When should we confirm?

There’s an old joke about a newly ordained priest whose pastor gives him the task of ending a bat infestation plaguing the church.  The poor young priest tries everything—poison, traps, a call to pest control—but the bats refuse to give up their home among the church’s rafters.  In desperation, the young priest returns to the wise old pastor and says, “Father, I’ve tried everything, but the bats won’t leave the church.”

The old priest smiles, and says, “Oh, Father, the solution is much simpler than you think:  just confirm them!  Then you’ll never see them again.”

For those like myself, who have worked in several different confirmation programs over the years, the joke is more uncomfortable than funny because the proverbial grain of truth it contains is the size of a boulder.  Too often confirmation is treated like a sort of graduation from the Church—an attitude for which, I might add, parents often bear more guilt than teenagers.

While the question of when in one’s life the sacrament of confirmation should be celebrated is not the sort of issue likely to make it into the New York Times, it is theologically more intriguing than the hot-button attention-grabbers.  Fargo’s Bishop Samuel Aquila this summer offered a strong case for changing the order in which the sacraments of initiation are normally conferred.

Those who have studied the history of the sacraments, as well as those familiar with the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), will know that the original, and in a sense still normative, order of initiation is baptism, confirmation, Eucharist.  This is consistent with the Second Vatican Council’s description of the Eucharist as both “source and summit” of the Christian life.  If the Eucharist is truly the summit of our faith lives, then it only stands to reason that confirmation, along with baptism and reconciliation, are part of the preparation to reach that summit.  The only justification for placing confirmation at the end of the process of initiation would be if it were seen not as a sacrament of initiation at all but rather as a sacrament of service, like marriage or holy orders.  But such a way of understanding the sacrament would be, as far as I can tell, a theological novelty.

I admit that even though the theological case for moving the age of confirmation looks strong to me, I am a bit reluctant to make such a move for a couple of entirely practical reasons.  The first is simply that people resist change.  Even if the order in which the sacraments are usually conferred today is largely due to historical accidents—the difficulty of travel for bishops during Christianity’s early years, for example—there is often something providential to historical accidents and we should naturally be reluctant to disrupt traditions of popular piety and practice.

In addition to this, the state of catechesis is on the whole so poor today that I am reluctant to give up any carrot that might induce young people to keep going to class longer.  With several generations of parents—with admirable exceptions—having largely abrogated their responsibilities as primary catechists, confirmation programs provide one of the only means some young Catholics will have to learn anything about their faith.

Of course, Bishop Aquila’s arguments force us to ask whether treating confirmation as a carrot does not in fact make the problem worse in the long run, making it seem like a graduation ceremony after which one moves on to other more adult pursuits.  A sociologist of religion I heard speak at Loyola University last year made a strong case that the Church in general needs to move away from seeing religious education as something that one completes primarily in childhood and instead treat it as primarily an adult process that also includes and is sometimes adapted to children.

If this view is correct, Bishop Aquila’s pastoral strategy regarding the order of the sacraments holds great promise.  What if confirmation were seen as the beginning of a life of catechesis instead of its end point?  In Fargo much will depend on the creativity and initiative of parishes in developing ongoing, open-ended practices of spiritual formation that include not just children and teenagers, but adults and families.

While we should naturally be reluctant to upset people’s expectations with regard to the practice of our faith, we should also resist clinging to ideas and practices that no longer work.  The way the faith is handed on has changed dramatically since the days of robust and all-encompassing Catholic immigrant cultures, and we need to adapt to those changes.  A great deal of attention should be paid to what happens in Fargo, what sort of programs and practices prove effective and which fail.

In the end, Bishop Aquila has done a great service to the Church in raising the question of when to confirm and related questions about catechesis and Christian formation it provokes.  It would be nice to one day retire that bat joke.

AL, SJ

2 Responses to When should we confirm?

  1. […] the traditional order of the sacraments of initiation.  If you missed it, you can check it out here. […]

  2. What a great post! I’ve been saying it for years: we’re beating a dead horse in the way we approach this sacrament. You’re right of coursae: change can be difficult. But so is pulling teeth.

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