if the local reports of declining numbers of Confirmation candidates accurately represents our overall situation, and people wonder why we have a Sacrament of Confirmation at all, this radically different approach to the “informed decision” approach to the Sacrament of Confirmation should be once again proposed.
Please don’t misunderstand, or go and beat people over the head with your copy of the Catechism of the Council of Trent. People have put a lot of honest work in the past in confirmation prep, and like any of our works, God is not as interested in our outcome as our effort. He can, and He has in the past, caused the strengthening of the Holy Spirit received in Confirmation to flourish in the lives of countless poorly catechised people, myself included, and will continue to do so today. But I think that we can present the Sacrament of Confirmation more coherently, and more persuasively, if we present it as it is, rather than try to dress it up as something else.
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