instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Farewell to the sacrament of farewell

Archbishop Aquila has announced that Denver will restore Confirmation to its proper place -- prior to First Communion -- by 2020.

Good for him.

Among the challenges are teaching parents that Confirmation isn't a "sacrament of maturity" (or a "sacrament of farewell," as Pope Francis lamented), working out the catechesis necessary and appropriate to prepare seven-year-olds for the sacrament, and figuring out what on earth to do with youth ministry without Confirmation to provide a structure and a draw. It's a lot easier to make teenagers have to go on a retreat than to make them want to go.

As a matter of sacramental theology, the restoration is unassailable. I hadn't realized the inversion was so recent, having grown out of St. Pius X's lowering of the minimum age for First Communion to seven in 1910.

Pastorally -- not that I know anything about pastorality -- I like the restoration because it should force both youth ministers and youth to ask, "Why am I here?"

The answer often is, and never should be, "To prepare for Confirmation." As understandable, prit near unavoidable, as that thought is, it fosters the half-baked idea that Catholic kids are somehow "done" once they receive Confirmation -- you know, like Jewish kids are considered men and women once they've had their bar or bat mitzvahs.

No one will think a child of seven, having received all three Sacraments of Initiation, is a fully formed Catholic. Sure, plenty of parents will still think, "Whew! I got them their sacraments. My job is done," but at least they'll have to work hard to think the Church agrees with them. The idea that seven- and eight-year-olds should continue their religious education is a much easier sell than for thirteen-year-olds, particularly if their parents stopped their own religious ed after Confirmation at thirteen.

Imagine, religious education that isn't geared toward getting something. No more teaching to the test of checking boxes of mandatory activities. Imagine teaching to the real test, the one with questions like, "Who do you say that I am?" and "When did you see Me a stranger and welcome Me, or naked and clothe Me? When did you see Me ill or in prison, and visit Me?" A mystagogical program that doesn't work up to any particular moment of achievement might be able to teach children -- and parents -- that Catholics don't learn about the Faith in order to get sacraments but in order to know God, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.

It won't be easy, and I don't envy the youth ministers who will have to deal with immature catechetical materials and immature parents. Prayers for immature pastors might be in order as well. For that matter, a youth catechist won't necessarily have the gifts or interest to become a youth mystagogist; the emotional dimension of "Why am I here?" can be more significant than the intellectual.

Still, if the challenges are faced rather than ignored, I think this will make for a healthier local Church. It might even help with the demographic collapse of cultural Catholicism. If we stop signalling that there's a point at which the Church is done with you, maybe fewer people will reach the point of being done with the Church.