Confusion and Confirmation
by Chris Ow
THE SACRAMENT of Confirmation is perhaps the most poorly understood sacrament of all amongst contemporary Catholics and
I have been involved in the catechesis of confirmands since the late 90s. And in these years I have experienced a whole range of approaches to preparing our youth for confirmation. I have led at least three batches of young people through to their receiving of the sacrament itself and this year, God-willing, I shall lead yet another batch. And I have worked in two different parishes, and have had some contact with other parish programs as well. These have been a good mix of two year and four year programs. In my own parish, I have been working on the transition between the two approaches.
I offer below some of my observations and reflections on the situation as it stands today.
When I was a young altar server in my parish in the 80s, my seniors shared with us that they received confirmation at the age of 11, in Primary 5. For myself and my peers, we had to wait till age 14 before we could be confirmed. I was confirmed in 1991. When I got involved in catechesis myself in the late 90s, the age of confirmation still remained at 14. But it was not going to stay that way for long. In the 90s, among some of the East district parishes, a new program was being piloted. Here, confirmation was delayed till the age of 16. This ‘trend’ would soon catch on, and other parishes would move to adopt this new four year program to prepare their young people to receive confirmation.
I have heard many different accounts of why this change was necessary. Some invoked the rationale of a more thorough preparation – based on the assumption that more time spent in formal instruction would produce confirmands who were better prepared to live as Christian witnesses. Others argued that since many were treating Confirmation as a ‘graduation’ sacrament, it would be better to keep them in formal education for another two years, so as to more effectively counteract this pernicious attitude. Related to this is the hope that delaying confirmation may reduce the number of young people who stop practising their faith after Confirmation. The idea is that delaying their ‘graduation’ from formal catechesis will allow them to form stronger bonds that will keep them coming to church in the years following their confirmation. There are still others who make reference to the relative maturity of confirmands. The argument is that 16 year olds are in a better position to understand what confirmation is and what it entails that 14 year olds. Older confirmands would also be able to take greater responsibility for their Christian mission and be better equipped to carry it out.
Now it is not my intention to quibble with these various rationale. Each makes a valid point in itself. However, the move from a two year program to a four year one is not one that should be undertaken lightly. And there are theological and pastoral considerations that each parish must carefully bear in mind before it makes a commitment to a new approach. The worst thing to do would be to make the switch without careful consideration of the finer details of the program, and without determining if the parish does in fact have resources with which to sustain on an ongoing basis the more demanding four year program.
The real deal
What is immediately clear to anyone who actually bothers to refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) is that baptism and confirmation form a special unity and the two together with the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist make up the Sacraments of Initiation (CCC 1285). What the CCC is silent about is the appropriate age at which confirmation is to be administered. The only condition explicitly specified is that the confirmand must have attained the ‘age of discretion’ (CCC 1307-8) or ‘age of reason’ (CCC 1319). Now this is notoriously difficult to pin down to a specific numerical age. In practice, the age of reason is traditionally taken to be about seven years. The age of reason is also a requirement for the reception of First Holy Communion (FHC) (CCC 1244). For some reason, the problems that plague the administering of confirmation do not seem to affect the age at which First Holy Communion is given. This is usually done at the age of 9, when the children are in Primary 3. This practice of giving FHC at 9 has been going on for as long as I can remember (which admittedly isn’t that long) and most, if not all parishes in
In the Eastern Church, all three sacraments of initiation are celebrated together. Chrismation is in fact performed immediately after baptism (CCC 1244, 1318). In the West, however, greater emphasis is placed on the role of the bishop as the centre of ecclesial unity (CCC 1318). The bishop is the ordinary minister of the sacrament (CCC 1313). It is his invocation of the Holy Spirit and laying of hands that are foregrounded in the Latin rite (CCC 1299). Of course, in both East and West, the Sacred Chrism used in the confirmation (and ordination) anointing, is perfumed oil consecrated personally by the bishop, together with his entire presbyterate, at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday (CCC 1297). Thus the Chrism is, in itself, already a most eloquent symbol of ecclesial unity. But the Latin rite is more explicit than its Eastern counterpart in highlighting the unity of the individual Christian with the bishop (CCC 1292).
The Rite stuff
The great ecumenical council, Vatican II, helped shed some light on this by offering the Latin church a new norm for Christian initiation in the revised Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) (CCC 1232). This marked a rediscovery of the initiation practice of the ancient church in the first few centuries before
The RCIA divides Christian initiation into five distinct phases. The write-up below is taken from http://www.stjames-cathedral.org/rcia/stages.htm
1. Inquiry or Pre-Catechumenate
At this time participants are encouraged to ask questions and explore the basic tenets of the Catholic faith and to reflect upon these in light of their own life experiences.
2. The Catechumenate
It is during this time that most of study of Scripture, doctrine, traditions and meeting with the community takes place.
3. Purification & Enlightenment
For those preparing for baptism, this stage takes place during the Lenten season where they reflect upon their own faith experiences in a more intense, prayerful way. Other times during the year, baptized candidates reflect more deeply upon the meaning of their baptism and celebrate the Sacrament of Penance.
4. Sacraments of Initiation
Candidates for baptism celebrate their initiation into the Church on the holiest of nights-the Easter Vigil - where they are baptized, confirmed and receive Eucharist. Candidates for full communion celebrate their Rite of Reception several other times throughout the year.
This is a time for candidates to reflect upon their experiences of being new Catholic Christians and find their place in the ordinary life of the Church.
If Vatican II teaches us that the process marked out by the RCIA is normative for Christian initiation, then we must look to it as our model when designing our confirmation programs regardless of duration.
Yet if we are to learn important lessons from the RCIA, we must first know the RCIA. And even that is not going to be enough, since the RCIA deals with the initiation of non-Christian adults, not baptized children preparing for confirmation, who have more often than not already received two of the three sacraments of initiation. Well thought out adaptations will be necessary. It will not do to simply run a four year RCIA program as a Confirmation program. In fact, the RCIA is itself not a program or syllabus. It is, as its name suggests, a rite of initiation. Its proper place is in the liturgy of the parish. It is worship and celebration, not pedagogy and instruction.
Books & Borders
This connection between the revised RCIA and the confirmation preparation of baptised youth is not new or original. Some authors, most notably Thomas Zanzig (through St Mary’s Press), have already developed and published entire Confirmation programs incorporating these new insights. I have myself used Zanzig’s material (in the form of his Confirmed in a Faithful Community [CFC] series) quite extensively. Yet, CFC is not without its problems.
· Firstly, whilst it is very well presented and comprehensive, it is addressed to an American audience and is not always relevant to our youth. The language can be quite difficult for those youth for whom English is not a first language.
· Secondly, the program is entirely imported and is costly. The program materials are very comprehensive, and there is a lot to buy. On top of this, the publishers sometimes produce new editions and phase out older ones. This planned obsolescence only adds to cost, which some parishes can ill afford.
· Thirdly, in some instances, Zanzig mentions theological opinion that goes beyond magisterial teaching. Whilst this may not present a problem for the informed and alert reader, it might confuse those less careful. And it certainly is not helpful for the teenager preparing for Confirmation. The danger is that the reader may take contested theological opinion as defined doctrine. Theological opinion has its place, but a catechetical text is not the right place for it.
What to do?
So a lot of work remains to be done. We need, first of all, to help parishes make a prayerful discernment together with their pastors, on whether or not to adopt the four year program. It would be reckless to insist that every parish adopt the four year program without first ensuring that every parish is suitably equipped with the resources. And we’re not just talking about money, rooms, and equipment, but far more importantly, about having people truly committed to the ministry of catechesis.
Then, we need to really add flesh to bones, and draft, test, and revise a well-researched, well-thought-out program that local parishes can really use no matter which option they choose. It should be a program that really addresses the needs of our young people. It should be a program that is continually being updated to keep pace with the changing needs of our culture and our society.
We need also to vastly improve the training of catechists. Each catechist must be empowered and equipped with the skills necessary to impart their faith with deep conviction. To this end, it will be necessary to take their formation to a deeper level, going beyond teaching methodologies, to the conversion of hearts and minds. And this formation cannot be piecemeal or ad hoc. It should be systematic, and ongoing. After all, God is himself an inexhaustible mystery, and the treasures of our rich Christian tradition are more than can be learnt in many lifetimes. So we can never be satisfied with what little knowledge we may possess.
The catechesis of married couples, especially parents, also needs a drastic overhaul. They need to know that they are the foremost catechists of their children. They must see themselves as leaders of the domestic church, and make their homes holy sanctuaries where the Lord always has a place. That way, the catechesis of Sunday School will not just stop when the classes end, but will be a lived reality for the child every other day of the week as well.
It all seems like common sense really. If, in our secular education system, we are willing to make the sacrifices, and put up with a whole slew of changes, why aren’t we prepared to do the same with regards to the faith formation of our children? If we really regard our Catholic faith as the greatest treasure we can pass on to our children by having them baptised as infants, then we must see the treasure is not tarnished by neglect and indifference during their formative years.