In the Liturgical Handbook of the Archdiocese of Portland, great care is taken to emphasize the unity of the sacraments of initiation. For example, our parishes are instructed that “in teachings, discussions, and publications regarding First Holy Communion, it must always be clear that the candidates are, by Baptism, already members of the Body of Christ and living in communion with the Lord. They are to be welcomed into full Eucharist sharing,”1 which, as the Catechism teaches, “completes Christian initiation. Those who have been raised to the dignity of the royal priesthood by Baptism and configured more deeply to Christ by Confirmation participate with the whole community in the Lord’s own sacrifice by means of the Eucharist.”2 The First Holy Communion of children or new converts is to be understood as the crowning glory of their Christian initiation: the grace given in baptism, brought to “completion” in Confirmation3 and restored in the Sacrament of Penance4 is all for the sake of that “communion in the divine life”5 given in the Most Holy Eucharist.
Last weekend, I was able to participate in a Mass at which three of our young parishioners received the Sacrament of Confirmation. They were the last of this year’s cohort of confirmandi, who have been receiving the sacrament in groups of two and three at various Masses (to avoid large gatherings) since the spring. Closer to Advent now than Easter, I joked with them that they were coming in awfully late in the game! Later, however, after reading Mr. Clark’s comments about the restored order of the sacraments of initiation practiced in the Diocese of Honolulu, I reflected that all of our confirmandi come in rather “late in the game.” In the Archdiocese of Portland, children are to be enrolled in catechetical programs preparing for their First Communion “when they approach the age of reason,”6 which is understood to be at “the completion of the seventh year,”7 while “young Catholics who were baptized as infants are confirmed in the freshman or sophomore years in high school.”8 In practice, this means that our young people receive Holy Communion at age seven and Confirmation around age fourteen or fifteen – some seven or eight years later!
The great delay seems to contradict the logic, described in the above quoted passages, by which Christian initiation presses on from one’s Baptism as an infant through Confirmation, by which the baptismal grace is completed, toward the sacramental union of one’s First Holy Communion, the telos and climax of the whole process. When I brought this up with him, my pastor commented that Confirmation is sometimes treated as a “carrot,” a prize which can be dangled in front of parents to entice them to bring their children back to Mass and enroll them again in religious education classes. Sometimes, he said, the families disappear after their children’s First Communion and we don’t see them again until Confirmation. There is a fear that if we were to restore the order of the sacraments of initiation practiced in the early Church, with Confirmation preceding First Communion, those families would never come back again!
Apart from the questionable practice of withholding the graces of the sacraments from young people who need them in an effort to manipulate their parents into coming to Mass (if this is in fact the motivation of some), I can’t help but wonder whether part of the reason for these families’ disappearance in the first place might not be our own inconsistent sacramental logic. By and large, the Christian faithful understand the supreme importance of Holy Communion. When their children are admitted to Communion at age seven, but Confirmation is delayed until almost a decade later, they may wonder how important Confirmation really is. Taken out from its natural place leading up to and preparing for Communion, it seems a bit like a vestigial organ, of uncertain necessity. This may lead to the invention of new meanings for the sacrament in an effort to justify its continued importance, such as “marking the ‘coming of age’ of a candidate,”9 an interpretation which the Archdiocese has lately condemned.
The decision to restore or not to restore the ancient order is entirely up to the Archbishop. I know he has discussed it with his Presbyteral Council. As a priest, however, I can be mindful about teaching the people in my sacramental preparation programs about the ancient order of the sacraments, the essential unity of the three sacraments of initation, why we presently celebrate Holy Communion “out of order” (due to Pope Pius X’s desire for children to receive Communion at an earlier age), and why Confirmation is still necessary even after First Communion for the completion of baptismal grace. I also want to be careful never to treat Confirmation as a “carrot,” as my pastor said. If families are disappearing from Mass after their children receive their sacraments, then I want to visit them, like a good father, and ask them what happened. If we have an epidemic of disappearing families, then there are surely urgent problems in the liturgy, catechesis, adult faith formation, or the life of the community which need to be addressed and reformed.
- Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 10.12.2.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1322.
- “Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace” (ALH, 9.1.4). Cf. also CCC, 1285.
- “This sacrament [Penance] is rooted in baptismal grace and leads toward complete reconciliation in the Eucharist” (ALH, 10.11.10).
- CCC, 1325.
- ALH, 10.10.4.
- ALH, 10.6.2.
- ALH, 9.8.6.
- ALH, 9.1.5.